Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, April 16, 2018

All the Buildings in Melbourne...well, not quite

Before we left for our Australia and New Zealand travels, I spent time over two delightful books received as gifts from friends who'd been in Australia previously. If I hadn't already enthusiastically committed to the junket, All the Buildings in Melbourne (and the companion Sydney volume) would have done it for me. I wrote about the clever architectural drawings of James Gulliver Hancock here.

We landed in sultry Melbourne after an intense five nights on Phillip Island amidst the international classic motorcycle fraternity, in which my dear one is deeply embedded. So the tree-lined streets, parks, gardens and riverside cafes were an oasis. I loved the witty contemporary towers of the CBD and the righteous colonial past indiscriminately. Add generous helpings of sun, river and parks. The 5 nights we spent there created a bond with the city which we hope to deepen on another visit one day.

Mmmmmarvellous Melbourne

It's not just me. Not just us. Melbourne, for the seventh year in a row, was named most liveable city in the world in 2017. See here.

We loved the tree-lined downtown streets, the trolleys, the fabled hook turns (well, given we were pedestrians, and our balcony overlooked both a park and a busy right-turn over a trolley tracks intersection which provided loads of entertainment, they were good,) the topography, the parks and botanical gardens, the historic precincts, the river-side walks and cafes. The immense free public spaces of Federation Square. Did I mention the coffee?

love this style standoff, neither corner backing down

But even the most jaded visitor would have been swayed by our two guides, the day we joined a free three-hour walking tour of the CBD. Their local knowledge, their enthusiasm, their friendliness and easy patter - and their Melbourne boosting - made being herded around the streets with two dozen 30-something tourists, a delight. Here are some walking tour guides should you be motivated into some arm chair travelling yourself.

from Victorian pomp... laneway street art

the Yarra, which once had a waterfall
We followed the admonition of the old city website to "look up past the awnings" (for sadly, many of the jazzy store-fronts were unsympathetic, if downright inimical, to the c19 facades rising above them. Invariably, parked cars added nothing good.)

Melbourne became known as Marvellous Melbourne during the booming days of the gold rush in Ballarat and places north. By the 1880s Melbourne was larger than most European capital cities, with turrets, towers, domes and spires rivalling the best of them. Within a decade the whole thing crashed, banks and stockbrokers lost their nerve, many suffered great hardship.
Melbourne Town Hall 1867
Majorca Building - Moorish glazed terracotta
State Library est. 1854

Princess' Theatre (1886)
Here's a neat little website offered by Museum Victoria, which places the short-lived gold boom into the city's history. Limited to a few  short years, the elation waned, but the over-the top structures built by boosterish Victorians stand to tell us their stories.

Precincts full of stone structures with their Colonial confidence, spreading lawns and gracious shade trees. Heaven.

There's a bookful of them - the National Trust Guide Walking Melbourne. This is a sample entry on the Princess Theatre. I'm dying to get my hands on this book somehow.

City Court (1911)  intimidating with Romanesque gloom
The Old Magistrate's Court (built after Federation, in 1911, and now part of RMIT) keeps the Colonial spirit alive, conjuring ancient British legal tradition with its sternly forbidding Romanesque style. Bush ranger Ned Kelly was sentenced to death here, after a fabled career Robin Hooding around Victoria.

Royal Exhibition Building - 1880 - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Royal Exhibition Building was built in 1880 in the era of Great Exhibitions (think Crystal Palace, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.) Melbourne's palace to progress has the distinction of being the oldest survivor of the Great Exhibition Era still operating as an exhibition hall. (When it's not been standing in as an examination hall for generations of nervous students.) It stands in the wonderful Carleton Gardens.

Parliament House (1855/1929) - long story 

Here's a useful Melbourne city planning website. Okay I can't think of anyone besides me who might use it, but don't want to lose track of it, so I'll store it here.

Block Arcade(1891-93)  - shopping for splendour

The Block Arcade means different thing to different people. Billed as "the place to shop and be seen" it is also "one of the finest examples of a nineteenth century shopping arcade on the planet." (link) If chocolatiers, an historic tea-room or high end shops don't appeal, stay for the marble mosaic floors, stone carving, and glass domes. Jaw-dropping beautiful.

If you should wish to enter the fray into which this laneway leads, here's a portal thanks to Streetview. In my on the fly photo you'll see a nod to Melbourne's noted street art, one of the ubiquitous invitations to coffee, and a peek at Moorish 1929 Forum Theatre (formerly The State Theatre) facing off with Federation Square across Flinders Street. Melbourne in one.

I've discovered a lot of great sites while researching this post. Raaer99 is a prolific photographer of Melbourne (and nearby Ballarat) buildings. Here's his Flickr photostream.

And should you not agree with my selection of favourites, here's Culturetrip's 'most impressive' list for reference.

And who knows, maybe I'll go back one day to discover a new list of favourites?

Thursday, April 12, 2018


Lorne, Victoria, Australia
The intricate lacy cast iron railings, porch adornments of many an Australian- high style hotel and vernacular cottage alike kept the cameras busy last month.

A theory expounded by delightful Sydney guide Rob, that the delicate railings and decorative bits were transported from the UK as ballast, got me scratching my head. As did the incredible wealth of the filigree trims, despite those patriotic WWII scrap metal drives, which saw most of the post 1850 private and public gates and cast iron railings in Great Britain chopped off at ground level.
This article recalls communities coming together to beat fences into swords (my own husband recalls streets lined with stubs of former railings in post-war Lincoln) and raises some disturbing questions about where all that iconic English fencing ended up.

