Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Arts Centre

Ah yeah, the quiz. It has been a lot more work to write than I thought. A correct answer to the quiz was quickly posted. The Arts Centre.

R's workplace was having a clean out of books. He spied one he thought I might find interesting. It was given to his work as a thank you when he took a group to the Arts Centre and they had to participate in a fire drill. I expected I would just give it a flick through to look at the photos. A couple of hours later I was well into reading the text.

What a fascinating tale of the construction of our arts precinct, where our Victorian National Gallery, Hamer Hall for concerts, and the theatre complex are located. These are quite special buildings to the people of Melbourne and have a perfect location on the south bank of the Yarra River. There are plans for improvements with opening Hamer Hall more to the river promenade and a wide walk way in between the theatres and the gallery. I expect these might happen within the next twenty years. Although they have been announced by our State Government, no money has been allocated for construction as yet.

I will do a list of points I found interesting. But upon reading the paper last week, I came across an obit for Lady (Alice) Grounds, the widow of the Sir Roy Grounds, the principle architect of The Arts Centre. She died in January this year aged 99. You can read her quite interesting obit here.

While I was reading the obit, I came across this. 'In 1937, he designed a split-level, cliff-hugging beach house for her at Ranelagh'.

Where might Ranelagh be, I wondered. It took a little time to establish it is housing estate within Mount Eliza on the Mornington Peninsular. It was designed by Walter Burleigh Griffin AND his wife. He is the chappie who designed our federal capital city Canberra. I shall take a peek next time I am down that way.

All very intersting, as was the construction of the Victorian Arts Centre.

  • Discussion began in the early 1940s.

  • Site chosen where Wirths Circus was located and later The Trocadero.

  • Problems caused by the site being under control of both City of Melbourne and City of South Melbourne.

  • The delightfully named Sloss Street which ran parallel to St Kilda Road was included into the site.

  • Wirth's Park occupied by 'fun parlours, bits of circus type buildings, advertising hoardings, and temporary patched up sheds'.

  • By 1953 the area was covered with half burnt buildings, condemned buildings and closed off areas and City of South Melbourne was very concerned about the dilapidated site.

  • The declining Trocadero forced to abandon their lease by huge rent increases.

  • May 1961 Whelan the Wrecker moved in.

  • Controversial plans to freeze the sloppy silt on which the theatres were to be built abandoned after the collapse of the West Gate Bridge.

  • Four year fight between the The Building committee and City of Melbourne over the area where Hamer Hall was to be built. The site was known as Snowden Gardens (a pretty place from photos) and yes Ann and Jayne, where the Robyn Boyd designed Wind Fountain was built (a separate post coming on Snowden Gardens and the Robyn Boyd fountain).

  • One opinion suggested that if the theatres complex temporary ties released, that is cables hooked to rods driven into bedrock,a rock anchor could fly as far as the Punt Road Bridge.

  • Theatre foundations sitting in corrosive water. Temporary measures had to be taken until an electrolysis system was set up.

  • De-watering of foundations caused widespread sinking in South Melbourne. Trams crossing the City Road Bridge to St Kilda Road were said to be 'taking off'. (I remember how the tram track sharply dropped and twisted at this place. Track repair crews were forever working on it. Only really fixed when new tracks were laid)

  • Construction of Concert Hall began in 1976.

  • Construction company Costains seriously underquote on project. 135 days work in possible 233.

  • Major river leak nearly floods site.

  • Union behaviour atrocious. Plumbers sawed off tap spindles then complained to Health Department the site was unsafe and they would not work there. Only plumbers could fix the problem. Six month delay. A flea was found on site. Management proposed spraying. Two workers allergic to sprays. Baiting of supposed rats that carried the fleas. Workers did not want poison around. Cats were brought in to control the rats. Strangers fed the cats and they bred and became more of a problem than the rats.

  • Council did not like connection of the river terrace with Princes Bridge. Ordered stop work. Slight redesign.

  • 3230 tanned and dyed leather hides imported from Scotland to line walls of Hamer Hall.

  • Sidney Nolan donates his own work, 1320 paintings, (Paradise Garden) made up into 220 panels.

  • Curtain of woven velvet for a theatre made in and shipped from Japan.
  • Copper prices rise of 43% and problems of wind reverberation kills the plan for a copper encased spire.

