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History

09 Nov 2017

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ASBESTOS!!

Asbestos is a word that conjures up images of dreadful effects on the lungs of many people working with products containing it, such as Fibrolite (known as “fibro”).

Asbestos cement materials were first manufactured in the 1920s and were widely used as building materials from the mid-1940s until the late 1980s. Fibrolite was used extensively for both construction and repairs to houses, factories and commercial premises and particularly for roofing.

Asbestos sheeting was lauded for qualities of fire-resistance and freedom from corrosion – it would not rot, rust, corrode, or burn, and was durable, strong and upkeep was cheap, although not overly attractive, when used for housing.

But it could be deadly. Until the 1980s there were few concerns about its effects on health. Today there are many measures in place to ensure the safety of those who work with asbestos products.

The major manufacturer and promoter of the material was James Hardie & Co, and one of its major sales points was in Southbank, at the southeast corner of City Rd and Clarendon St.

In 1936 Hardie engaged prominent Melbourne architect, Harry Norris, to design a new showroom, which they called Asbestos House. Norris was responsible for many distinguished interwar buildings in Melbourne, including Mitchell House (Elizabeth St), Burnham Beeches (Sherbrooke) and the Maples store in Clarendon St, South Melbourne.

The Southbank building was convenient to the city (two minutes by tram!), full of the latest equipment and designed by Norris in the latest Moderne style.

The stylish two-storey brick building featured rounded lines and small glazed bricks on the walls. The wide and curving sweeps of the elevations enabled Norris to design a roomy entrance to the showroom, which boasted a parquetry floor and large steel-framed windows.

Customers could view a vast array of the products of the company, including Fibrolite asbestos cement sheeting for walls, ceilings, corrugated sheeting for roofing, high pressure water pipes, and Tilux tiles used in bathrooms and kitchens. The showroom included a mechanically-operated overhead travelling crane to move materials. Naturally the roof was Fibrolite, as were many industrial buildings.

Hardie vacated the building when the company was under increasing pressure to adequately compensate those adversely affected by its products.

Around 2005 the building was re-modelled to became a showroom for ex-office furniture and then for King furniture. But its prominent corner location made it extremely attractive to developers, and it was demolished in 2015 to make way for yet another high-rise apartment block.

Robin Grow - President of the Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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