Picking up the walk at the corner of Commercial Road and Tyrone Street, on the border between South Yarra and Prahran, we headed east towards one of the busier shopping areas in the Melbourne suburbs – as the name Commercial Road implies. This is an area where the past seems particularly alive. The area still contains many traces of former days, from Victorian buildings to art nouveau styling to ghostsigns.
A Victorian shop at 217 Commercial Road has a rakish air due to having lost one of its urns (there should be another one top right). This would once have been a rather smart building but now it’s lost a couple of teeth and has an embarrassing bald spot.
The faded name in red is Tintara, one of Australia’s oldest wineries, though I don’t recall seeing its name on other ghostsigns (unlike, say, Penfolds, which occurs frequently). Tintara was set up in 1867 in McLaren Vale, South Australia, by a doctor named Alexander Kelly. (The relationship between medicine and alcohol is interesting, as I noted in my previous post. A lot of Australian wineries were originally set up by doctors to produce medicinal products. Only later did they evolve into companies whose products were purely recreational, and even these days, every few days there’s a new article solemnly debating the health benefits of alcohol).
The two blue signs below Tintara are a little harder to read. One is Fosters Lager, the other some kind of stout. Presumably this was once a bottle shop. But according to my 1946 Sands & McDougall, Murphys wine shop (any relation to Dan?) was – confusingly – at number 215a, and Crooks grocers was at 217-9. Anyway, you could get grog somewhere around here.
Continuing along Commercial Road, we came across several other ghostsigns from various eras.
You can imagine these different timezones existing alongside each other, the fading memories of the street. Smart motorists in 1920s gear speed off on a new set of tyres, perhaps stopping at Murphys bottle shop to pick up a case of Tintara. Bingo players in Edna Everage glasses hurry to their weekly bingo game: Kelly’s Eye, Legs Eleven! And Lefevre the master plumber leaps into his van, on the trail of some gasfitting emergency.
I believe the Prahran Bingo Centre is still a going concern, though many bingo centres around the suburbs have closed. I’ve seen their sad facades on my travels, the bingo callers silenced, the crowds dispersed.
The accoutrements of bingo make for appealing design items – a friend has this piece in his studio. (Picked up for $5, apparently).
After crossing Chapel Street, passing the arts space Chapel off Chapel, we reached Princes Gardens. This recreational area has expanses of grass, trees, skate ramps and a street art mural. But my eye was drawn to the impressive gates at the entrance, which bear the name ‘Illawarra’.
You might think, as I first did, that there used to be a mansion here. But there is no house in sight.
In fact, as Miles Lewis’s database of Melbourne Mansions informs us, Illawarra was never at this location. That magnificent Boom Style mansion was (and is) on Illawarra Crescent, Toorak, where today it is part of St Catherine’s School. Its gates were bought by Stonnington Council and dedicated in 1924 as the entrance to Princes Park. Oddly, the new owners did not remove the name. This is a ghostsign of an unusual kind: it’s not that ‘Illawarra’ has gone, it’s just in a different suburb.
Gates of great houses pop up from time to time in unexpected places. Not long ago, in Lonsdale Street, I came across the entrance to a long-gone city mansion, ‘Rostella’, even older than ‘Illawarra’. The gates are all that remain, an anachronistic survivor amid the glass towers and urban cappuccino spots of the CBD.
Do they dream, these old gates, of the houses that they once guarded, of the horses and carriages that used to come and go, the glittering balls, the liveried servants?
There is no shortage of smart houses in South Yarra, of course. Not far from Malvern Road, among the residential streets, without looking too hard you can find heritage mansions, Victorian cottages, and elegant terraces.
The architectural triumphs of the current era are a bit different. Gigantic developments are sprouting like mushrooms on steroids. One example is on the corner of Toorak Road and Chapel Street, South Yarra, where the 1930s Capitol Bakery is now being demolished and 38 storeys-worth of new apartments – or rather, ‘six-star lifestyle destinations’, as the marketing blurb has it – are on the way up, in the process dwarfing the house next door, which has survived somehow, ‘The Castle’ style. Once grand, it is now almost insignificant.
These examples of old architecture, like the faded signage, and lingering names of vanished houses, are part of the memory of the suburbs. Often overlooked or disregarded, they return to life when we pay attention to them. Below the shouting and trumpeting of today’s advertising hype, older voices are still whispering.