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History

07 Aug 2019

History Image

High-pressure building boom hits Southbank!

In the 1950s, corporations seeking to construct new buildings in Melbourne began facing difficulties in finding large plots of land in the city and began to look south across the river.

The building industry was highly competitive and active, leading to a “high-pressure building boom” south of Princes Bridge.

South Melbourne had long been a mishmash of factories, workshops, car dealers and small businesses, much of it on Crown land leased from the Commonwealth.

But it was well-served by two tram lines, land was plentiful and cheap and there were fewer impediments to construction than in the city.

Demolition of large buildings to enable the new was not necessary and planning requirements were minimal as the local council, ever keen to attract development, was offering attractive deals on property rates.

In the late ‘50s, the Vacuum Oil Company (the forerunner of Mobil) commissioned Bates Smart & McCutcheon to design its new headquarters on City Rd, soon lauded as the first “skyscraper” erected immediately to the south of the Yarra.

Known as Mobil House, the 17-storey example of the exciting era of Melbourne modernism was erected on a tight space between the river and City Rd. It opened in 1960, having been completed in 13 months from the day contractors moved onto the site; a record for building in Melbourne.

How did they build it so quickly? Mainly by erecting a special service tower outside the main structure that provided quick easy access to each floor for the workers (with tea-making and toilet facilities at every third floor!). It showed that buildings firms, such as Clements Langford, could produce big, impressive enduring structures at a speed undreamed of just a few years ago.

The building was fully air-conditioned, which started to become common in the late 1950s, and the water-cooling relied on water being drawn from the adjacent Yarra River. A highlight of the building was a four-metre-high statue of a winged horse (based on Vacuum’s flying red horse logo) that held pride of place outside the building.

Positioned on a rock, the horse reared up as if ready to take to the skies. Made of an aluminium alloy, Pegasus was the work of Ray Ewers, a former war artist. It now resides in the Mobil refinery at Altona.

When the oil company vacated the building, it was sold to developers in the early 1990s, and converted to apartments in 1995 (called 28 Southgate) as part of the massive transformation of Southbank. Other office towers followed the trend of conversion to residential towers, including headquarters for IBM and Astor Radios in Sturt St. But Mobil House led the way!

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society

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