For nearly 100 years a stately, but somehow unimposing, building has stood opposite St Paul’s Cathedral, on Swanston Street and the Flinders Lane. Maybe you’ve been inside for an art show or to take a life drawing class or to have your pants hemmed? Perhaps you’ve done Pilates there after work, or got a tattoo in one of the studios blasting indie metal behind sticker-covered doors.
“If You’re Meant To Find Us, You Will”
Behind the facade of the Nicholas Building, one of Melbourne’s most storied properties, more than 200 eclectic enterprises make up a vertical village of artisans and traders. There is, arguably, no better place for a spontaneous doorknock. From metaphysical supply stores to tailors dealing in the world’s most expensive cloth, Broadsheet takes an adventure through the iconic creative hub.
But chances are, even if you’ve passed it on the street more times than you can count, the Nicholas Building remains something of a mystery.
The heritage-listed property has long ties to the rag trade, mostly as a place to buy specialist haberdashery. And in recent decades, its reputation as one of the city’s most unique creative colonies has been well documented. Yet there remains something enigmatic about the place, with its 10 floors of two-metre-wide, boarding school-esque corridors.
Between levels 2 through 10, some doors are left wide open, while others are shut with little more than a homespun A4 poster or brass plaque explaining what might be going on behind them. Visits tend to be an in-and-out affair; paradoxically, while the halls lend themselves to wandering, it’s no place to window shop. But it feels welcoming nonetheless, in a sort of “What are you looking for?” kind of way. “Come say hi – if you dare.” Its bohemian aloofness and labyrinthine passages give little away, but there remains a sense that it belongs to the city – as open to anyone as a public square.
Harry Norris, a leading Melbourne architect in the interwar years, designed the building for the Nicholas brothers, who made their fortune producing Aspro (a local version of then German-made Aspirin) and donated generously to arts and educational institutions across the city – Methodist Ladies’ College, Wesley College and various hospitals and universities among them.
The building was completed in 1926 and is regarded as one of the city’s best examples of Chicago School-style architecture. With its Doric columns and other classic revival features, it also draws on Europe’s “commercial palazzo” style of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Over the last few months Forza Capital has been doing due diligence on the property and looks set to purchase it for around $80 million with the intention of maintaining the Nicholas as an artistic hub – music to the ears of many Melburnians, not least the creatives occupying its many suites, who feared it would be turned into apartments or office space.
On a wet winter’s morning, Broadsheet passed through the splendid Cathedral Arcade on the building’s ground floor, with its leadlight windows and dramatic stained-glass ceiling, past retro clothing stores, boutiques and galleries. We wound our way up the broad staircase to the top floor and began a doorknock, wandering into shops and boutiques, and peeping through letter hatches to find out who occupies its storied rooms.
Suite 4, Level 2
On the building’s second floor, a potent whiff of frankincense was coming from a darkened shop. At the door, an ornately dressed woman named Saint greeted us with a beaming smile. She was wrapped in rich velvet and busily organising the wares of this eight-year-old “metaphysical supply store” – spell kits, candles, talismans and cloaks.
Since the Forza Capital started doing due diligence on the Nicholas Building, she said, conveyancers have been into the shop, measuring ceiling heights and checking out the lights. The building’s aesthetic is important to Muses of Mystery, and Saint hopes that whatever fix-ups and renovations are required won’t change that too much. Forza Capital has promised that if it goes ahead with the purchase the building will remain a social enterprise, and the company’s director, Ashley Wain, said it is committed to working with the tenants association to protect the leases – and interests – of the more than 200 vibrant, sometimes eccentric, occupants to ensure the place loses none of its charm or accessibility.
Like most of the businesses in the Nicholas Building, the Muses of Mystery doesn’t go out of its way to attract attention, opting instead to cultivate a mood of inviting intrigue. With a sentiment that seemed to be shared by everyone we visited, Saint put it simply: “If you’re meant find us, you will.”
Suite 21, Level 4
Wandering into José Zarpan’s modest atelier, in operation since 1988, you’d never guess the high-end craftsmanship he deals in. Zarpan is a short, gregarious man who learned his trade nearly 50 years ago in his native Peru. He loves a chat, and a well-made coat. Around the space, mannequins model his creations – coats made with some of the world’s most coveted fabrics. Piled up in reams around the room are sumptuous cloths spun from the fleece of llamas, alpacas, camels, sheep, goats and the little-known vicuna, a slight camelid found in the Andes with wool that is among the world’s most expensive.
