Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A Puzzlement

Two matters coincided and caused me some head scratching. Our hairdresser friend decided to celebrate her birthday, odd in itself, as she never has before. She decided we should dine at a French restaurant near where she lives, Embassy@97 in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. We had a fine meal and HD realised she knew the owner from hair dressing school. Before we went, I had a look at the restaurant website and it made mention of being in front of the old French Embassy in St Kilda. Yes, I knew the building. It is fine apartments now. I took photos of it a long time ago, well just the entrance as that is all you can really see.

This is beside Embassy@97, looking into the building known as Brooklawn, apparently once a French Consulate.

Then I came across this photo on my travels around the internet. The photo is of famous/infamous Mirka Mora and was captioned Mirka Mora rummages among the rubble of Australia's first French Embassy. Well, how many French Embassies were there? The State Library gives more details of the photo, but that wasn't where I came across the photo. All I knew was it was MM on the site of demolished French Embassy in 1968 in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. Well, where was it?

I got busy searching, using many different search terms and I was getting nowhere. I asked in a group and I was given some misinformed information, suggesting that it was on the western side of Fitzroy Street as the visible building at the very top of the photo was Srathmore Apartments, which are almost next door to Embassy@97. With Melways street view I could see the top of the Strathmore Apartments and although similar, it wasn't a match. Two of my own posts popped up when I was searching and I should have examined them then and there as they contained part of the answer. I also emailed Alliance Francaise in Grey Street but I never heard back from them.

A friend then reminded me that Embassies are in are capital city of Canberra, not in our big cities. During my research I decided that the building behind Embassy@97, Brooklawn, was only a consulate, not an embassy. It had also been a brothel in its time.

I went to the website of the State Library to do some searching there and the first thing that popped up was the above photo with extra information. It was a Herald newspaper photo and this info:
Three-quarter-length, to left, standing amid piles of bricks and stone, holding pieces of rubble at demolition site of building by the name of Voltaire-Racine, former French embassy and fashionable hotel in Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda.

Voltaire-Racine, now I had something to search for. Digitised newspapers told me is was a boarding house in the 1920s, but I was getting many different street number, 71, 73, 75. Then elsewhere 71 and 81 were coming up. Ok, I believe Voltaire-Racine was the site of the first French Embassy in Australia and it was where Mirka was when the photo was taken. It was time to physically investigate and disprove the false information I had been given. The location seemed to be on the corner of Fitzroy Street and Jackson Street, or Loch Street, as maps have a bob each way with the street name. I knew there was one old building on the corner, which kind of ruled out many of the street numbers but not entirely as there were Fitzroy Street numbers behind the existing old building. I needed to go to the shops, so instead of the City or Prahran, I would go to St Kilda. The tram stop is right opposite Embassy@97, so it was a good place to start.

However, before I left home, I took a look at my old posts that popped up. On this one, Sean tells me the name of the house was Brooklawn, Its the old French Embassy ("Brooklawn" 91-97 Fitzroy Street) now apartments. Architect is unknown. Part of a series of four mansions now built out by shops ... 
That would have saved me a bit of time if I checked. What about this one? RH and Marshall Stacks both mention Voltaire-Racine.
RH: You wouldn't have known of the old Voltaire Racine 'apartments'in Fitzroy Street. The house was at the end of a narrow walkway between two shops (just down from where the post office is now, if it's still there) and the house itself was at the rear of one of the shops; you could just glimpse a few stone steps up to a doorway.

Marshall Stacks: NLA Australian Newspapers - article display
_ ST. KILDA, VOLTAIRE, RACINE, 75 Fitzroy Balcony SUITE, excellent cuisine; tennis, billiards, grounds. _'Phone, 040 Windsor.

And there you go. I am standing near where Voltaire Racine, the old French Embassy was, looking across Fitzroy Street to an apartment block which is an exact match to the building at the top of the photo with Mirka.

Closer up reveals the name of the apartment building is Kingsclere but I have a feeling it was known as something else, and NO, I am not going to find out.

This is the back of the horrible modern building and car park that replaced Voltaire Racine. What a shame. I cannot find any photos of Voltaire Racine.


  1. The Tolarno Hotel in Fitzroy St was always good but it became my favourite when Georges Mora bought it in 1965. The idea of a restaurant (run by George) and an art gallery (run by Mirka) was novel and delightful.


  2. oh bravo Highriser. when I saw that 'demolished' photo at the St.Kilda Fbk page (now disappeared?)
    I thought it was wrong. you're a star.
    Hels - I worked there in 1968. I have stories.

