Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Paris End of Melbourne

So why is the Eastern end of the Melbourne, particularly Collins Street, referred to as 'The Paris End'? It's a great nickname, and one you hear a lot, yet you have to wonder where it came from.

What is especially Parisian about this part of the city? It's architecture and general design aren't particularly reminiscent of the City of Light, and Paris' famous arts and cultural trappings aren't mirrored here either, as they are in some other parts of Melbourne. Nor is there any direct link between the two cities; they aren't sisters and no famous French exiles came and settled here.

In fact, the answer is to be found in the lifespan of a hotel that used to stand at the top of Collins Street, and a lengthy debate that revolved around the footpath in front of it.

The southern block of Collins Street between Exhibition and Spring, where the gargantuan Collins Place now stands, was home to a hotel for most of Melbourne's first hundred years. The first of them, The Bedford, was built in 1854 and offered a standard saloon and basic accommodation.

This was replaced by the more elaborate Oriental Hotel, which was erected in 1878 and became a favourite of Victoria's landed gentry. During the boom of the 1880's, the Oriental was figured to be one of Melbourne's finest establishments, particularly well known for the quality of its food and drink.

The Oriental Hotel, circa 1894

Pearson Tewksbury, one of the many patrons of the Oriental who had made his fortune in the gold rush, was so taken by the place that he moved into it with his wife, when they relocated to Melbourne from his country estate in 1910. After a year as a resident, Tewksbury had a falling out with the hotel's manager, who requested that he find lodgings elsewhere. Rather than move, Tewksbury bought the hotel outright, and instructed the manager to find work elsewhere.

A well traveled  and energetic, man, Tewksbury had grand plans for his new acquisition. He bought and demolished the building next door, a private residence, to provide space for a new wing for the Oriental, which was furbished in the most modern style. He also acquired space at the rear of the property where he established the City Motor Service, a fleet of chauffeur driven cars for the use of hotel guests. The motor service soon proved so popular that it was made available to the general public and this gradually turned, over a number of years, into Melbourne's first taxi cab fleet.

A well traveled man; Pearson Tewksbury

Tewksbury also built a combined cafe and restaurant on the hotel's ground floor, and had an idea for the footpath out the front of it. Having traveled extensively through Europe, Tewksbury had been impressed by the sidewalk cafes he had seen in operation in many European cities. Melbourne's mild, but pleasant, summer seemed like the ideal climate for such a cafe, an idea that was entirely unknown in Melbourne, and indeed Australia, at the time.

In 1933, Tewksbury lodged a formal request with Melbourne City Council to allow dining on the Oriental's footpath. The council turned him down flat, indicating that they felt a footpath cafe would disrupt pedestrian traffic. It probably didn't help that one of the city Councillors had grown up in the house that Tewksbury had demolished to expand the Oriental, although an opinion piece in The Age expressed bemusement that such a simple idea had been prohibited:

Column in 'The Age,' May 29, 1933

Either side of World War Two, Tewksbury continued to refashion the Oriental, often co-opting new design and decoration ideas he had seen in America. In the early 1950's, he decided to completely rebuild the premises from top to bottom, but passed away before he could get this project underway. The hotel was then purchased by Leon Ress, a successful hotelier with a number of local properties in his portfolio.

Ress had ideas for the redevelopment of the Oriental as well, and he oversaw a considerable modernisation of the hotel before the 1956 Olympics. As well as updating the suites and public areas, Ress also revamped the hotel's dining facilities. Part of this involved reviving Tewksbury's old idea for a sidewalk cafe.
Ress' wife was originally from Paris, and she thought the broad footpath frontage perfect for a series of tables and chairs, much as she was familiar with from her native city.

This time the proposal was approved, doubtless assisted by Leon Ress' presence on the city council. The Oriental would be allowed to place nineteen tables on their footpath for a three month trial period (although the service of liquor would be prohibited outside).

Images of the Oriental footpath cafe in operation, all from 1958.

The new, cosmopolitan cafe created quite a stir in Melbourne; locals flocked to the Oriental to try it out, while the press coverage was voluminous.

Mrs Ress enthused to local journalists: 'This is wonderful. It is just like the Champ Elysees back in Paris.'

And this widely reported remark gives us our answer: The 'Paris end' of Melbourne was coined and it simply stuck in the popular imagination.

The phrase proved more enduring then the cafe that spawned it. Despite its popularity and prominence in the city - it was used in a number of tourist ads promoting Melbourne - the footpath cafe lasted only two years before being forced to close. The local police were responsible, claiming that the cafe restricted both pedestrian and street traffic. After some back and forth with the city council, now firmly in favour of the idea as it attracted business to the city, the police had their way and the cafe was closed:

'The Age,' January 7 1960, a few weeks before the cafe would close for good.

The Oriental itself didn't last very much longer, demolished in 1972 as part of a block leveling exercise that made way for Collins Place. But it's worth remembering its place in history, whenever you overhear someone remark that they 'work up the Paris end of town.'


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  5. Great post and I can confirm it is 100 percent accurate. The Mrs Ress referred to above is my Aunt, who is most definitely from Paris - great bit of research !!

  6. Thank you for a great article, although I have never heard the term Paris end referring to any part of the city other then Collins Street, except by Real Estate agents!

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