Taking a walk through Melbourne streets with Pierre Robin

By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Melbourne-based French wool buyer Pierre Robin was a keen amateur photographer. From the late 1950s into the 1960s he spent hours roaming the streets of the CBD, camera in hand. 

A new, sleeker, modern Melbourne was emerging, a city of steel and glass, and Robin and his camera documented many of the dramatic changes taking place.

The Royal Historical Society is fortunate to have more than 400 Pierre Robin colour slides in its collection and many of these can be seen in the society’s online catalogue. There you will witness the iconic Eastern Market giving way to what became the equally iconic Southern Cross Hotel (think Beatles tour, 1964). You will see Whelan the Wrecker at work in spaces where new buildings later emerged. Images of the Shell Corner (Bourke and William streets) show the demolition of the old building and the construction of its replacement. There are many more.

The image you see here (image TRA-R-217) is of Lonsdale St, looking east towards the newly constructed ICI House, a glass covered colossus that emerged at the eastern end of the city, on the corner of Albert and Nicholson streets. This photograph was taken with a telephoto lens from Hardware St one March afternoon in 1959, just four months after the building was completed. ICI House caused great excitement, as its 19 storeys made it Australia’s tallest building – until 1961, that is. It was a ground-breaker, too, because at 84 metres high it was more than 40 metres taller than the then-Victorian height restriction. So, it set the precedent for all the high-rise buildings to come.

The building hints at the modernisation and transformation of the city that took place in the 1960s, but there are a few other signs of things to come that may have escaped your attention – centre of the road, one-hour meter parking, for example. (Metered parking was introduced in April 1955, so was still a relatively new notion.) Then there’s the VW Beetle that dominates the foreground. The Beetle had only been in Australia a few years and makes most other cars in the street look old-fashioned.

There are reminders of the past, too, in the elegant street lights and the Lonsdale St buildings. The art deco exterior of the Hotel Francis on the right of the image (the south side of the street) speaks to a fairly recent modernisation of a much older building. Previously the Hotel Niagara, the hotel had stood on this site since the 1850s. Its new name came with a new owner and the 1940 modernisation. It has now taken back its original name. Next to it is the red brick building of Lacy and Osborne, leather goods manufacturers. In front of that building is a red telephone box. There is another one further down on the other side of the street. Those were the days when many homes did not have a telephone and telecommunications were overseen by the PMG (Postmaster General’s Department). If you’re a baby boomer, or older, you’ll remember these important structures and how frustrating it was to wait outside, sometimes in a queue while the person inside kept talking, arguing perhaps or speaking to a loved one, and sometimes just delighting in keeping everyone else waiting.

A little further down the street is the 10-storey Lonsdale St Myer Store. In this image it towers over the other buildings in the street. Today there have been huge changes to the streetscape. The Myer facade is there, even if the building behind it has changed. And it is now joined to Melbourne Central on the other side of the street by skyways and walkways, adding new dimensions to the skyline.

On the north side of the street, the domed cupolas atop two of the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital towers rise above their neighbours. Once critical in the development of the training and practice of women doctors, the Queen Vic was the first hospital run by women for women in Victoria and moved to these premises in 1946 after the Royal Melbourne Hospital moved from the site to Parkville. It remained there until 1989. Later the centre tower was refurbished and opened as the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre. 

Behind the towers can be seen the spire of Wesley Church, seemingly rising out of one of the hospital towers. But it is ICI House that dominates the scene •

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