Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Origin of Names: Sassafras


Due east of Melbourne, on the outer suburban fringe, the suburb (and town, pop. 1008) of Sassafras occupies the green, forested slopes of the Dandenong Ranges. The scenic beauty of the region is well known, but less well known is how it came by its exotic name, one of my favourites in the city.





As Melbourne expanded in the decades after the gold rush, the city's new inhabitants began to explore their surroundings more thoroughly. Mild of climate and richly forested, the Dandenong Valley drew visitors from Melbourne well before any settlement was based in the area.

One of these early explorers was English born chemist Ambrose Eyles, who arrived in Melbourne in 1849.


Atherosperma Moschatum, or Southern Sassafras.

Exploring the Dandenongs in 1850, Eyles identified large numbers of the tree species Atherosperma Moschatum in the gullies of the area. The Atherosperma, or Southern Sassafras, is a medium sized, native evergreen tree that requires a cool climate and high rainfall, meaning it is mostly found in Victoria and Tasmania.

The concentration of Sassafras trees in one river valley lead to the area becoming known as 'Sassafras Gully' (and the river as 'Sassafras Creek').


Painting of Sassafras Gully by Isaac Whitehead, 1870.

Sassafras Creek, 1870.

As the formal city boundaries were pushed further east in the late 1800's, more land was opened to development and agriculture. The lush soil and mild climate of the Dandenong Valley was well suited to farming, and small farm lots went on sale in 1893. A post office, at the time often the key sign of a township's development, opened in 1901.

The new town was initially known as 'Sassafras Gully'.


An early homestead in Sassafras Gully.


Alongside farming, the forests of Sassafras Gully seemed well suited to logging and the timber industry was soon active in the region. But from a surprisingly early time, locals realised that an even more lucrative enterprise was available to them.

The popularity of Sassafras Gully as a getaway destination for Melbourne's inhabitants soon meant that tourism became the bedrock of the local economy. Hotels, cafes and restaurants sprung up to cater for the demand created by city folk who wanted a weekend away in the country, conveniently only 45 km from the city.

By the time the name of the region, and town, was shortened to plain 'Sassafras' in 1917, the area was well established as one of Melbourne's foremost tourist destinations. A role that it continues to serve to this day.


Main street of Sassafras, 1940s.

Main street of Sassafras, today.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Melbourne's Phantom Railways


Melbourne is a city of phantom railways.

There are those that were built and then removed, those that were built and then altered and those that were proposed and then left in purgatory, something that Government's of every stripe have done from time to time. Some of these phantoms have left their mark on the landscape while others have simply disappeared, effectively into the footnotes of history.


A wikipedia map of Melbourne's railways; showing some present, past, future and phantom railways.

Most of the train lines would be welcome in modern Melbourne, so they stand as a testament to the sometimes short sighted nature of public policy. The following is a brief study of these curious industrial artifacts.




THE PORT MELBOURNE LINE


Port Melbourne train station, circa 1890.

Present day.

When the city was founded in the 1830's it was a totally isolated outpost in the middle of a vast wilderness. Most of the fledgling city's goods, communications and would be citizens came in via sea routes, lending Melbourne's port a particularly high significance. As the city itself had been built upriver, a link between port and township was also of high importance. Thus, the first major road in Melbourne ran from the city to the sea and the first rail route followed a similar path.


Painting of the Port Melbourne steam train by William Burn, 1870.

Driven by the explosion in Melbourne's population during the gold rush, a rail link to Port Melbourne from Flinders Street was built in 1853, and opened in September 1854. Large crowds turned out to watch the inaugural journey, where Lieutenant Governor Charles Hotham and his wife were presented with copies of the timetable printed on silk. It was Australia's first steam railway. The journey ran direct from the city to the port, as none of the intervening stations had been built, a trip which took only ten minutes. By 1855, four British made locomotives were servicing the line, with trains running every half an hour.

The line crossed the Yarra just east of William Street, over the specially built Sandridge Rail Bridge, and ran along a diagonal corridor of land through South Melbourne. Today, the bridge has been converted into a pedestrian walkway and the path of the railway into a light rail track, which still follows most of the old route.

The Sandridge rail bridge in the 1950's.

The bridge today.

The Port Melbourne railway line was closed in 1987, one of several to go as part of state Government cost cutting. The Heritage listed Port Melbourne station is still in it's original location and is now home to a cafe.





THE ST KILDA LINE


St Kilda train  station, shortly after opening.


Circa 1885.

The station today.

