Hollywood on the Yarra

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.

Astor_1936

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:

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Stratton Heights, South Yarra

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Durham Hall, South Yarra

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Granada Mews and Granada Court, South Yarra – check out the groovey lettering

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.

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Dorrington House, South Yarra

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Dorrington House facade

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Pink barley sugar columns

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Intriguing archways and staircases

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.

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Berkley House, Lawson Grove

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).

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Beverley Hills, Darling Street, South Yarra

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Faux Gothic lettering at the entrance

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Balconies of the Beverley Hills flats. The circles with a diagonal cross are a Lawson trademark.

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Bay windows and stone stairways.

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“Ye Olde” swimming pool has little windows below water level.

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.

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Group en route to a fancy dress ball, 1930s. Source: State Library of Victoria

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?

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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.

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30 comments

  1. In the 1980’s I lived at Beverly Hills in the top block on the 5th level in a two bedroom flat for about 6 years. It was wonderful – the apartment had 2 balconies – off the bedroom, and the lounge room – with probably 270 degree views of Melbourne. The tiniest of galley kitchens and each other room with diagonal walls and the odd bay window. The flats were beautifully laid out with an innovative and interesting use of open plan living dining floor space (way before it was popularized). I loved living there – even to the 82 steps (plus the Punt Road hill itself) to my front door. The architect Lawson named the flats for his daughter Beverley – hence the unusual spelling. We always supposed it was a cleverly layered reference that also alluded to tinsel town. Every one who lived there knew and seemed to like almost everyone else and the community as a whole was very aware of the buildings conservation needs.The pool with its roman bridge was hugely popular and very well used in summer, and was always lit at night – I loved looking down on it from my bedroom balcony.

    1. Shelley, I remember the pool also and it had portholes that you could look through at people swimming..I also had many friends who lived in this block, going back to the 60’s… Great memories and parties….

  2. Lawson was also the architect and builder behind the “Garden of Dreams” halfway up Arthur’s Seat on the peninsula – it was eventually demolished only a few years ago. This place was definitely a bright young things haunt with a huge swimming pools and concrete mushroom like shade umbrellas. So like a 30’s art deco film set. An article with excellent pictures, including an ancient one of the Garden, was published about some of Lawson’s projects in “Art and Text” many many years ago by the late Paul Taylor who was at the time a fellow resident in Beverley Hills.

      1. I have to admit my memory is often faulty and I did not check my memory of the garden name. I did drive down Arthur’s seat last night & could not site the garden though .. Is it still there? (I know I was told it had been demolished, and the families I know in the area have no knowledge of its existence)

    1. Thanks for sharing those memories, Shelley, I’m quite envious! And thanks for the reference to the Paul Taylor article. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more written about Lawson, given the extent of his work.

  3. Great photos with good backgrounds. I don’t think I have walked along Lawson Avenue and must do so. Some years ago I did photograph the buildings of Alexandra Avenue. There is a link on my blog.

    1. Thanks Andrew. There’s also a nice cafe hidden away on the ground floor of one of Lawson’s buildings on Lawson Grove (not Avenue – my mistake).

  4. Very interesting – I was fascinated by those apartment blocks when I had a wander up that way. I think they look really quite creepy in a David Lynch kind of way.

    1. Interesting how buildings can inspire different emotional responses! I can see what you mean and at certain times they would be spooky, yes. Maybe a good setting for a Melbourne version of Twin Peaks?

  5. There is also the story of the buildings in Lawson Grove off Caroline St., esp, the now Lawson grove Cafe which was originally a bicycle repair shop. it is one of Melbourne’s hidden treasures.

  6. Great work from you, as always, Nick. I’ve visited Beverley Hills apartments a couple of times and I recognise some of the others from when I’m traipsing around town, but didn’t know the history or anything about Howard Lawson. Thanks a lot.

  7. Thanks for the interesting article. For a small amount of time I owned one of Lawson’s homes on Arthur’s Seat- it was a Beautiful place. I drove up there recently and they had painted it a weird colour and it was very overgrown with garden plants. Sigh.

  8. My aunty lived in The Beverly Hills Apts in the 50’s.
    So did Graeme Kennedys parents.
    I adored the garbage shoot that the garbage went into on each level. Infact my aunty had her family come to visit one evening….to see her plastic ear. True story she lost her ear in a fire. It was the first ear made but we never got to see it as she took it off put it on the ledge in the gally kitchen and it must have fallen into the potatoe peelings on the bench. Yes…it went into the garbage shoot & was incinerated. Never to get another.
    There was the wonderful little shop at the base of the apts that you could shop at. Very kitch in it’s time. Loved the apartment .

  9. I shared a tiny top floor flat at the back of the Dorrington, whilst performing Jesus Christ Superstar at the Palias in the early 70’s, it was owned by a female ballet dancer whos name escapes me, and it was so small the kitchen was a triangular shape and you could stand in the middle of it with one step to the stove , fridge & sink. One day I opened the wood box outside the only entrance door and this huge timber lid broke off and fell down the inner lightwell and stairway to the ground floor, lucky no one was below, it most certainly would have killed them. I do often dream about that place!

  10. I lived in “Kildare” 7/77 Alexandra Ave Sout Yarra and many a famous person lived there while i was there, it also had a back road with a little general store down many hidden steps too. A great time we all had living there in the 1960s.

  11. Interesting that you introduce this with a reference to the depression and destitution experienced in 1930’s Melbourne for at around the same time these lovely apartments were being built one had only to travel a little further up Alexandra Avenue – across Chapel street – to witness the work being done to extend Alexandra Avenue through to Toorak road . The project (financed by Sidney Meyer) provided work for many unemployed men during the depression and encompasses that section of Alexandra Avenue which now runs in the familiar sweeping bend in between the Yarra and Como Park.

    One need only have strolled a little further on from South Yarra’s “Hollywood” to see the other side of the coin.

    1. Thanks John, you make an excellent point. I didn’t know about the extension of Alexandra Ave. The contrast was particularly striking to me as I had just come from Richmond, and had been reading about the impact of the Depression on the factory workers at Rosella, Bryant and May etc. Lawson’s amazing flats were a remarkable contrast to that. (He must have created quite a few jobs himself, I suppose).

      1. Don’t know if this has been mentioned. Lawson and a partner bought up all the land from punt road, along domain road, to darling street (before alex avenue was built as a depression Job creation scheme. A handy pickup, as they say

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