Picking up my walk from Sydney Road, Brunswick, I headed east along Blyth Street as far as Nicholson Street. Turning south, at number 136A I came across a small brick building with the words ‘Dairy & Milk Bar’ in art deco lettering, moulded out of concrete. That tells us that the building is most likely late 1930s.
The style of the lettering, rounded and chunky with a vertical line through each letterform, set me thinking about other places around Melbourne where I’ve seen this kind of signage. It is reminiscent of the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, built in 1938 when the deco style was at its height in Melbourne.
There’s more moulded concrete deco lettering on the Army Medical Corps drill hall in A’Beckett Street in the CBD, also from the late 1930s.
I saw a similar style on a restored train carriage at the Newport railyards a year or so ago.
You would expect deco styling on a ritzy train carriage or a new cinema, since deco was generally associated with the world of glamour and style, but I’m happy to find it surviving on a suburban milk bar as well (obviously it’s a private dwelling these days, so I didn’t pop in for a litre of unskimmed and a Mars bar).
My Sands & McDougall street directory tells me that in 1946, Mrs Lazarus ran the dairy at 136A Nicholson Street. It may have been a small business but Mrs Lazarus was playing her part in an international design movement. It would be interesting to know when the deco milk bar closed, and if there’s any more deco styling inside.
More deco design can be found on Lygon Street. This baby health centre is at 320.
And there’s an eye-catching apartment block, probably built around 1940, over the road at 301. It was out of the ordinary for Lygon Street, which was mainly a retail and manufacturing strip rather than residential.
Apartment living caught on in some parts of Melbourne during the 1930s. Many flats were built, often with a consciously stylish aesthetic (like the Cairo flats in Fitzroy) and I always enjoy coming across them. I like the combination of red brick and cream on the facade of these flats, and the nautical curves on the balconies. The section in the middle is for a stairwell, and there’s a cool vertical fin at the top.
Who would have lived here in the 1940s? My Sands & McDougall street directory (1946) simply reads ‘flats’. You’d like to imagine the people who lived here were slightly outside the suburban mainstream, people with an interest in modern style and an international perspective. Artists, writers, architects. They could have taken their babies, if they had any, to the baby health centre, and picked up their milk from Mrs Lazarus’s deco milk bar …
Next door to the flats, a demolition has revealed the bright vestiges of a ghostsign. Only a few letters are visible – a huge red UR, and an arrow with the word ‘better’ – but to the experienced eye this crossword clue is enough to give away that we are looking at the remains of a Robur Tea sign, with its slogan ‘Better tea, better gifts’.
Robur Tea was a popular brand for many decades, hence signs can be found all over Melbourne, and Brunswick is particularly rich in them. There’s another one not too far away at the corner of Overend and Church Streets. The wall is very faded and a real test of the eyes. A Robur sign is visible, lower right. What else? (Click on the pic to make it bigger).
I reckon I can also make out the name ‘Bruce’ and words ‘Cash grocer’. The rest of the wall gives the impression that it was covered in signs at one point, but time and weather have done their job and nearly everything has washed away. We can imagine the brands that might have been visible here – Bushells tea, McAlpins flour, perhaps Ecks lemonade or Velvet Soap. Now, almost nothing. Even the faint taste of Robur may be gone in a few more years. This is what happens when ghostsigns are completely exposed to the elements.
I imagine a time lapse photograph of the wall over the course of a century or so – bright new signs appear then fade, are replaced by new names, one on top of the other, as the shop changes hands and its occupants move on: blue names on red, white on black, like postage stamps on an envelope, until at a certain point the wall is left to itself and the signs melt away to nothing. In a way, a blank or nearly blank wall is more evocative than one whose signs survive.
Ghostsigns that still look bright today tend to be those that were covered up by neighbouring buildings, then unexpectedly revealed again decades later, which provide a different kind of pleasure – the sense of rediscovery.
There’s a good example of that at 296 Lygon Street, almost opposite the deco house, where a Dunlop tyres sign reappeared recently. Unfortunately it’s been vandalised but you can still see the bright colours.
To get a better look at the Mobil sign before it was defaced, check out the great set of photos taken by ghostsign spotter Stefan Schutt on his blog Finding the Radio Book. Stefan is a Robur tea expert so have a look at his Robur signs while you are there.
Not far away, in the side streets to the west of Lygon Street, there are some more recent additions to the walls, in form of galleries of street art. At one point I thought of calling this blog Stories on Walls and you could use these images as the starting point for many kinds of narrative – fairy tales, fantasy, erotica, surrealism, political satire. My own favourites are by Baby Guerrilla, whose flying lovers, families and musicians enhance walls in Footscray, the CBD, Brunswick and many more.
How long will these survive, I wonder? I doubt they will be around as long as the Robur or Dunlop signs, but it’s interesting to speculate what future generations might make of Tony Abbott in his speedos astride a missile named ‘Irony’.
For an extensive collection of pictures of deco buildings from around Australia and the world, check out Art Deco Buildings.