Sharing a similar origin, life span and fate to the Port Melbourne line, the St Kilda line was built over 1856-7 with both lines sharing the same crossing over the Yarra. Once south of the city, the two train lines diverged near what is now the Westgate Freeway flyover, and there were three more stops (South Melbourne, Albert Park and Middle park) before the end of the line at Fitzroy Street.

Shortly after the line opened, in 1859, an additional loop was added, that allowed trains to continue on from St Kilda to Windsor Station, a short distance away in Prahran. At the time, Windsor station (then called 'Chapel Street Station') was the northern terminus for trains serving the southern beachside suburbs, so the additional loop allowed train passengers direct passage into the city. A wooden bridge was constructed to allow these loop trains to pass over St Kilda and Punt Roads, already busy thoroughfares.


Rail bridge over St Kilda road, circa 1890 (some time after the rail line closed).


A map of Windsor circa 1860, showing a section of the
loop line and the bridge crossing Punt Road (centre left).


But the Brighton line was soon after extended into the city and the St Kilda-Windsor loop fell into disuse, before closing in 1862. The St Kilda line continued well into the 20th century, before being closed as part of the same program of cutbacks that caused the Port Melbourne line closure. The St Kilda line was also transformed into a cheaper light rail version, and St Kilda station was significantly refurbished and is now home to a variety of up market shops.






THE INNER CIRCLE LINE



A simple map from the 1940's showing the Inner
Circle Line stations; N.Carlton and N.Fitzroy.

Former North Carlton train station, now a community centre.

When Melbourne's train network was first constructed the two central hubs, as now, were the Flinders Street (including the adjacent Princes Bridge Station) and Spencer Street stations. Trains ran to and from theses stations to different parts of the city, and there was no direct link between the two of them, or the services that they provided. They operated almost like two hemispheres of a brain; connected, inter-related but quite separate.

Trains servicing the northern suburbs originated from Spencer Street, and traveled through North Melbourne before splitting off in different directions. To service the north east from this starting point, it was necessary to build a line that cut through Carlton and Fitzroy, before continuing onward through Northcote and Preston. This was the Inner Circle line, built in 1888, prominent traces of which are still visible in the fashionable inner north.


Train tracks still visible, crossing Brunswick Street.

Signal posts still visible near Royal Park.

The Inner Circle line was also used by freight trains, utilising the rail yard in Fitzroy.

The line ran in its original configuration only until 1901, when track connecting Flinders Street and Clifton Hill stations was laid. This more direct route, and easy access provided by trams along St George's Road and Lygon Streets, meant much of the original passenger base for the Inner Circle Line was removed. But the line continued to be operated, now trafficking a variety of 'city loop' style services, for another forty years, before being closed to passengers in 1948.


The Fitzroy Goods Yard, 1980.


A small number of freight trains still used the line, which continued until 1981 when the Fitzroy goods yard was closed. No trace of the site remains, an apartment block currently occupies the spot.


A freight train on the Inner Circle Line,
shortly before it' final closure.

The line then fell into disuse and disrepair.


A section of the former railway in 1988

But a vigorous program of public works revitalised this old infrastructure, and it was converted into part of the 'Capital City Trail,' a thirty kilometre bike path and walking track circling the city. While the Inner Circle Line would undoubtedly be popular if it were running today, the scores of people who use it regularly for exercise are undoubtedly grateful for its current incarnation.






THE OUTER CIRCLE LINE



A basic map showing the stops on the Outer Circle Line.

Former train line in Kew, which saw service for just two years.

Black Bridge over Gardiner's Creek, Outer Circle Line.


The Outer Circle Line was a rail curve through the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, running from Fairfield station (formerly 'Fairfield Park') through to Oakleigh. It was first proposed in 1867, initially as a method of connecting the suburban rail network with the rural line to Gippsland, but was not built until the late 1880's, with services commencing in 1891. The line crossed the Yarra near Kew, and serviced 11 new train stations.

The Outer Circle crosses the Yarra.

A train on the Outer Circle near Shenley.


But in the 1890's this part of Melbourne was essentially still farmland, so the new train line attracted very little traffic, with the line running between empty fields. The Gippsland service was also eventually connected to the city by a different route, running direct through Caulfield. 

The Outer Circle was broken up into sections, with different train services running for a few stops on each, but this also proved unsuccessful. By 1893, sections of the railway had been closed down, and by 1897 the whole ten kilometre length was out of service.

In 1900, the growing suburban population caused one section to re-open. The track between Riversdale and Deepdene came back into service, with a steam train known as the Deepdene Dasher running between these stations at 90 minute intervals. This was to be the last steam train to work a passenger route in Melbourne.



