There are many arcades that criss-cross the city centre in Melbourne, all linking or leading to the popular Bourke Street Mall. In the late nineteenth century, fashionable arcades protected shoppers from heat, dust, and rain and offered luxury shopping on a par with great European and English cities.
In Melbourne they criss-cross the city streets and link with the laneways and ‘little’ streets, providing a unique shopping district, one that is so very different to other Australian cities. They are places where you can ponder and desire to your heart’s content.
One elegant space with a distinctive black and white floor is perhaps the arcade that fulfils everyone’s idea perhaps of a heritage architectural aesthetic is all about – The Royal Arcade.
It links Elizabeth Street, Bourke Street Mall and Little Collins Street and was the first avenue of shops of its kind built in Melbourne on prime land, ensuring it is part of the Victorian Heritage Register.
Constructed in 1869, by one of Melbourne’s most famous historical architects Charles Webb, who gained his commission for The Royal Arcade through a design competition, it is a quietly impressive place. It features a high glass roof and rows of arched windows to the storerooms above each shop.
One of the wonderful features is a magnificent clock installed in 1892, which is flanked by two mythical ‘Gods’. They strike the chimes on the hour. Nearby is a sculpture of Chronos, the Greek mythological character known as Father Time.
It is appropriate then that The Royal Arcade is the one you choose to walk through when you have time, drinking in the atmosphere. It is a place where you go shopping for pleasure rather than necessity.
Refurbished and restored to its former glory in the Victorian ‘Renaissance Revival style during 2002 – 2004, the Royal Arcade had extensive work taking place on its skylights and storefronts.
The arcade itself is full of retail establishments who choose their stock with love, personalise window displays with care, and treat their clients warmly and with consideration.
Gifts, beauty, fashion, jewellery, services, perfume for both men and women, you can find very special goods in here and services such as shoe and handbag repairs or a parlour to attend to your brows and lashes.
The Brotherhood of St Laurence a community organisation that works across Australia to prevent and alleviate poverty, also have a shop here providing an experience of the compassionate and fair society its volunteers long for, ‘where everyone has a sense of belonging’.
Shoes inflict both pleasure and pain and are always subject to fashion, which fulfils many of our aesthetic dreams. Habbot Shoes is an Australian firm who makes its fabulous leather footwear in Italy. They meld classic styles with a colourful palette and contemporary treatment, ensuring that the details become the hero.
This is the aesthetic of designer Annie Abbott who designs the shoes and selects the materials from Italy’s best tanneries where historically during the ‘Renaissance’, women’s shoes were often inspired by men’s styles.
Her boots are definitely made for walking, are flattering to the leg line and are very supportive. Her flats are fabulous, some silver, some glittering, some patent and shiny, some sporting spots, while others have animal prints. And, if you have the style, you can add a fabulous fringe.
Koko Black is another central hub of activity during the day where you can imbibe on the most delicious chocolate to eat or drink that is possibly imaginable. Tourists and locals both love the ambiance and the choice.
Not far away is my other personal favourite, The Block Arcade where a lot has changed since Robert Hoddle conducted the auction for the Collins Street wing of the arcade in 1837 standing on a ‘podium’, which was really a fallen tree on the 1st June, to finalise one of Melbourne’s first land auctions.
The Briscoe’s Bulk Grain Store occupied the Collins Street wing 1856-1883 and it became the site of the first Georges Store in Melbourne where ironically, on Friday 13th September 1889 fire broke out leaving only its basement remaining.
Author Fergus Hume evocatively described ‘doing the block’ in his book The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which was first published in Melbourne in 1886. He said, “It was Saturday morning and fashionable Melbourne was ‘doing the block’. Collins Street is to the Southern city what Bond Street and the Row are to London, and the Boulevards to Paris … Carriages were bowling smoothly along, their occupants smiling and bowing as they recognized their friends on the side walk … Portly merchants, forgetting Flinders Lane and incoming ships, walked beside pretty daughters; and the representatives of swelldom were stalking along in their customary apparel of curly brimmed hats, high collars and immaculate suits. Altogether it was a pleasant and animated scene …”
This great act of ‘doing, or promenading around the Block’ was how The Block Arcade took its name. It descends from the ideal ‘to see and be seen’. It is a particularly fine shopping arcade of 1890-93, designed by Twentyman & Askew in a their version of the French Renaissance style too.