“Chanel, Max Mara, Burberry, Prada – we use the same stuff,” he told us – which is to say the luxurious cashmeres, wools, linens and tweeds of prestige textiles companies including Dormeuil, Barrington and Holland & Sherry. Perfect for the Prince William or James Bond-inspired jackets customers have requested.
Zarpan started training as a tailor at just nine years old. The family lived on the streets for more than five years, he says, and during that time his mother – a seamstress – insisted he and his siblings go with her to work to learn what they could. It was an imposition on his childhood Zarpan initially resented, but he came around, eventually seeing his skills as a way to channel creative expression and spread positivity. “You have to help a person look like who they imagine themselves to be,” he said. “In fashion you must transmit the positive energy.”
When a potential client walks in, he asks a simple question: “Are you looking for price or quality?” If they’re looking for the former, he directs them to the high street; if they want the latter, he can help. Zarpan says a single buttonhole can take him 40 minutes to complete.
Suites 14–15, Level 4
The letter traps on level 4 were mostly blacked out, but when we got to room 414 and tried to sneak a peek, the peeled back ocular region – eye, socket, ligaments – of a medical dummy was staring back.
Wearing a baggy lavender sweatshirt, with long dark hair falling over his shoulders from beneath a woolly beanie, a man who calls himself Giant Swan opened the door and invited me in. A window spread the entire length of the southern wall, framing Flinders Street Station like a postcard, and on the walls was a display of digital artworks depicting preternatural life forms. A huge, curved computer screen sat on his desk and all sorts of high-tech contraptions were perched here and there. A smart couch and a well-stocked bar cart told me he welcomed visitors.
Giant Swan, who would not share his real name, makes virtual-reality sculptures that you can experience only through a VR headset. He invited to me try. With my head inside the gadget, a savage garden revealed itself, floating in an infinite expanse of darkness. Three-dimensional foliage towered above me, and turning 360 degrees, it was all around me in deep crimsons and rich purples with angry edges. Hidden within this psychedelic boneyard of flora, disembodied faces gazed out at me.
Giant Swan began exploring virtual reality art through his twice failed (due to non-attendance) attempts to complete an advanced diploma in video-game design and 3D art. But his most important creative encounter came with the discovery of Tilt Brush, the VR software he now uses to create his otherworldly works. The results are breathtaking ulterior dimensions that transport the viewer to a place and experience that more traditional art mediums could never achieve.
MELBOURNE ART LIBRARY
Suite 19, Level 6
On the sixth floor, the sounds of jazz blew around the halls. We came to a dimly lit room with a riot of wooden shelves lining every wall; on them, hundreds of art and design books lined up neatly. A small internal window offered the only natural light. At a modest desk, with a Macbook glowing in her face, sat Nell Fraser. An art history major and certified librarian, she looked the part in wire-framed glasses, her hair pulled back neatly. Fraser is the founder and custodian of the Melbourne Art Library – a grant-funded experiment in the private loaning of art books.
At the beginning of the pandemic, she had an idea to create a library for the kind of art books that public libraries rarely bother to purchase – the kind arts students swiftly lose access to when they graduate.
The resulting collection – acquired mostly through private donations – is a unique endeavour that offers anyone access to the best in art publications. The books can be taken on loan for up to three weeks on a good-faith membership policy that only requires a phone number.
THE STICKY INSTITUTE
Suites 814–815, Level 8
The home of the Sticky Institute faces south, with windows overlooking Flinders Street Station. On the day we visited, it was occupied by a handful of teenagers and 20-somethings. They’re all volunteers, whose work in the zine-store-slash-maker-space has helped shape and expand the zine scene in Melbourne. (Before it took up residence inside The Nicholas, Sticky Institute called Campbell Arcade in the Degraves Subway home.)
According to the website, over the years the Sticky Institute’s shelves have held more than 12,000 zine titles from around the world, but most are made here in Melbourne. Many of their pages were typed on the resident free-to-use typewriter, before being photocopied and assembled using the studio’s specialty staplers and guillotines.
The collective is responsible for running and curating the country’s biggest zine swap meet, The Festival of the Photocopier. In 2015, it celebrated more than one million pages photocopied on its machines.
You can drop into the Sticky Institute 12pm–5pm Wednesday to Friday, and 12pm–5pm on Saturdays to browse their collection or get creative yourself.