The Deepdene Dasher.


The electrification of the Melbourne's rail network began in the 1920's and was completed by 1924, which spelled the end for urban steam trains. Due to low passenger numbers, it was decided not to electrify the section of track that the Dasher ran on, and this service continued until October 1926, when it was retired for good. It was replaced by a bus service.

Freight trains continued to use the Outer Circle Line until 1943, when these services were re-routed through more modern tracks, after which the line fell into final disuse. Today, the Outer Circle Rail Trail re-traces some of the old route, which clearly stands out on a modern map.





Friday, April 11, 2014

Burke and Wills: The Roaming Statue


Burke and Wills are among the most famous Melbournians, yet neither was a local.

Both Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills were British born and trained, the former as a policeman, the latter a surveyor. On 20 August 1860 they lead an expedition out of Melbourne to begin an attempt to cross the Australia from South to North, a previously unattained feat.

Ultimately, they were marching into history, as neither would return alive.

Melbourne would pay a number of tributes to these adopted, flawed characters, chief among them the statue erected in their honour on the corner of Swanston and Little Collins Streets. But it is interesting to note that this statue has enjoyed it's own nomadic existence, and that it's current spot is the fourth it has occupied since it's casting.


The Burke and Wills statue; current location.

News of the passing of Burke and Wills was slow to reach Melbourne. Both explorers were dead by late June 1861, the exact date of their deaths is not known, but they had gone missing in one of the remotest parts of the country, if not the world, and no word of their end was initially available . The final surviving member of the expedition, John King, was not found until late September and it was not until the first week of November that the grim news finally reached Sydney and Melbourne.

The Argus reports the news, November 5, 1861.

The anguish in the city was pronounced.

The state government quickly decided that a prominent public tribute to the lost explorers was in order, and by February 1862 some 4000  pounds had been allocated for this purpose. It was to be the first statue of a public figure erected in Melbourne.

To settle on the design, a public competition was organised, to be overseen by University of Melbourne professor William Wilson. A public announcement from Wilson later in 1862 declared the competition open:




Five entries were submitted to the lucrative contest, but the clear favourite was always the submission of Charles Sumner. 

Sumner was a British born sculptor who had moved to Melbourne in 1852, following his brothers to the goldfields. But he found more success through his art, and was well known locally for the decoration he had supplied to the interior of the Parliamentary chambers on Spring Street. He established a studio on Collins Street, where he worked mainly on busts of Melbourne's burgeoning upper class. It is thought that his connections, and some behind the scenes lobbying, helped him secure the Burke and Wills commission.

As per the competitions instructions, Sumner submitted a plaster model of the statue, now held by the Royal Society of Victoria:



After he had claimed the prize and been awarded the commission, Sumner was requested to submit a second, larger, maquette, closer to the actual statue's to be completed size. This second model, sometimes thought to be the original competition entry, is on display in the Warrnambool Art Gallery:



It would take Sumner two years of work to turn his plaster models in to bronze, full size reality.

While casting work was ongoing, the Design Commission overseeing the project had a change of heart about the monument's prospective location. Originally set to be erected outside Parliament House on Spring Street, as per Wilson's announcement, the commission decided to consider other locations after a mock up of the statue was placed there and found to be somewhat overshadowed by the surrounding buildings.

The mock up statue was trialed at various spots around the city, including; the Botanic gardens, Carlton gardens, the State Library forecourt and Batman Hill (at this time the hill was still an open, public space). Eventually, the commission settled on the high ground at the intersection of Collins and Russell Streets, opting to place the statue in the middle of the crossroads.

The statue was completed early in 1865 and unveiled on April 21 of that year, to near universal acclaim.




Two views of the statue, in its original location.

After the unveiling, Sumner continued to work on the project, completing four bronze relief panels depicting scenes from the expedition which were added to the pedestal in 1866.

The statue was a popular addition to the top of Collins Street, but it's time in the location would be relatively short. As Melbourne continued to grow as a city, electric trams were added to the CBD in 1886, necessitating the removal of statue to allow the tramway clear passage.

It was then relocated close to its originally designated spot on Spring Street, now finding a home in Gillott's Reserve opposite State Parliament.


The statue on Spring Street.

Where it would remain for nearly a hundred years.

But in the early 1970's, transport infrastructure improvements would again force the statue to move. This time it was an expansion of the city's rail network that effected the statue, as the Government sought to add additional inner city stops. As Parliament station was being created deep under Spring Street, Gillott Reserve was swallowed up and the statue was moved to the south east corner of Carlton Gardens in 1973.


