An early Melbourne high-rise

By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Looking at this streetscape today, the 11-storey building that dominates the left side (the south side) of this early 1950s photograph of Bourke St raises no eyebrows. 

It is the Commonwealth Bank Building at 219-225 Bourke St and in its day it was something of a sky-scraper. It conformed to the height limit of the time (132 ft or 40 metres), but it stretched the rules because its tower, which used to house services to the building, took it to almost 52 metres. As you see here, it dwarfs the structures on either side of it. It was not until 1958 when construction was completed on the 19-storey ICI House on the corner of Albert and Nicholson street in East Melbourne that the term sky-scraper was used to describe what was Australia’s tallest building of the time. 

All along this section of Bourke St are rows of three- or four-storeyed buildings, complete with verandas and ornate facades and rooflines, a reminder of the 19th century. This structure, though, is in a different style altogether. It is modern, all straight lines, with little ornamentation. It is tall, stretching high into the sky, the windows and details on the front façade adding to the feeling of height. There is no hint that until 1934 this was the site of the Bijou Theatre, built in the 1870s and one of the many theatres in this part of the CBD, although by the time the photograph was taken, the theatres had given way to cinemas, only a few of which survive today.

In its way, the Commonwealth Bank building is remarkable. It was constructed between 1939 and 1941 in the first years of World War Two at a time when the nation’s attention was on the war rather than civil construction. The importation of building materials was difficult and steel and the like were needed for the war effort, so this build relied on local materials and non-ferrous metals wherever possible, the cladding made from sandstone from Stawell and granite from Dromana, for example.

Across the street, on the edges of the right-hand side of the image, is another building, constructed only a few years earlier. Not as tall as the bank building, it was owned by Sharpe Brothers, drapers, and it, too, had once been the site of a theatre. It was not as tall and its rounded windows create a softer edge to the building. This store, located at 200-204 Bourke St, was next door to Treadways, a department store. Not far away, on the corner of Bourke and Russell streets, was Norman’s Corner Store, a drapery run by another Sharpe brother Norman. And just down the street was the well-known furniture store Maples, sponsors of the popular radio program the Professional & Amateur Parade (known to everyone as the P&A Parade), a talent quest broadcast on 3KZ for 27 years. At around the time this photograph was taken, Maples withdrew its sponsorship of the show and Swallows, makers of my childhood to-die for biscuits Tic Tocs, took over, moving the show to the newly introduced format of television in the late 1950s. Today, the Sharpe Bros site is a police station. 

We’ve all used the phrase “busier than Bourke St”, but we see here a rather tamer scene. No bustling shoppers, no trams ringing their bells to warn vehicles and pedestrians that they have right of way. No traffic congestion. No motor bikes weaving in amongst the bigger vehicles. No bicycle riders braving the unpredictable behaviour of other road users. The cars travelling along the street are very much of their time and although we’re all used to seeing buses on Melbourne’s streets, the presence of a double-decker bus might surprise modern-day Melburnians. There are no trams in sight, something unheard of in today’s CBD. The cable tram tracks running along the centre of the street are still visible, but cable trams were replaced by double-decker buses along Bourke St in February 1940 and the buses continued to work the Northcote and East Brunswick routes until January 1954. This bus, number 235, painted in the tramway colours – green with numbers and letters in gold leaf – was destined for the Nicholson St Bus Depot in North Fitzroy, travelling along what is today’s 96 tram route.

Apart from the vast expanse of sky to the west of the Commonwealth Bank Building, the most striking thing to me about this photo is the small number of overhead wires and the haphazard parking methods of some of the vans pictured here. And it was only when I enlarged the digital image that I realised that there is a cross street that runs across Bourke St just about where you see the “A” in the Sharpes sign and that is Swanston St. It doesn’t look like there were traffic lights there, either. Almost impossible to imagine these days •

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