When Art Deco arrived in Victoria

This article appeared in Spirit of Progress, Journal of the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia, Autumn 2016

As an architecture student in the 1980s, we were taught that the first fully bona-fide Art Deco building in Melbourne was the delightful Yule House designed b Oakley & Parkes, in Little Collins Street. Five storeys of horizontal cream streamlining with green detailing built in 1932, it seems the perfect expression of the new style emerging modestly in the midst of the depression. This was apparently when the style ultimately derived from the famous 1925 Paris Exhibition des Arts & Decoratifs (where the term ‘Art Deco’ comes from), quickly adopted and refined in the United States, first made an appearance in Melbourne.

Years later, during my time working at the National Trust, I noticed that the Manchester Unity building also opened in 1932, and wasn’t that Art Deco ? Then I noticed that the very ornate ‘Jazz Moderne’ style interior of the Block Court Arcade was dated 1929, three years before Yule House, so I thought that it must have been the first example of Art Deco (albeit not an actual building). More recently I was involved in research for the listing by Heritage Victoria of the striking Coles Store in Bourke Street (now David Jones Menswear), also dated 1929, and said to have been influenced by a trip to the US the architect Harry Norris made the same year.[1] These dates meant that Art Deco appeared just before the depression hit, making it something that was a product of the zenith of the 1920s boom, rather than something that arrived during the slow climb out from that disaster. So I decided to properly examine and compare, and see if there really was a ‘first’.

Coles store Bourke St opened march 1930
Coles Bourke Street. Image: Rohan Storey


I had to start of course with trying to define what I was looking for. As an architectural historian, I wanted to find the first complete building (or major new interior) built in the new style that the Exposition was promoting, a new popular, decorative style without any reference to historical forms (early European ‘bauhaus’ modernism of course had already eschewed historicism, but also any kind of decoration).  So, anything that was simply the stylised or simplified classical that was popular in the 1920s was out, or indeed anything that included historical references, and I wanted a complete design, not a building that had some details here and there in what we now refer to as the Art Deco style.

I used what knowledge I had, and the various databases available, to pick out the places built in Victoria around 1930 that we would definitely categorised as Art Deco. Then I used the Trove newspaper searches to find out exactly when they were opened, because the dates given in various databases and studies were different, and possibly incorrect. The results threw up a few surprises.

Firstly, I found that the Block Court Arcade, also designed by the ever versatile Harry Norris, with its richly detailed floor terrazzo, ceiling plasterwork, and patterned metal work window surrounds, opened in October 1930[2], not 1929. Then it turned out that the striking Coles Store, wasn’t 1929 either, opening a bit earlier in March 1930[3] (after some delay, so it probably looked complete even earlier, though its ‘geometrical’ design was only first discussed in June 1929[4]), so that looked promising; except the use of ‘Georgian’ arched windows on the first floor undermined slightly its use of the all-new style.

061 Block Court Arcade
Block Court Arcade terrazzo floor


My search of databases also brought up a building I knew of but hadn’t realised was so early – the Castlemaine Art Gallery, a wonderfully bold example of Art Deco, with blank walls topped by a decorative frieze, which the Heritage Victoria citation said was built in 1930. It was designed by Stephenson & Meldrum, who became famous for introducing fully realised European stark white Modernism with the construction of the Mercy Hospital in East Melbourne some years later in 1934. I had no idea they had produced something so ‘modern’ much earlier. The Gallery as it turned out actually didn’t open until April 1931, and what’s more the grand entrance is flanked by (very) stylised classical pilasters, the sort of historical classical reference I didn’t want to see. But its still a fine building and a contender.

