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History

04 Sep 2018

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“Mansions” in Southbank

The early 20th centry saw the arrival of large blocks of apartments in the city and inner suburbs of Melbourne.

But they were generally new purpose-built blocks for the well-off, such as Melbourne Mansions at 101 Collins St (c.1906).

The conversion of empty factories to residential apartments is a commonplace part of inner-Melbourne housing today and fits neatly into the philosophy of adaptive re-use but was almost unheard-of in the early 20th century.

When the Hoadley company vacated its premises in Aikman St, which ran from City Rd to the Yarra, for a new factory in Coventry St in 1912, the disused property was sold to developers for conversion into self-contained flats.

The developer engaged a notable architect called Robert Haddon who had set up his practice in Melbourne in 1901 and would be highly influential in the Melbourne architecture scene.

He designed a block in the Art Nouveau style popular at the time, one that gained its inspiration from nature and contrasted the curvaceous lines and beauty of the organic form with a strong sense of geometry.

Called Alexandra Mansions, after the wife of King Edward VII, this was to be a new idea in residential chambers. The name of the block was spelt out in large letters above the roof-line, an innovation that provided income from leasing rights and soon caught on, but one that was unusual at the time of construction.

The three-storey block, located next to the Garrick Theatre and enjoying wonderful views across the river to the newly-opened Flinders Street Station, was financed by a share issue. The prospectus referred to “commodious residential flats”. Tenants could rent suites of three rooms or a single room, furnished or unfurnished, and it was advertised as containing every modern appliance and convenience to enable tenants to enjoy life, including hot and cold water “laid on”, electric light, ventilation, heating and telephones.

The block was ready for occupation by 1914. Unlike other “mansion” blocks in Melbourne, it was aimed squarely at the middle class and was regarded as suitable for “professional gentlemen”. But many of those who moved in were single women in occupations such as hair removalist or music teacher. Many of the original tenants stayed for long periods.

You won’t find the building today, as it was demolished in 1960.

Aikman St is gone too, a victim of the massive changes in the area as part of the development for the NGV and Southbank.

But Alexandra Mansions was a leader in conversion of factories for housing in the inner suburbs.

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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