Wandering North Carlton: modernism and Victoriana

Deciding to spend a little longer in North Carlton, I walked in a mini circle – a circle within the Circle, if you like – in a clockwise direction, roughly around the Melbourne General Cemetery. This part of town is rich in suburban iconography.

Walking north up Royal Parade you pass the sports pavilions of Princes Park. These two pavilions, designed by council architect R. N Belby and built in 1938, are stylish examples of suburban Melbourne modernism, with their clean lines, strong horizontals, the zig-zag wrought-iron gates, the plain but elegant lettering (I like the speed lines on the capital ‘P’) and the stylised heroic athlete over the door.

Figure of a heroic athlete over the entrance

Heroic torch-bearing athlete over the entrance to Princes Park sports pavilions

The overall feel of this suburb, though, is far from modernist. It feels more Victorian than anything – quiet, respectable, and fadedly genteel, with street after street of one-storey terrace dwellings. At 78 Arnold Street I came across a closed milk bar, with a weathered Nestle ghostsign on one wall. The English novelist Nancy Mitford once wrote ‘I often think there is nothing so poignantly sad as old family groups’: I’d replace those last two words with ‘milk bars’.

Rusty poles. Missing timbers. Windows papered up. And yet it can’t be too long since it was still a functioning business – that Pura Milk sign looks fairly new. Will the building find a new life as someone’s home, cafe, or design studio?

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Like so many others in this part of town, the structure dates from the late 19th century. The 1880s was a decade of incredible growth in Melbourne, and vast numbers of houses were built to accommodate a population that doubled in a decade, from a quarter to half a million. At that time Victoria had the highest rate of home ownership in the British Empire. In the inner northern suburbs such as Carlton North, many of those houses still survive.

Given the speed with which they were constructed, it’s maybe not surprising that so many of them look so similar, with pediments adorned with a shell motif, decorative wrought iron, or little urns along the roofline. It’s as if the houses are saying to their occupants: you can have a bit of ornament, but don’t expect anything special.

Victorian terrace housing in Carlton North.

Victorians liked to give their houses names, and I make a note of some as I wander through these back streets. Sometimes the names make reference to places in Ireland, Scotland or England – Moneyduff, Belleek, Bridge of Allan, Stockport, Congleton, Chester – perhaps a sign of nostalgia on the part of the builder?  Others namecheck towns in Victoria or elsewhere in Australia: Taripta, Moorilim, Edenhope, Esperance. Others, who knows where they came from? Carissima, Malmora, Thomana, Fernshaw, Clarice, Clarion, Ingle Nook, Ellerslie, Waverley, Eldon.

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Sometimes the builders really went to town and created a pediment so ornate it would belong on a wedding cake. This is the kind of over-the-top ornamentation that was much despised by modernist architects.

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Contrast the look of this building with the Princes Park sports pavilion built around 50 years later. All those frills and curlicues were swept away by the clean horizontal lines of modernism. I see their point but this still has a kind of crazy charm. It also manifests a grandiose ambition which many people seem to have felt during that era. It was a time when anything was possible, you could remake yourself any way you wanted, and if that meant a fancy great pediment befitting a classical temple, then you could bloody well have one.

But the optimism couldn’t last. The massive building boom of the 1880s led to a housing bubble which resulted in a catastrophic economic crash in the early 1890s, from which the city took years to recover. It’s a pattern repeated many times in the city’s history and there’s something wearily familiar about the talk of property bubbles that we are currently hearing.

One of the pleasures of this walk through the Melbourne suburbs is the way that unexpected connections can be made. Turning down Lygon Street, I spied a familiar figure, transparent and half hidden, on a brick wall at the end of yet another Victorian terrace (built 1888). He was lurking from view behind encroaching vegetation but I picked out his distinctive silhouette. So, my old friend, we meet again.

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There’s not much left of him, but that oddly-shaped spiky-haired head with the word ‘won’t’ beside it is a giveaway. It’s reminiscent of a similar, better-preserved ghostsign I saw a few weeks ago in Abbotsford Street, North Melbourne. This is the faded remains of an advertisement for Monkey Brand soap, which featured a monkey in a suit and the slogan ‘Won’t wash clothes but will clean metal and woodwork’.

At the time I saw the Abbotsford Street example, I wondered if any more monkeys were hidden around Melbourne. The sign probably dates from the early years of the 20th century, or possibly even earlier, and time has now washed it away to no more than a silhouette, with most of what remains hidden behind the plants. (For more on Monkey Brand, see my previous story Layers of ghosts on Abbotsford Street).

I’m reminded, too, of the monkeys kept by the great utopian and eccentric E.W. Cole in his mansion in Essendon after his retirement. (See my earlier story, Mansions and monkeys in Essendon). Perhaps after his death and the closure of the monkey house, his monkeys slipped away and concealed themselves in quiet corners like this, only to be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, a playful, elusive presence on a suburban street.

Map of the walk so far on Google Maps

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One comment

  1. I remember that Milk Bar well. I went to school right opposite at Princes Hill Secondary College. When I was there (1994-1999) it was a thriving business we used to call “Boss’s shop”, run by an old Greek couple simply known as “Boss”. They sold hot takeaway and most kids bought their lunch there instead of the actual school canteen. Getting your order in was like the 6 O’Clock swill, if you didn’t get aggro you would miss out! I used to get a bag of hot chips there for $1 every lunch time.

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