Friday, June 24, 2016

Before Melbourne Central

Situated on a busy Swanston Street corner, opposite the State library, there are few structures in our city as well known as Melbourne Central. With a distinctive glass cone on the roof, a train station underneath, a cinema, food court, and a full complement of retail, Melbourne Central is a busy, and heavily patronised, part of inner city life.

It's hard to imagine that corner without it.

But this is misleading.

For Melbourne Central was only opened in 1991, and so is a relative newcomer to our city. And, like many of the locations we examine on these pages, the area it was built on has already had a number of different incarnations.

Inner city Melbourne, 1860

The city blocks bordered by Swanston, Elizabeth, La Trobe and Lonsdale Streets were once the industrial heartland of the city.

This rectangular area was a rabbit warren of winding lanes, alleyways and cul-de-sacs, populated by small scale heavy industry; ironmongers, carpenters, metal workers, brick makers and coach builders, among many others. As the city boomed in the decades after the gold rush, the economic activity in this area skyrocketed.

Into this lively domain stepped James Coop.

Coop Shot Tower, 1891.

Born in England, from a hard scrabble family, James Coop arrived in Melbourne in 1855 looking to make his fortune. A plumber by trade, Coop found work in the thriving local construction industry, and was shortly after able to open his own business.  By 1868, he was based on Knox Place, in the midst of the bustling industrial neighbourhood described above.

By the 1880s, Coop's son Walter was running the business, and he decided to expand into shot making. Shot - effectively small balls of lead - was an important industry in the Victorian era; it was used not just as ammunition for firearms, but also as weight for scales, in pinball machines and mechanical games, and as ballast.

Over the years 1889-90, Walter Coop oversaw the construction of the 'Coop Shot Tower' above the family plumbing business. Made out of red brick, and standing 50 metres high, when constructed the shot tower was the tallest structure in the city.

The tower was the key component in the shot making process.

Lead bars would be transported by pulley to the top of the tower, and then melted down over a gas hotplate. When the metal was viscous, the shot maker would tip it through an iron sieve (picture to the left, above), from where it would fall, as droplets, into the tower itself. 

In free fall, the molten lead would accelerate and rotate, spinning itself into a perfect sphere. It would then land in a pool of water, which would cool and harden the metal instantly. The lead balls would then be retrieved (picture to the right, above), sorted by size, and sent for refinement and packaging.

This process could produce 25 million pellets of shot an hour, and by 1894 the Coops were selling 6 tonnes of the stuff a week.

The Shot Tower and La Trobe St, 1920s.

The Coop's kept the business in the family. 

Walter bequeathed control to his son Walter II, who in turn left the business to his sister Ellen, who assumed control in 1919 (a rare example of a woman managing a substantial business in early Melbourne). Ellen ran the company for two decades and, when she died in a tram accident in 1939, left the business to her son James.

But World War II would mark the beginning of the end of the shot industry.

By the 1940s, the hazardous side effects of lead had been well established, and industry had begun to transition to less toxic metals. And synthetic plastics, put into heavy use during the war for the first time, had begun to supplant some metals altogether.

In 1961, the Coop Shot Tower closed.

Circa 1960, shortly before the tower closed.,

Meanwhile, the industrial zone the shot tower stood over had been undergoing change as well.

As Melbourne had continued to grow and modernise, many of its old buildings, and small winding streets, were no longer adequate for modern use. Cramped, dark, and lacking in facilities and safety features, many of the buildings around the shot tower had fallen empty in the decades since the war.

Across the 1960s, the State Government began to acquire some of these properties, with a view to selling the entire block for a major redevelopment, at a future date.

But, in the short term, the Government needed the land for another reason.

Museum Station under construction, 1975.

In 1971, the State Liberal Government began work on the City Loop rail project. 

Prior to this, all of the trains in the city rail network had run from either Flinders Street Station, or Princes Bridge Station (now long gone, read more about this here). But directing all of the city's trains through two stations created a logistical nightmare; the number of trains that could be run each day was severely restricted, and there were frequent delays and bottlenecks.

The proposed solution was the City Loop; three new underground stations around the city, connected by a looped rail line, that would allow greater flexibility in the running of the train network.

One of the new stations was to be built on the corner of Swanston and La Trobe streets, across the road from the State Library. As the Victorian Museum was still based in the library building, the new station was to be called 'Museum'. The construction effort was so significant that La Trobe Street had to be redirected around part of it (see picture above).

Museum Station, when complete.