It has superb plate glass shop windows, the most glorious mosaic tiled floor, a glass roof of which some sheets survive with their original decoration with the cast-iron element of the roof meeting at the junction of the two arms, one from Elizabeth and the other from Collins Street to support a great dome.
Today The Block Arcade is classified by the National Trust and listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. During World War II they covered its famous Jazz Moderne patterned mosaic floor with carpet to protect it from being damaged by footwear worn by the military.
Collins Street is where I always enter and enjoy browsing in two very different boutiques. Wittner the Australian Shoe Store designing high quality fashion footwear, and Crabtree and Evelyn of London whose product ranges feature fruit, flower and plant essences.
Debra Wittner runs a business founded by her family in 1912. As they did then, in our age they are dedicated to excellence and highly service oriented. Shoes are a worthy medium for artistic expression.
To compliment the winter masterpieces exhibition Van Gogh and the Seasons at the National Gallery of Victoria, Wittner shoes of Melbourne presented four seasons of shoes, inspired by the works of Dutch born French based artist Vincent Van Gogh.
They are made of brocaded silk or velvet, as well as soft silky smooth leather, which were often decorated with silk embroidery. In a day and age when we have the luxury of designing shoes for all the different activities we undertake, embroidered boots or shoes especially those embellished with flowers and foliage certainly suited the fabulous window display at the Block Arcade when I visited.
You may have the impression when you view the gorgeous array of goods at Crabtree and Evelyn that they descend from our Victorian past, but you would be wrong. Founded only forty years ago, they quickly became renowned for the beauty and success of their products.
They rapidly expanded from a small family-run business into an international institution with some 500 stores worldwide. Fine foods, fabulous fragrances, gorgeous gifts all splendid arrayed and packaged help to transform our daily lives from drab and dreary in mid winter around the solstice, to bright, light and beautiful as a perpetual spring.
Neither a sage nor a hero John Evelyn (1620-1706) for whom the store is named once said ‘his whole house and garden is a paradise’ and home to ‘the best collection’ of rarities. A well-known diarist and author educated at Oxford who married the French ambassador’s daughter he acquainted English readers with Italian and French contemporary garden design philosophy, influencing the taste of the whole nation.
Evelyn introduced the word ‘avenue’ into the English language and dealt with a multitude of subjects in his Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees published in 1664. It remained the standard English work on trees for over a century and is today still a source of contemporary information… the crab apple tree the shop’s icon is the ancestor of all cultivated apple trees.
Nearby both these establishments is the busiest shop in the whole arcade, the Lady Hopetoun Tea Rooms. At the time of its opening The Block Arcade ‘boasted 15 milliners, three lace shops, a photographer plus the Hopetoun tea rooms, which are still there today named for Lady Hopetoun, wife of the Victorian governor Lord Hopetoun.
The Tea Room site named in her honour was purchased for eighteen pounds and established by the committee for the Victorian Ladies Work Association of which Lady Hopetoun was the patron. It has enjoyed a long and colourful history and today people queue for ages just to enjoy an experience of elegant imbibing on the memorable ‘to die for’ cakes and scones. It has become so busy the current owner has now extended into the old basement space to accommodate all her visitors.
The Block arcade must have all looked stunning when first lit by gas lighting, which always casts such a warm glow. The first commercial application of electricity in the City of Melbourne was used to illuminate the upper floors. It is full of specialist establishments, including George Jensen Living, Haigh’s Chocolates, Rutherford Jewellers, Charles Dickens Tavern and the Caffè Du’Omo where I often meet a friend for lunch.
You can easily fall in love with the creations in the French Jewelbox or laugh at loud at the Art of Dr Seuss. You can also wander around savouring all sorts of small delights… for instance, Phillip Goatcher, a well known theatrical scene painter of the day was commissioned to hand paint the ceiling of the original Singer Sewing Shop, which is now the Chelsea Design Shop.
Writing about my favourite arcades I have talked myself into a trip to town soon so that once again I will be able to savour the ambiance and atmosphere of both – there’s always something special to see in The Royal or The Block arcades.
Be sure to visit soon… you can enjoy to ‘see and be seen’ while you pretend you are in Milan at the very grand Galleria Vittoria, which The Block Arcade was inspired by when it was first designed.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017