All that being said, despite brief mentions of local metal drives in Australia, the cast iron filigree remains down under, in abundance. Guidebooks direct the traveller to each town's special precinct - and other towns are just, well bedizened throughout (Ballarat and Queenscliffe to name two.) Melbourne claims to have more decorative cast iron than any city in the world. I hope to go back to count.

Incidentally, the LondonGardens article (link above)  reports that many traditional iron craftspeople have been in recent years restoring England's pre-war cast (or wrought - more later) glory, that being the first stop for most homeowners restoring historic properties. And no wonder.

Chatterton Iron Works of New South Wales specialize in restoration and reproduction of balustrades and lacework. Their website contains hosts of photos for anyone feeling like indulging in some armchair ogling. And they're the go-to people for koobaburra mailboxes. Just sayin'. The site demystifies the various forms and designs of iron lace, and says it better than I, so I invite you to visit.

Incidentally, if you really want to indulge here's a Pinterest  gallery that keeps on giving.

John Ruskin, that Victorian arbiter of taste and craftsmanship, considered cast iron 'cheap and vulgar.' It was Ruskin who recoiled at the manufacturing frenzy occasioned by the Crystal Palace which housed London's Great Exhibition of 1851, and all the manufactured goods therein, evangelizing for a return to honest craftsmanship which spurred the Arts and Crafts movement.

Coincidentally,  I just started Bill Bryson's At Home, which begins with a description of that cast iron and glass wonder. The same day I resumed my online course The Architectural Imagination, after a winter hiatus, and what is the lecturer introducing but The Crystal Palace, and the impact of iron on architecture from that time? Fascinating. Well for me, maybe.

I found a paper on the history of iron smelting in Australia published by the Illarawarra Historical Society (I know, who else would read this stuff?) According to this (undated) treatise, the Colonial Government was not supportive of  early smelting  operations* using native raw materials (they lasted from 1848-1928) but imported iron as ships' ballast (hence, Rob's theory was partly correct) which was manufactured into goods in Australia.

[* the 1873 Derwent Iron Works operating in Battery Point, Hobart, was one such local enterprise.]
Ballarat Mining Exchange portico

 Ballarat had better luck with gold than iron ore, but to their credit they struggled valiantly for a few years, closing in 1875, defeated by imports which were less expensive than their locally produced iron. The gold rush of 1857-57 produced a demand for upmarket decorative cast iron which lasted until the end of the century.

 The graceful (imported) iron filigree of the portico over the front doors of the important Ballarat Mining Exchange might have been an affront, were it not for the ridiculous amounts of money the gold rush brought to that city. More later.

Some writers call these boom style terraces. This particular finely restored terrace is in The Rocks, Sydney. Once workers' housing, its residents now include gallery owners and high end rentals. The Terrace has generated a lot of interest in heritage circles.
Port Arthur, Tasmania

Of the tiny L-shaped workers' cottages which line old suburban avenues and dusty small town streets I didn't manage to grab a sample (as I typically had my nose in a map, my eyes scanning for street names while in their neighbourhoods.) This simple example is in the recreated Port Arthur Historic Convict Site, a World Heritage Site in Tasmania.

Picturesque 1890s cottage in Lorne, Great Ocean Road

Fell for this cottage on Smith Street in Lorne, on our way to Teddy's Lookout, over the expanses of the Great Ocean Road. It's a guest house now. Pick me!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Oh! Oamaru!

former Bank of New Zealand
I believe we made the woman's day. We ventured into the tourist information centre in Oamaru, South Island, NZ to inquire about a heritage architecture walking tour guide. She bustled off to locate some photocopied pages, stapled snugly for convenient browsing in a brisk wind. It appears the tourism powers that be had stopped printing the guide, but she had persisted in photocopying the sheets for just such a moment. She was vindicated.  We were set. Gleaming white Oamaru was about to reveal her stories.

Oarmaru is uncannily white. It reflects the sun like those iconic Greek villages. The imposing c1865 - 1885 civic and commercial buildings seem to glow from within. At its heyday Oamaru was known as 'the Whitestone City.' Today it's considered "New Zealand's most complete streetscape of Victorian commercial buildings."
Australian Mutual Provident Society, St. Luke's Church

former Oarmaru Chief Post Office 1884
 Oamaru was first settled by Europeans who identified its uncannily open terrain as appropriate for sheep grazing. Bad news, no trees for building. Good news, the discovery of locally quarried limestone. Shipping from Oarmaru's (not natural) harbour created grain and wool wealth from the 1860s, and the harbour precinct expanded handsomely. Hotels and banks and customs offices were built of the impressive white stone. I find it fascinating that more pedestrian grain and wool stores and warehouses also aspired to architectural splendour.

L. Bank of Otago/National Bank 1871
R. Bank of New South Wales 1883

 When only classical would suffice. How to communicate the solidity of your banking house? A pedimented portico would do nicely.

The former Bank of New South Wales  was converted to an art gallery in 1983.

L. Union Building 1877 R.Smith's Grain Store 1882
 The Oamaru limestone was said to be extremely easy to carve, which explains the incredible complexity of the building facades
(that and the Victorian penchant for overdecorating...)

 Over time, the importance of Oamaru port dwindled, and it closed in the 1970s. The city has expanded to the north, sparing the port district the demolitions and commercial sprawl associated with progress.

 Today the town's c19 architectural treasures are the perfect fit for a new economy of tourism blended with traditional crafts and preservation dedication. The Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust is committed to preserving the Victorian precinct and making it a worldwide destination. From the buzz in the streets, town square, galleries and workshops, I'd say they're having success.

Oh, and elegant Oamaru is also the (self-proclaimed) steam-punk capital of the world! For another visit. You can have a read about this unlikely pairing here. Or why not start at the steam-punk HQ and have a wander. Loved Oamaru. Hope to revisit.

Criterion Hotel 1877