The 1930s were a tough time for many Melburnians – the Depression resulted in widespread unemployment, destitution, and people living from hand to mouth. But if you were a bright young thing, with money and a liking for the glamorous life, there were various ways to indulge your tastes.
You could read magazines like The Home: The Australian Journal of Quality, published by Sidney Ure Smith, modelled on publications like Harpers Bazaar and Vanity Fair, which offered a sophisticated vision of life to aspiring cosmopolitans.
You could go to the movies at one of Melbourne’s new deco cinemas, like The Astor in Chapel Street.
And you might participate in the new trend, apartment living, that was taking off in Melbourne and Sydney. For many years the ambition of most Australians had been to live in their own home on a block. In the 1930s, apartment living became a trendy option and fashionable young people embraced it – especially in well-heeled suburbs like South Yarra and Toorak. Art critic Basil Burdett wrote, “Melbourne has taken to flats with some of the feverish eagerness of a teetotaller converted to liquor”.
Some of the most spectacular examples of the trend can be seen when you cross the River Yarra at Hoddle Bridge and move from Richmond into South Yarra. The contrast could hardly be starker: behind you are red-brick factories and giant silos, ahead of you on Alexandra Avenue are buildings like this:
They are built in an array of architectural styles, drawing on the moderne, deco, Spanish Mission, Californian, and others. Stratton Heights looks like an ocean liner about to steam off into the river Yarra that it overlooks, while others seem to be set in some unclear but romantic place and time. Most of them are the work of an entrepreneurial architect named Howard Lawson, Melbourne’s most active flat developer of this period, who styled himself “the architect who builds”. And build he certainly did – the most ostentatious apartment blocks around here are the work of Lawson.
Not everyone approved. Traditional architects regarded Lawson’s choices as bizarre parodies of architectural styles. “The fine old Spanish architects would not only turn in their graves but jump out of them with fright.” Modernists, inspired by the Bauhaus style with its clear geometric lines and lack of ornamentation, were equally contemptuous. A young Robin Boyd wrote that the “inglorious reign of the luxury flat” was “as bad from a social viewpoint as it is ridiculous from an aesthetic viewpoint.”
But that seems a bit unfair. Dorrington House, for example, with its decorated cement facade, barley sugar columns, evocative archways and romantic staircases, is worth a long look. Like many of Lawson’s buildings, it was built on a slope, and makes ingenious use of staircases, pillars and balconies.
You would expect that building apartments in South Yarra was a path to a fortune, but Lawson spent most of the 1930s bankrupt, due to unwise investments in theatres and dance halls. Although he didn’t create a business empire, his name lives on in Lawson Grove, which contains more of his buildings.
Wandering up this quiet cul de sac you imagine for a few moments you might be in some unspecified corner of the Mediterranean. The combination of balconies and staircases, the patterns on the balustrades (patterned circles were one of Lawson’s calling cards) even the odd lettering used for the building’s names give them a kind of fictional quality, as if they are places you might see in a film or in a dream. It’s easy to imagine ghosts or time travellers appearing on those balconies, flitting up the steps or through the archways.
Perhaps the most extravagant of Lawson’s creations is Beverley Hills on Darling Street, which consists of two large apartment blocks. The name is obviously meant to evoke the glamour of Hollywood, and perhaps the people who lived here did think of themselves as film stars as they sipped martinis on their balconies or wallowed in “Ye Olde Swimming Pool”.
These days there’s a kind of romantic faded glamour about it, as you ascend long flights of steps between Spanish-style columns and ornamented balconies bedecked with vegetation, until you reach the tiny, circular swimming pool (hardly big enough to swim in, but you could lounge there with a Manhattan I suppose).
Lawson may have been a maverick and a bankrupt. But if an artist is someone who has a vision and follows it through despite opposition, then that’s what he was. There’s a kind of romantic madness about these buildings that sets them apart from anything else. In his eclectic borrowing from different styles, Lawson came up with something that was perversely original.
I think of them haunted by shadowy Bright Young Things, the between-the-wars generation who indulged themselves with cruises, cars and cocktails as the world headed towards disaster.
Not everyone could afford to live in Lawson’s apartments of course, then or now. Many Melburnians of the time were living in sub-standard accommodation. But as an experiment in higher density living they were a fascinating addition to the city. And compared with the kind of nondescript shoddy apartments that we are building by the thousand these days, well, I’d rather live here, wouldn’t you?
Further reading: For this post I have drawn on information and quotes found in Homes In The Sky: Apartment Living in Australia by Caroline Butler-Bowdon and Charles Pickett (2007), Miegunyah Press in association with Historic Houses Trust.
If you enjoyed this post, check out our other stories by suburb.