Castlemaine Art Gallery Lovell Chen
Castlemaine Art Gallery, Image: Lovell Chen

Then I remembered the building next to the Regent Theatre, the other side of Regent Place, the laneway of shops that once ran between them. This was prompted by some research I did for the Trust’s “Lost Melbourne” iphone app in 2011, when I looked at what had been demolished for the City Square. A few early photos of the Regent clearly show something Art Deco in the streetscape, which turned out to be called Wentworth House, built on part of the large site purchased by Hoyts for the Regent Theatre. Photos show that construction was underway when the Regent opened in March 1929, and research confirmed that it was designed by Cedric Ballantyne, architect for the fabulous ‘picture palace’ style Regent itself.[5] The major tenant was the Aeolian Company, who took out a full page ad in the Argus when they opened February 24th, 1930, with a large sketch of the new building, and trumpeting their shopfloor of pianos, ‘phonographs’, and radios as “Melbourne’s New Musical Headquarters”.

wentworth magazine i suppose
Wentworth House, source unknown.


To modern eyes it might seem improbable that an architect could design two buildings next to each other in such wildly differing styles but it just shows that Ballantyne, like all interwar architects, were adept at designing in a range of styles, and could change with times. The first announcement for this site was in 1927 as an 11 storey office block, designed in a classic style by Ballantyne to harmonise with the Regent[6]; but the stock market crash happening just as construction finally started, new overseas influences, and perhaps the economy offered by a simpler style, it became a seven level Art Deco building, the same height as the Regent (which made for a better streetscape).

So at one month earlier than Norris’s Coles Bourke Street, have I found my ‘first’ ? Well, looking closely at the best photo which is helpfully provided at a large file size by the State Library, I can see that there’s some clearly classical elements. The central panel features pilasters, albeit very stylised, but then there’s those clearly classical balustrades across the first floor, and a (small) pediment on the parapet. So maybe not the pure Art Deco I was looking for.

There was one more candidate, the SEC building in Flinders Street, designed by the SEC’s architect J A La Gerche, the one with the prominent deep lightwells on the sides. This is one city building with a façade that is definitely all Art Deco; nothing but simple vertical piers, with some projecting panels between, at the top and bottom, and originally a simple single setback top floor (sadly three more floors were added in 1999, ruining the proportions, and with clunky details – and I’d like to know how this happened given it was already at the mandatory 40m height limit).  Thanks to Robin Grow bringing to my attention that it was featured in the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Journal of September 1932, much earlier than I thought. An Argus report from 3 June 1932 tells us it was (or was almost) complete, and that it was begun in 1930, perhaps just before the effects of the depression began to be felt. Interestingly there’s a Herald article from February 1932 showing it not quite complete, which approves of the ‘austerity’ of the design, rather than heralding a new style.[7]

sec 1932
Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Journal, September 1932

So I think this is my ‘first’. The first fully realised bona-fide, pure, Art Deco building in Melbourne (putting aside the interior of the Block Court Arcade). But having gone through all this, does it really matter ? I think the most interesting thing I have learned is that between early 1930 and late 1932, a whole series of buildings appeared in Melbourne (and Castlemaine) that were really like nothing ever seen in this city before, with clean lines, or bold colours, or wildly ‘modernistic’ decorative details, all of them a clear break with the past. The effects of that 1925 Exposition had clearly arrived, and heralded in a new ‘Modern’ style that was to dominate commercial construction and numerous blocks of flats in Melbourne for the next decade at a least.

[1] For instance, 1929 is the date given for the Block Court, Coles Bourke Street and the US trip in the entry for Norris in The Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture, published in 2012.

[2] Block Court Shops to Let, The Argus, 25 October 1930

[3] DAVID JONES STORE (FORMER COLES), Victorian Heritage Database.

[4] Colour Schemes: New and Attractive, The Argus, 5 July 1929

[5] Ballantyne mentioned in ad for heating firm as architect for Wentworth House, Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Journal, March 1931 (via Miles Lewis Architectural Index)

[6] Arcade in Collins Street – Former site of the Argus, The Argus, 20 March, 1927.

[7] Electricity Commission Building Shows Beauty in Austerity , The Herald, 17 February 1932

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