by Lucia Nardo
The first time I entered the Yarra Coffee Palace was late 1961. Our family had been forced to move from our rented home in Williamstown with its large productive garden. The Palace, with its faded name painted high on the front façade, was altogether different. The dark interior of the building smelled of mould and was layered in dust. Instead of a garden, the land behind the property sported a dilapidated stable, complete with rusted tools and a horse cart. I’d never seen wheels that big on anything. To a small child, used to a compact home, it was confusing and intriguing. This abandoned incarnation of the Yarra Coffee Palace was dense with untold stories. Even at the age of six, I wondered about the people who’d stayed there when it had been a temperance hotel.
There were small remnants of that history: a huge red velvet framed mirror hung over one of the fireplaces and all about were pieces of broken furniture on unsealed wooden floors. There was no kitchen in the building so we used the one at the rear of the milk bar next door that my parents ran. Empty except for a sink and a tired Kookaburra oven, the kitchen was forlorn as its neighbour. The bathroom-come-laundry was external. We had to boil hot water in a corner copper and we bathed in a claw-foot iron bath, while cold wind blew under the gaps between the stone floor and the wooden slats of the walls. The property had no electricity supply and for the first few months our nights were lit by candles. Entry to the building was gained via one of two doors directly on the street. These were flagged by tessellated tiles and opened into one cavernous room, for which we hadn’t yet found a use. We called it The Big Room. We cleaned out the rubbish from the entire building, eventually had the electricity connected and set up to live austere lives in the few small rooms behind it.
Yet our lives weren’t short of richness. The Yarra Coffee Palace of my time was flanked by the diverse and colourful residents of Stephen Street, dominated by one large Italian family that had spread over several houses in the nearby blocks, as its many daughters married and moved away (thereby still managing to stay close to home). My parents, through their presence in the milk bar, inadvertently became central to the community, and Dad, who could speak three languages, acted as an interpreter for the entire area. People called on him with all types of problems. Some of these were tame: translating letters, assisting with completing forms, questions about where to go for what. Others were more dramatic.
One day, one of our Italian neighbour’s many daughters came running into the shop, hysterical that her house was on fire, with her infant son trapped inside. Dad sprinted to the house, and fighting through the flames, managed to get the baby out safely. The house was completely destroyed, leaving the family of two adults and five children with nowhere to live.
Dad offered them the front section of the Yarra Coffee Palace, rent free, for the time it took to rebuild their home. He erected temporary walls to divide the space into bedrooms and a lounge. It wasn’t an elegant arrangement, but it was a generous one. The family ate meals and used the bathroom of the neighbour’s mother, who lived a few doors down. (She had been unable to accommodate them fully with six of her children still at home.)
Although it’s not my father’s nature to fuss, why his bravery in snatching the child to safety was never recognised officially remains a mystery to me.
By the time we left the Yarra Coffee Palace some twenty years later, the front facade had long been replaced. The bullnose verandah had gone, as had the barn and the lovely mirror— smashed during the renovations. Dad had installed a kitchen, bathroom and laundry. The Big Room that had housed our neighbours had been converted into a small self-contained unit, where my sister spent the first eight years of married life. Yet, despite our basic internal refurbishment, the Yarra Coffee Palace remained a place of architectural potential and uncovered history. Fittingly, when the new owners took possession, one of the first things they did was have the signage repainted to its former sharp definition.
I drive past the building on a regular basis, triggering fond memories of the lifelong friends I established while living there, and my life in simpler times. Most importantly, I remember gratefully the priceless lesson I learned about kindness and generosity from my father when he temporarily returned the Yarra Coffee Palace to its hospitable roots.
Lucia Nardo is a Melbourne writer. Visit Lucia’s website.