Every now and then as I walk the suburban streets of Melbourne I see something that stops me in my tracks. It happened again at 282 Chapel Street, Prahran, between Princes and Walker Streets, when I glanced up and noticed a three-storey building, a bit faded and the worse for wear, but unmistakeably special. It looked as though it should have been standing on a boulevard in Paris, rather than in a Melbourne suburb, among standard Victorian two-storey shops, plastered with signage for JB Hifi, which occupies the entire ground floor.
This building’s facade was extravagant, with 17 archways looking onto the street from the second and third storeys, columns and balconies, carved eagles, and a dizzying assortment of shells and other ornamentation. Clearly, it had once been a special place – but today it’s a shadow of its former self.
Keen to know what I was dealing with, I went into JB HiFi and had a stickybeak around. Lifting my eyes above the displays of One Direction and Breaking Bad I could see a high, vaulted roof, more archways, and elegant cast ironwork. Clearly, this was no private house. The realisation dawned on me: it was a former shopping arcade. Like a flaneur – one of those dilettante wanderers of the 19th century – I strolled along the aisles, craning my neck upwards, bumping into display boxes every few steps, trying to picture what used to be here.
High up, on one of the inside windows, a faded, dusty man in the moon smiles down at the shoppers, unnoticed by practically all. Is he a surviving relic of the building’s Victorian origins, or a more recent addition? Did he peek into the oyster saloon, or spy on users of the Turkish bath?
These days, Chapel Street is a pretty interesting mix, where New Age crystal vendors rub shoulders with boutiques, op shops, bars, second-hand bookshops, arts spaces and vintage dealers. But for many years it was a centre of mainstream retail to rival Bourke Street. Large department stores – The Big Store, Love and Lewis, and Read’s furniture and drapery – still proudly proclaim their names to passing pedestrians although the retailers that bore those names have long gone. “To swing a bicycle down the pulsing canyon of Chapel Street was to discover the heady delights of metropolitan glamour,” wrote Graham McInnes in his autobiographical The Road to Gundagai.
But before there were department stores, there were arcades.
The early-to-mid nineteenth century was the golden age of shopping arcades. These fantastic creations of glass, marble and wrought iron, stuffed full of luxury goods, silk and satin, rubies and chocolates, corsets and carpets, were enchanted palaces to the shoppers of western cities. During this era, the fetish of the commodity rose to new heights. Walter Benjamin, the philosopher who made a study of shopping arcades, wrote that they represented “the enthronement of the commodity and the glitter of distraction around it.”
Melbourne was not immune to the international craze, though we got into it a bit late. Ever since the Great Exhibition of 1880 – for which the Royal Exhibition Building was built – middle-class Melburnians had displayed a voracious appetite for luxury goods, especially when imported. Only a handful of arcades survive in Victoria, the finest of which are the Block Arcade (built around the same time) and Royal Arcade in the CBD. But a few were built in the suburbs as well – and of these, the most significant was the Prahran Arcade.
The architectural style which had struck me on first glance – those columns! The ornamentation! The statues! The eagles! – is known as Second Empire, popular in France during Napoleon III’s rule (1852-70). Paris was the epitome of the sophisticated shopping city, the centre of luxury and fashion, and its arcades were a marvel: so it was fitting that this flamboyant style was chosen by Melbourne architect George McMullen when he designed an arcade intended to rival those of Paris, London and New York.
The photograph above, taken early in the building’s career, shows that it used to have a mansard roof with towers, which would have added even further to the visual impact. At some stage, though, it was scalped. There also used to be some intriguing sculpted figures on either side of the front door. If they are still there today, they are hidden behind JB’s signage.
I don’t have any photos of what the Prahran Arcade looked like inside in 1890, alas. Perhaps it was meant to resemble Royal Arcade, but even bigger and better.
The building’s opening on 31 July 1890 was celebrated with a banquet organised by the owner, Mrs Elizabeth Delaney. The original occupants included around 30 shops and a Turkish baths, billiard rooms, a restaurant, an oyster saloon (surely it’s time they made a comeback?) and the splendid Arcade Club Hotel.
But the timing was poor. In 1890, Melbourne was entering a prolonged recession, brought about by rampant property speculation during the previous decade. Banks closed, businesses went to the wall, unemployment spiralled. Within a year, Mrs Delaney had lost control of the arcade, whose ownership passed to The Caledonian and Australian Finance Agency. The architect, George McMullen – hitherto successful and prolific – was named insolvent.
Thereafter, the arcade took on a different life to the one imagined by its creators. During the early 20th century it was occupied by organisations such as the Theosophical Society, the Independent Workers’ Union and the Melbourne and Suburban Fuel Men’s Association. In the 1920s, renamed The Centreway – a name still visible in an entrance mosaic as you walk in – the arcade was home to the Centreway Disposals Co, Eterna Shirts and Blue Jay Manufacturing. By that time, the era of arcades had passed, and department stores were the new big thing. A photograph of the interior of the arcade taken in the 1950s shows it as a rather lonely, depressing place.
In the 1960s the arcade became Dan Murphys, which occupied the whole ground floor for several decades. This was in the days when Dan Murphy actually ran the place himself, in the process teaching a generation of Melburnians about wine. According to the signage, there were’personal observers keeping constant watch’ for shoplifters. I imagine sharp-faced men in trenchcoats lurking behind those upper arches.
In the 1980s, the National Trust carried out a survey of the building – which is when the photos below were taken, showing the romantic, faded baroque stylings of the upper storeys.
In the 1970s-90s, the upper storeys of the arcade took on another lease of life as the home of artists and musicians. Howard Arkley, the great documenter of Melbourne suburbia, had a studio here, in a building as architecturally different as could be imagined from the humble suburban houses he immortalised in his work. The Birdland recording studio, run by Lindsay Gravina, operated here in the 1990s, from which many classics of Australian rock music emerged by the likes of Eskimo Joe, Spiderbait and Magic Dirt.
The conservation officer of the National Trust, Rohan Storey, concluded the assessment of the building with: “The Prahran Arcade is one of the three most significant arcades in Victoria, and probably the second most architecturally significant” – after The Block Arcade. However, it was never very successful as an arcade, which is perhaps to be regretted, although for some years it did play an important part in suburban life as the home of retailers, community organisations and artists of various stripes.
It seems unlikely that the Prahran Arcade will rise again in the near future. But it still retains its capacity to astonish. And who knows, perhaps one day the small shops will return, and the arcade will once again echo with the feet of flaneurs strolling from Turkish bath to oyster saloon.
Many thanks to the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) for their assistance with this story.
If you enjoyed this story, check out our other stories by suburb.