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History

10 Jul 2018

History Image

Meet you at the Malthouse!

A major part of Melbourne’s cultural scene is centred on Southbank.

And the Coopers Malthouse theatre, an agile, multidisciplinary and contemporary theatre complex, provides an important focus for plays and presentations.

Situated in Sturt St, next to the starkly modern Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the three-storey Malthouse combines the 500-seat Merlyn Theatre, the newly-refurbished 180-seat Beckett Theatre, the Tower Theatre, rehearsal rooms, a workshop and offices. 

It also includes a bar and cafe with an outdoor seating area that is a joy on a sunny Melbourne day.

It was gifted to the state government by Carlton & United Breweries (CUB) in 1986 and became the home of the Playbox Theatre, dedicated to supporting Australian plays and playwrights.

After years of fundraising and construction, “The CUB Malthouse” theatre complex opened in 1990 and was rebranded as The Coopers Malthouse in 2014. But before its new and vibrant life, the distinctive 19th century building played a pivotal point in the major industry of brewing in South Melbourne.

The malthouse was designed by architect Richard Buckley Whitaker in 1892 for the Castlemaine Brewery, one of Australia’s largest. The building was purpose-built for its role of converting raw cereal grain to malt which was then brewed to make beer at the company’s brewery on nearby Queensbridge St, which remains today – but that’s another story!

Despite Victoria being affected by a major economic downturn in the 1890s, Victorians retained their appetite for beer and the company was profitable. However, bacterial contamination of the beer led to a loss of profits and it was taken over by CUB in 1907.

The late-Victorian building was constructed of solid brick (which saved it during a major fire in a mattress factory next door in 1919) and extended through to Dodds St.

The interior of the building (now the cafe) retains original features, such as cast iron columns, and the exterior of the building is finished in polychrome brickwork and distinguished by arched sections.

A distinctive feature are the three ventilation outlets on the roof of the west kiln tower, re-created around 2000.

The malthouse included a number of kilns to provide the heat required and local kids, many of whom attended classes in the Drill Hall on the opposite side of Sturt St, always enjoyed standing in Sturt St and watching the flames within the malthouse.

However, like many of Southbank’s industrial buildings, 20th century modernisation of the industry made its operations redundant and it had stopped operating and was deteriorating by the 1970s.

But the late-Victorian building was substantially intact and distinctive. Its significant architectural and historic importance made it a candidate for adaptive re-use for a new purpose, resulting in the thriving theatre complex that exists today.

 

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society

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