  3. Voltaire Racine, the name reminds me of the inscription on his hearse, "He taught us to be free." I remember this because my English teacher and my Arts teacher discussed Voltaire during a lesson.

  4. Mon ami Victor, merci.

    Hels, I certainly has a interesting history. I never went there.

    Ann, as soon as I saw the photo, something about it didn't seem right, which made me curious. I remember your tale about tips at Tolarno.

    Cazzie, I really have no idea what the Racine is. Sounds like a good race horse name. Pleased you learnt something while you were eavesdropping.

  5. Tres bon, mon cherie Andrew!

    I feel like I've had a history lesson that's been very, enjoyable as you've shared the process with us.

  6. I too thought it a good race horse name!

  7. Kath, I put a lot of effort into the post, but it was mostly self satisfaction. I do have a tiny life outside this sort of thing. Poor R when he asks me what I did on my day off.

    Fen, And Voltaire Racine is coming up hard on the rail, passing the grey, and gets its nose just in front.

  8. This is really funny.

    Something sent me here to see it.

    Well done old boy, you really are an historian. There was a sign at the walkway entrance: Voltaire Racine Apartments. A bloke I knew at the time informed me that Voltaire and Racine had been French dramatists. In view of what St Kilda had become we thought that was pretty funny. Around the time the place was being demolshed we stole the sign and I had it at my place in Carlisle street for a while, it was about five feet long with a white background. I don't recall what happened to it but would like to still have it.
    The place was a rooming house, far as I know. It wasn't a brothel, except that all the big rooming houses in St Kilda were brothels of a sort; girls living in them used their rooms for prostitution. Most were tenants more than they were prostitutes. Part-timers, you could say. They blew in, blew out, died very young.

  9. RH, I knew who Voltaire was, but not Racine. The building further along, Brooklawn was the one I meant was a brothel. Thanks for the colour.

  10. Where's Ian these days, I liked his comments, his tone.

  11. I'm sure he is still having fun in NYC.

  12. But the French Embassy is this pink building in Canberra, and wasm well before 1968. It's not too far from the US Embassy which is built to resemble a Southern Mansion.

  13. Christine, the French seem quite reluctant to get their Australian history up online. I can't even find out when the place in St Kilda was a French Embassy or when one was built in Canberra.

  14. I'm very impressed with all the research you did.

    And I'm sure it was fun for adventure.

  15. Melbourne was the Australian capital from 1901 until 1927, in which case the French Embassy could well have been in Fitzroy Street, at least during that period.

  16. Dina, I do enjoy doing things like that, especially when I get a result. I don't always.

    RH, I suspect it was later than that before the French built an embassy in Canberra, but as I say, there seems to be a dearth of records.

  17. Hello
    I’ve just found out about Mirka Mora, what a fantastic lady she is wise and beautiful. I loved reading your trail about the demolished site with Mirka looking at two found vases.
    Your investigation shows a tenacious spirit and inquisitiveness. The photo of Mirka really inspired you to a search.
    I wonder how much of the searching has come about from your living and daily surveying a view of Melbourne’s CBD. What a view, it speaks stories. Great Blogger name too.

  18. Thanks Isobelle. Sometimes something just grabs you and you have to find out more. I try not to make a habit of it as it can be very time consuming. Mirka can be very naughty too, as she has been a little on the recent ABC tv show.

  19. There are some photos of the interior on the National Trust database, where it is called 'sacraborough' and the address is 77a Fitzroy street
    I think the paper file calls it the Belgian Embassy. But as another noted above, before 1901 there were no embassies in Oz as each state was then a British colony. However there might have been consulates, which were basically someone's house who agreed to represent that country. Between 1901 and 1927 there might have been actual embassies in Melbourne - the best way to find out the answer is to look at the Sands & McDougall Directories at the State Library, one for every year 1965 to 1971 - it lists what is at every address in Melb. so what that place actually was in any year will be recorded.

  20. HP, thanks. I'm aware of the SMcD directory and it seemed I had to pay. I wasn't aware that they were available at the library, but of course it would be. Belgian would explain why the French Embassy was further up Fitzroy Street. Now, finding the time to peruse....

  21. Sorry Andrew the moment I read 'swivel' you eyes, my back went into a spasm and I had to pop a couple of pills :)

  22. You old crock, you Grace.

  23. I took a picture of the building while it was being renovated. It had a huge sign standing on top of it that said "A R T".

  24. Stephen, a terrific black and white photo. Thank you. I wonder what the ART was about.