By Tristan Davies
In a 1970s era gold-tiled lobby nestled into a 1920s facade on Russell St, you walk past a mysterious red door hiding a theatrette behind, and an old-school letterboard asks you to choose between a clunky lift and faded timber stairs.
You continue up through the building, past a mix of faded letters on the corridor wall in Cantonese and Greek, both advertising the same law firm, that shares this space with a Japanese language studio, traditional medicine clinic, esoteric bookshop and a private library, and at the end of your journey is a surprisingly hip bar and outdoor cinema perched on the rooftop. This building says so much about Melbourne’s multicultural history, creative spirit and modern character.
But sadly, the Theosophical Society Building, built as Olympic Motors in 1923, is soon to be flattened for yet another luxury hotel that makes buzzwords of the very uniqueness of Melbourne that it’s destroying.
A few weeks ago, the Theosophical Society finally moved out of its home since 1975, bound for Flinders Lane, leaving the building free to be demolished later this year for a 190-room hotel complex called “Russell Place”, despite it being recognised as having individual built heritage and social significance in a 2020 heritage amendment that came out just too late to counter demolition approval.
The approval plans have now also been amended without advertising to destroy the Edwardian Michael’s Adventures store building next door, which has been trading since 1909, perhaps one of Melbourne’s oldest small businesses.
Around the corner on Bourke St, the Palace Theatre is a literal shell, gutted for the development of a hotel tower after a long battle. The same fate befell the Duke of Kent pub on La Trobe St recently, home to the influential New Theatre in the 1930s and many social events since, but now an empty lot awaiting the building of an apartment hotel with private driveway.
Down in Hosier Lane, an op shop, social enterprise cafe and youth outreach centre are also soon to be kicked out so the building they are in can be gutted and converted into a serviced hotel, using the street art and counter-culture history of the lane to sell rooms that will no doubt make graffiti in the popular lane harder to practice.
We may also soon lose the charming but grubby mid-century Hub Arcade, alongside New Guernica music space and iconic Chuckle Park laneway bar for, you guessed it, a hotel.
Developers might argue places like the Theosophical Building are “uneconomical” and that yet another hotel will bring “vibrancy and activation” to the city, but this misses the broader picture. Slightly run down, older buildings are perfect places for creative uses, pop-up businesses and exactly the kind of quirky entrepreneurship and “hidden secrets” Melbourne sells itself on to the tourists who stay in hotels, not to mention the Melburnians who call this city home.
We would argue, especially at this time, that Melbourne needs what remains of its shabby chic low-rent buildings, theatres, pubs, specialty stores and laneway bars far more than it needs an oversupply of luxury hotels built primarily for the short-term profit of developers.