  • Lattice spire built at 115 metres height and not the planned 140 metres.

  • In 1986 anti wood chip prostesters climb spire. Alert management to cracking in spire joints.

  • In 1995 metallurgists decide top half of spire must be demolished.

  • New spire with laser lighting designed and erected to a height of 150 metres.

  • US company called Bay Area Seating Service chosen to sell theatre tickets. Name changed to Best Available Seating Service.

  • Collapse of ticketing company Computicket results in customer resistance to electronic ticketing.

  • BASS eventually becomes very successful and one day caused the collapse of the South Melbourne telephone exchange.

  • Art Centre sell 50.1% share of BASS to software supplier Ticketmaster. Hand over remainder of shares. (in the true tradition of governments ridding themselves of profitable businesses)

  • Mother's Day concert for all Arts Centre construction workers as an inducement to meet opening deadline.

  • In 1982 official guests for the opening of Hamer Hall arrive in a Mirka Mora decorated tram.
  • Spoleto arts festival began in 1986 and later morphed into

  • In 1980 the Arts Centre Trust took over management of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

  • Major renovations of the Bowl started in 2000 and finished over one year later.
That'll do I reckon. The book is called A Place Across the River, written by Vicki Fairfax.

From my treasured old street directory, that I inherited from grandfather, you can see where Sloss Street was and the general layout of the area. The Arts Centre area extends from the river down to Nolan Street, now called Southbank Boulevard and the dots showing where the tram used to run to South Melbourne Beach. The tram now runs down Southbank Boulevard.


  1. I can comment on my post can't I? I have spent hours on this post for your pleasure and I know it will be of no interest to many. Much of the time was taken up with researching Snowden Gardens and the Robyn Boyd designed fountain. You will hear more of that later. But I really enjoyed doing the research in something that interested me.

  2. Thanks for the post Andrew. I knew nothing of the history of that site although I vaguely remember mum told me once when she at school (1950s) that the kids were all encouraged to bring in small change to donate to the building of the new arts centre. But very interesting post!!


  3. Fascinating Andrew, thank you for the time that must have taken. Will have to hunt out that book now. Reminds me, I have a book here on the history of the Westgate Bridge and its collapse if you'd be interested.

    I remember my dad telling me that was where Wirth's had their off-season (would that be winter?) base. It also brought back memories of going to show's there in the mid 80s on our summer holidays.

  4. Ah, another Andrew. Great recollection. Indeed that is true. There was fundraising via donations, large and small. The differences between costings and actual cost were extreme.

    Thanks Tony. I am very interested in the West Gate Bridge collapse. I have some vauge memories of it. It was Wirth's base and a permanent circus and the area where the circus was, was known as Wirth's Park. I just remembered, we did a tour of Hamer Hall shortly after it opened and subsequently went to a Top of the Pops orchestral performance. Our one and only visit.

  5. Anonymous9:48 pm

    I love peering through old melways; as you know, I'm a cartophile.

  6. Cartophile Reuben? I always knew you were seriously kinky.

  7. Looks like somebody's developing the antiquarian bug.

    And Reuben's developing a taste for buggering carts.

  8. I LOVE art, and I think that would be an awesome book to read Andrew.
    At work, they are compiling a book on a history of our Hospital. I will endeavour to find out more about it and blof of it too in the coming weeks. I have got to get back into the Friday's History Post again.

  9. LOVE it, excellent post and research, Andrew :)
    just a query - " Spoleto arts festival began in 1986 and later morphed into...."
    I remember Spoleto, what did it morph into?
    And FEIP (Free Entertainment In Parks) I guess it disappeared along with the council budgets!

  10. Nah Brian. Just interested in old stuff.

    A history of that hospital would be very interesting Cazzie. And yes, start Friday history again.

    Ah Jayne, that one slipped through. I meant to check, but I think it is the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

  11. what a great post, thank you dear Highriser.

    My friend Flissy had rich parents with a place in the Ranelagh Estate.
    She later worked for Sir Roy G and said he was a monumentally BORING man.

  12. Most kind FGMS.

    Someone called Flissy would have to have rich parents. Interesting. Think RG used to like a tipple or two, as did many who had some power on the site.