Museum Station was the first of the new City Loop stations to open, operations commencing January 24, 1981.

While construction of the train line had been ongoing, the State Government had continued to search for a large scale tenant for the remainder of the site. By 1983, this was up for open tender, and 28 consortiums submitted proposals, which a special committee was convened to assess.

The committee deliberated for two years, before finally announcing the successful scheme; a joint project between local firm Essington Limited, and Japanese development giant Kumagi Gumi. Budgeted at $1.2 billion over 5 years, the new property would be a multi-purpose building, known as Melbourne Central.

The initial plans would include a major shopping complex, an office tower and a luxury hotel (the hotel would eventually be abandoned, as costs rose).

Melbourne Central, under construction.

The construction of the complex was difficult, exacerbated by the shot tower, which had been granted heritage protection in the 1970s. The Government had made preservation of the tower one of the key conditions in the tender process, and now the winning consortium had to find a way to incorporate it into their design.

Their solution was innovative.

Chief architect Kisho Kurokawa designed a 20 storey high glass cone, to fit over the tower and so enclose it within the new building. The cone was, and remains, the largest structure of its type in the world.

The opening of the centre was heavily hyped:

By this time, the consortium had also found their inaugural major tenant: Daimaru.

The Daimaru store, Kobe, Japan.

Darimaru is a Japanese department store chain, one of the largest in South East Asia.

It was founded in 1717 as a dry goods store, in Kyoto, and continued in that line until the 20th century. In the 1920s Daimaru expanded into general, and then household goods, and rapidly increased its number of storefronts.

By 1960 it was the largest retailer in Japan, and had established shops in Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Daimaru Melbourne, exterior.

By the mid 1980s it was ready to expand again, and decided to open two shops in Australia. One would be on the main tourist strip on the Gold Coast, one of the major destinations for Japanese holiday makers, while the other would be in the newly minted Melbourne Central shopping complex.

Daimaru Melbourne, interior (note: Timezone!)

The shopping complex would open in 1991, and Daimaru was ambitious in their efforts.

Their Melbourne store would span 6 floors and include an extensive (and ultimately legendary) food court, alongside clothes, electronics and household goods. The store was open plan, and the vast central space around the shot tower would feature whimsical decorations; a colourful hot air balloon, a wooden bi-plane and a giant pocket watch, with a 12 foot gold chain.

Large crowds, 1992.

And Daimaru was hugely successful at first.

There were few overseas retail stores in Australia at the time, and so Daimaru offered something different, and mildly exotic. And the store's commitment to customer service, all floor staff were given extensive training in the company's methodology, was a hit with local consumers. 

The new store attracted 2 million visitors in its first three weeks.

A travel article form the Canberra Times gives a sense of what a visit was like:

The excitement around Daimaru reached a frenzy during the Boxing Day sales of 1992, when a local woman lost the tops of two fingers when they became trapped in a security door. The woman had been queued up to enter the shop, and had been pressing against the doors in her eagerness to get in.

Several other shoppers were also injured in the scramble to get bargains.

But the excitement did not last.

The retail market in Australia is very competitive and, in Melbourne, featured two entrenched players in Myer and David Jones, who aggressively responded to the newcomers bid to take their business.

Despite Daimaru's initial popularity, the company always struggled to make money from its Melbourne store. And, when that initial popularity began to wain, the losses began to add up.

Finally, in 2002, the company decided to call it quits.

Daimaru Melbourne closed 31 July, 2002.

Melbourne Central has continued on, with the ever changing roster of tenants that make up much of modern retail. 'Borders' came and went, and the exterior was recently revamped, to give it a more up to date look.

There is even a small reminder of the Daimaru era, above the entrance to Hoyts. You can still see two elevator platforms on the wall, now connected to nothing, at one time leading to Daimaru's top floor...


  1. As a recently graduated architect, I was rather disappointed with the style of the place, and gimmicks everywhere - that balloon! And the aviary in the atrium in the Lonsdale St connecting bit. The cone was great, but the rest of that atrium lacked interest, with the daimaru side offering blank walls (like the whole Latrobe St wall). And I heard that daimaru purposely undercut other department stores, running at a loss, in order to attract customers, but it was never enough. I did like the pattern in the atrium floor though, sad that's gone, but it is a MUCH busier place now than it was in the 90s.

  2. My grandfather was a construction worker foreman and he was killed in a work accident while building Museum station, and another man was permanently disabled.
    It was really interesting to read about the station being built. THank you.