Thursday, November 21, 2013

Before Federation Square

Location: Corner Flinders and Swanston Streets

The site currently known as 'Federation Square' has a short history, as it was built only in the late 1990s. But the space itself, right at the heart of the city alongside both the Yarra  River and Flinders Street Station, has undergone many different incarnations stretching deep into the history of Melbourne.

The corner location was the site of the first Melbourne City Morgue, established in 1871. Prior to it's construction, dead bodies in the growing city had been simply laid out in public rooms, often times in Government buildings, while they awaited burial. Growing concern over public hygiene, and Melbourne's booming population, lead to the construction of the morgue.

The Melbourne Morgue, centre left, circa 1871.
But having such a macabre building so prominently situated proved unpopular and the morgue was only in operation for 12 years before it was relocated (although the morgue building would remain, unused, until 1890 before being demolished). From 1883 the corner location was incorporated  into Melbourne's burgeoning public transport network.

Princes Bridge Railway Station was built on the corner in 1859 (and can be seen next to the morgue above), but in the 1880s it would expand considerably. After the closure of the morgue, Princes Bridge would serve as the terminus for all East bound trains, as well as housing administration offices for the railway corporation. By 1910, it was linked to the previously separate Flinders Street Station by an underground tunnel.

A train at Princes Bridge Station, 1885 (looking towards Flinders St Station)

The same station in 1918, now considerably expanded. Also note the dome
of Flinders Street Station now visible in the  background, constructed
after the first photo above was taken.

The station  would continue to serve these functions for several decades.

In the 1960's, with the growing demand for prime real estate in the CBD accelerating, the State Government would undertake a dramatic revamp of the corner location. 

Princes Bridge Station in 1964, three years before being demolished.

Wanting to modernise the look of Flinders Street the State Government demolished Princes Bridge Station and moved it underground. The revamped station would share some platforms with Flinders Street Station, while still operating as a stand alone station for some services, and be topped with a shopping arcade and public square. The land where the station had previously stood was sold for corporate development. In 1967, twin office towers were constructed on the site. Known as the Princes Gate Towers, from their opening they were tenanted by Victoria's Gas and Fuel Corporation.

The new development, shortly after completion.

And almost from the moment the redevelopment was finished, it drew criticism. The office buildings themselves were derided as ugly and accused of blocking views of the river and overshadowing St Paul's Cathedral, while the concrete square adjacent was thought to be windswept and uninviting. Neither would garner much affection from the local population.

More popular was the arcade below the public square, which provided a last minute shopping option for commuters. The arcade was also home to Central Station Records, whose shopfront was on Flinders Street, and which became a hub for Melbourne's music community (and which is fondly missed, based on the research I've done).

Central Station Records shopfront.

A crowd outside the record store queues in the rain to see an
in store appearance by heavy metal band 'Wasp.'

But overall, the office and shopping complex on Flinders Street remained unpopular.

By 1980, the gradual process of Princes Bridge Station being swallowed by the larger Flinders Street Station across the road was complete. Three platforms of the old station would be fully incorporated into Flinders Street (platforms 14, 15 and 16) and the rest would be abandoned. The 'City Circle' train which had run from Princes Bridge, servicing only the city loop stations continually, would be made defunct, and replaced by a tram service. The closure of the train station meant that the next redevelopment of the site could be undertaken in an uninhibited fashion.

But some years would pass before any plans for updating the site were put forth.

In 1996, outspoken Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett would announce a major redevelopment proposal, essentially demolishing everything on site and starting again from scratch. Calling the Gas and Fuel towers a 'dreadful eyesore' and a 'blot on the city,' Kennett promoted a mixed use option for the land; featuring a cultural centre, cutting edge office suites, shops and a public space that could be used for a variety of events. He also wanted to cover the train tracks, from the corner of Swanston Street back to Russell Street, to allow easier access between the city and the Yarra and to free up more space on the site. The ambitious proposal was budgeted at a hefty $450 million and would require cooperation between local, state and federal branches of government to realise.

The new site would be called 'Federation Square,' in honour of a hundred years of Australian federation, and it was initially hoped it would be completed in time for the centennial on January 1, 2001. But a change of Government during construction lead to changes in the plan for the site, and the resulting delays meant construction was not finished until October 2002.

The heart of the new square would be the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), a combined cinema and display space, and the Ian Potter Gallery, an offshoot of the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road. Some of ACMI's underground gallery space would utilise parts of the old Princes Bridge Station. They would be joined by the offices of SBS and numerous bars and restaurants. Labor Premier Steve Bracks oversaw the opening, his speech on that day indicating the high hopes the Government had for the finished square:

'This space will change the face of Melbourne forever, making us truly a riverside city.'

Response to the Square's design was mostly positive, although some rejected the modern stylings of the architecture. The Sunday Age captured some first impressions from people who came to the opening:

Despite these misgivings, the rumblings of which continue to this day, Premier Bracks was right, the new Federation Square certainly had changed the city indelibly. 

Federation Square site in the 1970s.

Same site, 2004

Crowd in Federation Square gathers to watch Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's
apology speech to Australia's stolen generations.

Whether or not it remains the final reinvention the corner undergoes, remains to be seen.


  1. Do you have any more pictures of Central station records ? .. And china town from the 80's and 90's ???....

  2. More pictures of Central Station Records Please? Any internal shots?

  3. I so remember Central Station Records - they later relocated to the new city square and were in an arcade where the Regent Theatre once was, and is again! What were they thinking when they allowed those hideous Gas & Fuel towers to be built in the 1960s??? I grew up with those and they were an eyesore from start to finish!!!

  4. Oh man how great does that photo of the 70's look with those two buildings. I mean, in their time they looked great.

  5. Ahh yes my teenage years visiting central station on flinders street in the early 90's and then going into the store next door that would sell bongs and beaded jewellery and then catching the train back home with a bunch of new vinyl records.. was the best and coolest store in the city back then..miss those days so much .. wish I could go back .. much better days than today.

    1. 🤣 Best times, could travel safely with a group of friends for a fun day out!! Would love more pics from the 1990's!!

  6. The Morgue at the corner is also visible in the 1852 photograph (sometimes labeled 1862). Other accounts say that in 1871 the new morgue was opened. I don't know if the new building was in the same old location, or if the '1871' photograph you have is of the old building before it was torn down. It might have been torn down as part of the bridge replacement, 1883-1888.