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History

07 Nov 2018

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Austral Otis Lifts

It’s a sad little building today – facing Kingsway (behind the Boyd Centre), painted pink, covered in graffiti and looking like it hasn’t got long on this earth.

But the former headquarters of the Austral Otis company played an integral role in Melbourne’s massive 19th century development and contributed to making South Melbourne the manufacturing centre for the booming metropolis.

Austral Otis was located in the industrial sector that formed part of South Melbourne (and is now part of Southbank).

The works of the company occupied over four acres and in 1888 a new building for the company offices was constructed. The two-storey brick building was the hub of the giant enterprise, containing managers’ offices, drawing rooms for designs and a counting house.

Next to the offices were stables and a large shed for storage of goods. Outside in the works area, two massive boilers provided electric power to the whole site where they were producing pumping engines, mining machinery, hydraulic lifts and huge steam engines for the city’s cable trams and first electric power stations, as well as massive pipes for Melbourne’s water systems.

Imagine what it was like to work here – the noise, the heat, the smoke and the dangers associated with producing large-scale equipment, plus the ever-constant risk of fire in predominantly wooden buildings.

As Melbourne climbed skywards with multi-storeyed iron and steel framed buildings during the 1880s, lift technology became an increasingly important part of the equation. Like other cities around the world that embraced tall buildings, the issue of getting people to the top floors (and down again) was addressed by a number of companies, generally located in the USA.

Early lifts were used for raising and lowering of goods, but when an executive from Otis in New York visited Melbourne, he saw the opportunity for widespread introduction of American lifts to move passengers to upper floors.

They used a reticulated hydraulic power system, relying on controlling water pressure to drive the lifts safely and quickly. Austral Otis also made the lift cars that passengers rode in.

The company was bought out in 1952 and Austral ceased to exist. However the name Otis can still be seen on lifts in many of Melbourne’s historic buildings.

The headquarters building was adapted for other uses and modified internally and externally, but nevertheless retains its original general appearance (except for the pink paint job!).

Robin Grow - President

Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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