The statue in Carlton gardens.

But this was considered a rather obscure spot for one of the city's best known monuments. With the removal of the Queen Victoria Buildings on Swanston Street, and the creation of City Square, an opportunity was presented to bring the statue back into the centre of the city. This was done in 1979 (although to a slightly different position to the one it currently occupies).

But all of this nomadic wandering had come at a cost. By 1988, the statue had fallen into disrepair and Melbourne City Council had it removed for restoration, which was done at the Meridian Studios in Fitzroy.

Restoration work was completed in 1993 and the statue was placed in it's current location, where it has remained to date.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Melbourne's Most Eccentric Buildings


Melbourne has some wonderful buildings. There are fine examples of different schools of classical architecture and some first rate contemporary designs dotted across the city. The best of these are among our city's most well known and beloved features.

The bulk of the city's buildings though, are functional more than decorative. While time and effort has been spent on their appearance, this is clearly secondary to their utility.

And then there are... the other buildings. Ones where the design and appearance clearly were important, but that still somehow didn't come out right. Ones that look just a little bit off, a little bit wrong, a little bit batshit crazy. And yet, still find their champions among the people looking at them, re-emphasizing how these things are always a matter of subjective opinion.

Some of these buildings have won design awards. Some of them have found their way onto world's worst building lists. All of them are an entertaining addition to our city skyline and a great conversation starter...



THE GREEN BRAIN

RMIT, Building 22

Corner Swanston and La Trobe Streets






The Green Brain is what it said in the prospectus, and what it probably still says on a plaque somewhere in the lobby, if mischievous students haven't looted it already. But a lot of locals know this by another, considerably less prosaic name: The Snot Building. And it only take a glance to understand why.

For the canopy of RMIT's Building 22 is encased in a lurid green, amorphous mass of fibreglass, stretching around the building's two street facing sides, that looks positively... protoplasmic. Designed by architecture firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall, and built at a cost of $5.5 million, The Green Brain covers a group of conference rooms and was chosen to highlight the university's intellectual and environmental credentials. As vice chancellor Margaret Gardner put it in 2011, 'What could be more apt at this time than that we embrace the symbolism of having a green brain?' The brain won a design award commendation in 2012, but the local response has been mixed (examples below taken from various websites):




Although, when it comes to exotic RMIT buildings in Melbourne, this is just the beginning...






RMIT DESIGN HUB

150 Victoria Street





Looking a little an enormous Lego brick, or the beginnings of the Borg colonisation, RMIT's high tech 'Design Hub' stands in stark contrast to the decaying buildings around it at the top of Swanston Street. Housing the university's creative design space, the Hub is covered in thousands of sand blasted, computer controlled geodesic glass disks, that offer environmental advantages as well as a striking exterior. The disks are designed to track the sun throughout the day, and can pivot to control the flow of heat and light into the building's interior, drastically reducing heating, cooling and lighting costs. They also generate solar energy, a feature that RMIT plans to expand in the coming years, with the hope of making the building completely energy self sufficient. The Hub was designed by local architect Sean Godsell and cost $60 million dollars to build, with construction stretching over five years.








PORT 1010

1010 La Trobe Street, Docklands





Providing a conversation starter for anyone leaving Southern Cross Station by train, the Port 1010 Building on La Trobe Street sports a few surprises beyond it's optical illusion exterior. For starters its tenants - principally the Australian Customs Service and the Bureau of Meteorology - seem almost too staid to inhabit such a sideshow funhouse building. And then there is the building's environmental pedigree; packed full of resource saving ideas and efficiencies, including a recycled sewage plant that delivers recycled waste water back into the building, Port 1010 was the first building in Docklands to receive a 5 Star environmental rating when it was completed in 2006. But you can't really get away from that exterior (supplied by local firm Norman, Disney and Young); I mean, can you really believe all those parallel lines are dead straight?





SEVEN17 BOURKE

717 Bourke Street






Serving as a companion piece to 1010 La Trobe is Seven17 Bourke, with both buildings sharing a similar geographical location, environmental rating and eye catching appearance. Designed and built across 2007-10 by local firm Probuild, at a cost of $190 million, Seven17 was also designed with environmental economy in mind and achieved a five star efficiency rating. Functioning primarily as office space - and with Channel 9 as principal tenant - Seven17 also has a small amount of retail space. A medium sized Travelodge hotel, with a more conventional appearance, sits behind the twisty main building pictured above.






