Flinders Street Ballroom
Flinders Street Station, Melbourne
The ballroom at Flinders Street Station is at the end of the line – the final door at the close of a long hallway that almost spans the distance from St Kilda Road to Kings Way. If you consider the heart of this transient building – the foot traffic on the steps, the changing face on the clock tower, the people filing through on the way to work in the morning – the ballroom presents a strange anomaly.
Here, in the centre of Melbourne, in one of our most iconic buildings, it’s a room that has remained largely abandoned for more than 40 years.
Inside the ballroom, this strange history rings true. In the time that this room has been abandoned – since the last weekend dance class for teenage boys and girls in the early 1970s (although, it was used for a time as a theatrette in the late 1980s) – Melbourne has felt the reverberations of environmental disasters, recessions and great technological advancements. Ironically, the only thing that connects the ballroom to modern Melbourne is the glare from an LED billboard outside on the corner of Elizabeth Street. But even then, the light dissipates through the dust on the windows.
Alas, part of the floor in the ballroom has given way to time, but the design – with its cavernous curved rooftop, wonderfully detailed concrete façade, timber floors and pressed tin ceiling – still remains. It’s an intensely beautiful space, punctuated by that lingering sense of time and isolation. At the back of the main room, there is a burnt out stove, clusters of beer bottles with faded labels and a small staircase up to the mezzanine. Looking from the doorway you see the mezzanine stage, jutting out towards the centre of the dance floor. It was used by musicians in the early part of last century, and in the surrounding rooms you find instruments that have gathered dust: retired kick drums, tambourines and brass pieces that made up the in-house backline.
Flicking through photos in the abandoned gymnasium (the penultimate door in the hallway), you gain yet a deeper sense of the building’s past. It remained a part of the Victorian Railways Institute until the mid 1980s, used by employees of the railway after work hours. Two ropes hang from the ceiling in the centre of the room, which used to hold gymnastic equipment. Our guide tells us that they held boxing matches up there some weekends, charging an entry fee at the door. At lunchtime the employees would make their way out of the gymnasium and up to the rooftop, which occupies a vast space at the foot of the steeples. So large was the space, that they were able to run a mile by doing four laps from the one end of the station rooftop to the other.
Only 10 lucky Melburnians will have the chance to see the building at Open House Melbourne. But some day soon, when the state government commits the funding and announces a winner of six shortlisted entries in the $1 million redesign competition, the ballroom at Flinders Street Station will, hopefully, be restored to its former glory.
Russell Place Substation
Russell Place, between Little Collins Street and Bourke Street, Melbourne
When the Russell Place Substation was built in 1882, Melbourne became only the third city in the world to provide public electricity. So in a roundabout way, Russell Place drove the city’s development, providing the first flicker of incandescent light to public buildings, private properties and theatres in Bourke and Swanston Streets.
One of those lights glows as you walk in the entrance, a nondescript green doorway in Russell Place. The machinery is located down several flights of stairs, and when you get there, along with sensing a drop in temperature, you feel an immediate connection to Melbourne’s winding underbelly. Four floors below the street, the Russell Place Substation shakes with a gentle hum and supplies the city with almost 10 per cent of its power.
Each of the five rooms in the main chamber houses a combination of large, oil cooled transformers, circuit breakers and 6.6 KV switchgear machines that harness and redistribute raw, veracious power. The infrastructure has hardly changed since it was last upgraded in 1949, 20 years after the Melbourne City Council took over from The Australian Electric Co. In that time, however, Russell Place has moved from a continuously manned installation to an unmanned, completely underground substation.
In one room, where the sound of the surrounding machines is particularly dull, you see a row of circuit breakers that have individual street names on them. If there’s ever an issue with the power, they use the 70-year-old machines to isolate the damage and turn off sections on the grid.
Taking the walk downstairs and into the substation is a worthwhile experience, and the mix of lofty concrete slabs, iron machinery and electricity makes it rather photogenic too.
Mission to Seafarers
717 Flinders Street, Docklands
Combining two distinct design styles, the Arts and Crafts movement and the Spanish mission revival, the Mission to Seafarers is part of a story that is seldom told in Melbourne. If you’ve driven the length of Flinders Street towards the Docklands, then you’ve certainly seen it from the street, although you may not have realised what it is. Designed by a progressive architect named Walter Butler in 1916, the space is still used by sailors who’ve returned to land after long stints at sea.
While at times in the early part of last century, seamen would wander in from their ships at night time and drink at the bar, today it is part of a global support network for seafarers, who use the Melbourne chapter as their first port of call in Melbourne. Inside, seafarers can exchange money, use the internet and call family overseas.
But sadly, it is being used less and less, and the nature of the space is changing. Themed and decorated in Arts and Craft design style and taking inspiration from the architectural movement in California and Mexico in the late 1890s, The mission has a plethora of interesting spaces that are available to rent to the public.
On the Docklands side, there’s a large concrete dome, which has been turned into a gallery space. It was part of the original building from 1916, used as a gymnasium. On the other side there are sleeping quarters, a large sitting garden and an ornate chapel, which features stained glass windows that tell stories of seafarers lost at sea and crafted joinery by Robert Prenzel.
Open House Melbourne 2013 runs Saturday July 27 and Sunday July 28, allowing the public access to 111 of the city’s most significant and interesting buildings.