Streets are landscapes of loss. Alongside the buildings and people who currently occupy them, the vehicles, street furniture and signage, there are ghosts of buildings that have been altered or destroyed, traces of businesses that have closed, people who have come and gone, countless variations small and large that are always in process. This is particularly evident in a walk along Chapel Street Prahran.
Chapel Street became a major shopping centre in the 1880s, according to eMelbourne, with trams first running along here in 1888. (It was here that optimistic entrepreneurs built the fabulous Prahran Arcade, which I wrote about in a previous post.) In the early 20th century, a succession of great department stores opened: Love and Lewis, Reads, The Big Store, Maples. The buildings remain, but the stores are long gone, though some have been converted to other uses. Lost with them are those floors of drapery and glass, manchester and pianos, cutlery and furniture, along with the hundreds of staff and millions of customers.
It’s not only buildings and people that come and go: styles in art and architecture are ephemeral too. Lots of buildings along Chapel Street date from around the turn of the 20th century, and manifest the architectural tastes of that period. Art Nouveau was one of the styles in vogue around 1900, but soon fell into disfavour. Around here you can still see traces of the curved forms, natural shapes, ornamental lettering, floral motifs, and whiplash lines that characterised Art Nouveau.
I like the decorative facade of Love and Lewis, built in 1913, once a grand department store, with its slightly curved Art Nouveau lettering. It could do with some restoration, but in the meantime, like much of Chapel Street, it has a faded elegance. Buildings like this are redolent of the kind of confidence that was beginning to surge through Melbourne again in the early 20th century, when the city was the de facto capital of the newly federated Australia. The Great War was soon to occur, with all its horrors: in the meantime, all you need is Love and Lewis.
A bit further up Chapel Street are two shop fronts, next to each other, with beautiful Art Nouveau lettering. ‘Metcher’ looks like a recent reveal, with the evidence of more recent signage over the top. I suspect the lettering of both shops was done by the same signwriter – check out the style of the letter ‘H’.
According to Sands & McDougall street directories, Herbert Metcher had his ‘oil and colour shop’ at 169 Chapel Street from at least 1899 to 1914. He was an ‘importer of paperhangings, oils, colours, glass, and picture mouldings’. All the stuff you might need for your interior designs, in fact. So naturally he needed some classy signage to promote his business. Next door, H. Morris Jones was a furniture salesman, though these days the place is a bar. On a shopping day around 1910, this part of Chapel Street would have thronged with well-heeled customers, earnestly pondering the latest fashionable imports of pictures and furniture.
This turnover of businesses continues today and there’s an interesting mix of small shops along this end of Chapel Street and nearby Greville Street, ranging from pawn shops to hipster record stores, second hand bookshops, guitar shops, piercing studios, bento bars and fashion outlets.
Greville Records is next to another shop whose beautiful gold lettering in the windows points to previous occupants.
This area wasn’t only about retail – there was manufacturing too. Just down the road is The Jam Factory, a major employer up until the 1970s; ghostsigns for other, smaller manufacturers can still be seen here and there, though it’s been a few decades since lollies and biscuits were made here. Those manufacturing businesses and jobs are long lost too.
This ghostsign is a faded reminder of one of the recreations that used to be offered on Chapel Street.
There have been many significant losses on Chapel Street over the years. At least two cinemas have burned down. The big stores have long closed – one of them, Maples, the furniture emporium at the corner of Chapel and High Streets, known as ‘Maples Corner’, has been converted to offices and apartments, but many of the others are basically unused.
Finding some old pictures of Chapel Street at the State Library of Victoria’s website, I wanted to see how much had changed. So I went to the spot where the original photos had been taken and took a 2016 version.
Here is a view of the same scene today, so you can play Spot The Difference.
Maples has had a facelift, with the reinvention of that phallic green glassy tower, the erasure of its name and some of the ornamentation. The Victorian shops on the left have lost their urns and balustrades, and the corner pub’s balcony has gone. The street verandahs and the old clock have been removed/lost/destroyed. Witt & Co druggists is now a vodka bar, which is perhaps not as great a transformation as you might think. The tram is is a tad different too.
Here’s Maples Corner from another angle. This was taken in 1954.
And here it is today. Not a huge amount has changed, but the neon sign reading ‘Maples Corner’ has been lost. You can still see a bit of the Maples ghostsign in the background, behind the pub (which has had a paint job and a name change, probably several), though there’s a tree in the way.
Here’s a closer view of that ghostsign: Maples furniture and pianos.
Another building long lost to Chapel Street is the mighty Colosseum, a popular store that burned down in 1914. Here’s a picture of it in its prime.
And here are some pictures of the Colosseum in flames:
Fire may be the most drastic, but changes in taste, population and the economy are just as effective in the long run, keeping our cities in a constant state of change, of creation, reinvention and loss.
If you enjoyed this story, check out our other stories by suburb.