COOP'S SHOT TOWER

MELBOURNE CENTRAL SHOPPING CENTRE

Corner Swanston and Lonsdale Streets







The Shot Tower enclosed within Melbourne Central is such an everyday part of life in Melbourne, that I would guess that most people that live here would barely notice it. And yet... there is no mistaking the undoubted oddness of a long defunct industrial tower being kept beneath a conical glass dome in the middle of a busy modern shopping centre.

The tower was built in 1888 and operated by the Coop family, who also owned the still standing shot tower tower in Clifton Hill. It produced lead shot for firearms for nearly eighty years, before closing in 1961.


A sketch of the shot tower from 1891.

The building's height - 50 metres in this instance - was a key part of the shot making process; hot lead would be dropped from the top of the tower and, during the fall, its high velocity would cause it to form naturally into a perfect sphere. The round ball of lead would then land in a drum of cold water at the base of the tower, which set the shape.

When Melbourne Central was built - over five years between 1986 and 1991 - the heritage listed shot tower had to be incorporated into the design and the glass cone was the result. A small museum was eventually opened inside the tower, which is now operated by the clothing chain R.M.Williams, co-tenants on the ground floor.








TOTAL HOUSE


170 - 190 Russell Street






This building presents an entirely unique concept for Melbourne, if not Australia; a modern office block, on top of a multi-story carpark, on top of a row of retail shops on top of an underground nightclub. As well as all this, it's also Melbourne's most notable example of the 'Brutalist' school of architecture (popular in Japan after World War II) and even has a hip sounding name. Total House truly has it all. It also has at least one high profile critic:




Suffice to say that Mr Guy has not yet decided whether his office will protect Total House from demolition and/or redevelopment. Built in 1965, the building was identified as a site worthy of heritage consideration by the City of Melbourne as early as the 1980's. An excerpt from the Melbourne Heritage Action website summarises the argument for the building's protection:




As of writing, the Victorian State Government is considering a proposal for a new 60 story development on the site.






MELBOURNE AQUARIUM

Flinders Street







Buildings designed to house popular attractions can be a special breed. Simple, classic designs and straight, clean lines are often at odds with the building's purpose, so architects sometimes opt for a more exotic approach for these projects. One example of this is Melbourne's Sea Life Aquarium, a particularly flamboyant construction on the north bank of the Yarra River, built in 1999 at a cost of $26 million.

Designed by local firm Peddle Thorp, the aquarium's sculpted concrete form, canopies and tapered proportions are meant to resemble a sailing ship at anchor. What it does actually resemble, is more a matter of opinion. In a 2011 poll of local architects and design experts conducted by The Age to determine Melbourne's best and worst buildings, the aquarium came out easily on top in the worst category, polling nearly twice as many votes as the runner up. A selection of comments from the poll:



Peter Brook, design director at Peddle Thorp, took issue with some of the criticism, describing the aquarium as 'an innovative piece of design on many levels.'






MISSION TO SEAMEN

717 Flinders Street






Walking down the unfashionable west end of town, the casual visitor is suddenly struck by something totally incongruous; nestled on the north bank of the Yarra, wedged between abandoned warehouses and active shipping terminals, is what appears to be a Spanish Mission, circa 1900's So-Cal. A closer inspection reveals this as the local branch of the Mission to Seamen, a worldwide Anglican charity that has been providing gentle recreation and spiritual guidance for sailors since 1853. Built of stone and rough hewn concrete, the mission contains a small chapel and bell-tower, a meeting hall, lecture hall, tiny garden, dining room and quarters for the chaplain and his family.


The spherical gymnasium, unfortunately no longer used.

Unique features of the building include a spherical gymnasium, which looks like an observatory, and the pulpit in the chapel, which has been designed to resemble a ship's prow, replete with rudder. The mission also used to feature a cinema and dance hall, both sadly now defunct.






FEDERATION SQUARE

Flinders Street







Melbourne has never been able to make up it's mind about what belongs on this prime spot - on the corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street - and over the years has tried locating a morgue, a train station, a shopping plaza and a modern office block there. Something I've written about in detail here. But there's no doubting that the design of the current incarnation - a public square mixed with an art gallery, a cinema/visual art museum and some offices - provokes a mixed reaction.

In 2011, Fed Square made a list of the world's ugliest buildings compiled by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph. Conversely, the same site made a list of world's best public squares in US magazine The Atlantic lat year (although this came with a caveat, as the square's design was still listed as 'unconventional'). And local opinion has always been divided between two camps:




Did I miss anything good? Leave a comment or drop me a line.