Continuing south down Hotham Street, we reached the point at which East St Kilda becomes the small suburb of Ripponlea. On Glen Eira Road are various shops and small businesses, and traces of previous ones, that aroused our interest. Two buildings in particular caught our eye, though their fates have been quite different.
At the corner of Hotham Street and Glen Eira Road is quite a weird building. At ground level it’s a milk bar, plastered with all the usual signage for phone companies and newspapers. Above that, at second storey level, are red roofs and brick detailing suggestive of the Edwardian era, perhaps even (if you are generous) the Arts and Crafts style. On the corner is a toilet roll-shaped turret, with an inelegant flat roof slapped on top. If you look past all the crap at ground level, it’s quite an ambitious edifice.
When you look closely at the signage (two light boxes that have seen better days), you can make out the building’s name: Top Shop. But the light boxes are obviously a later addition. From a quick glance back at my 1946 Sands & McDougall directory, this used to be a confectionery shop. Given that it is still a milk bar and general store today, it may always have been that kind of business. I doubt it had anything to do with the fashion chain of that name, but who knows. Maybe there used to be a separate shop at the top, in that now shabby turret?
Crowning the composition, on the south wall a giant Coke can stands atop a rusty roof. Robin Boyd wrote long ago in The Australian Ugliness that Melbourne buildings often have some kind of unsuitable ‘feature’ stuck on them, which is certainly the case here. But you have to admire the boldness of the statement. What does this house need? A big Coke can!
Places like this arouse my curiosity. I haven’t seen anything quite like it in my travels around Melbourne. As I was standing and gazing, a local walked past and said cheerfully, “Horrendous, isn’t it?” Certainly, the air of neglect and the crass advertising make Top Shop less than stylish. But such oddities give me a sense of affection for whoever created them. You feel that it’s a building with some stories. Once, this strange corner building was someone’s dream. Who built it and named it? And why didn’t they find a better way to roof that corner turret?
Traces of other businesses can be seen when you turn right down Glen Eira Road and head towards the railway line. A little further down is a ghostsign for the Australian Leadlight Company.
Next door is the Village Garage with a good-looking gallery of hand painted signage, inviting motorists to get a ‘Safety Check’ on the ‘Same day’.
A little further down, there is a very faded ghostsign reading ‘Bootmaker’ at 66 Glen Eira Road. You can just make it out if you look carefully. The name above defeats me. I wonder if his boots lasted as long as his signage?
Almost opposite, at 73 Glen Eira Road, is one of the jewels of this part of town: Brinsmead Pharmacy, with its name still partially visible in a ghostsign. Unlike its near neighbour Top Shop, Brinsmead is a remarkably well-preserved Edwardian shop, still sporting many of its original features. To walk into Brinsmead is to get an impression of what it was like to visit a pharmacy of the era – which it continued to be until just a few years ago, although these days it is a florist. The spectacular mirrored display cases with stained glass and leadlighting are now a showcase for flowers, but you can still see various accoutrements of the chemist’s trade.
The architects of the shop were the well-known Melbourne firm of Sidney Smith & Ogg, with leadlighting by Thomas Duff and Bros, who were responsible for the stylish glass domes beside the door.
Inside it’s even more spectacular:
On the side wall of Brinsmead a couple of ghostsigns are visible. One of them, above a painted sign for Kodak film, a line of business which has disappeared from almost all chemists over the past decade, shows the name of C.F. Johnson, pharmacist here from the 1930s to the 1980s. The other, partially obscured, hints enigmatically at a product you once could buy: ‘Brinsmead’s In … Gives Pr …’.
The advertisement reminds us of the days when pharmacists used to make their own special products on the premises. It’s said that a hand lotion first made by Brinsmead in the 1920s was still on sale there in the 1980s. Some customers had probably been moisturising with Brinsmead’s lotion all that time.
But what was the remedy advertised on the wall? I stand there for a few minutes, trying to complete the words. Brinsmead’s indigestion remedy gives prolonged relief? Brinsmead’s incredible powder gives prompt results? Brinsmead’s indestructible corset gives protection beyond belief?
Here are some pictures of Brinsmead when it was still a chemist, a few decades ago.
Not far away, another ghostsign advertises ‘Summer drinks’. The faded words ‘Confectionery Palace’ are just about visible above. Like the Top Shop, this must have been a confectionery shop (of which Melbourne used to have thousands).
Top Shop and Brinsmeads, probably built at roughly the same time, and both intended to be quite special buildings in their day, have suffered very different fates. One has fallen into neglect and is a local eyesore, the other is celebrated as one of the most beautiful surviving Edwardian shops in Victoria.
Beauty is a subjective matter, of course. Brinsmeads is easy to admire, but Top Shop with its weird architectural features, vestiges of advertising and sense of decay has a crazy charm. It seems to embody the constant change and precarious existence of small businesses at the heart of shopping strips like this.
More about the history of Brinsmead courtesy of St Kilda Historical Society and Heritage Victoria.
The bootmaker on Glen Eira Road may have been a Mr Bennett, my friends father, long ago, maybe late 70’s
‘Pity the sign for Australian Leadlight Co. wasn’t in leadlight. Brinsmead is a beauty (all that leadlight) but there’s more narrative in Top Shop, isn’t there? As you suggest: dreams dashed perhaps, hopes boarded up like three-ply on a window. I’ve seen a small ‘COOL SUMMER DRINKS’ sign in West Brunswick, on the corner of a shop. Nick. Have a photo here in the study. Cheers.
Hi Vin, Yes, the Top Shop is reminiscent (on a smaller scale) of the Prahran Arcade, where grand commercial visions poignantly faded and decayed.
The Australian Leadlight Co. sign must still have been current after the 8th of May 1995, since that is when Melbourne phone numbers added a 9.
Yes, the absence or presence of the ‘9’ is often a useful clue.
Hi Nick. Fascinating blog. As a past resident of Ripponlea, I suggest that you chat to John in the Fish and Chip shop – he has been there many years and will no doubt, be able to avail you of certain details pertaining to the strip.
Thanks Marcus, always good to find a knowledgeable local contact!
What a fabulous blog. I often wander around different areas of Melbourne looking at buildings and signs and gardens and oddities. It’s great to see lovely pictures and read good writing from someone doing the same thing.
Thank you Vanda, glad you are enjoying the blog. Yes, the Melbourne suburbs are rich in signs and oddities, there’s always something to enjoy.
I lived in Ripponlea in the 1970s and ‘Top Shop’ was a milk bar then run by a Greek family who lived upstairs on the second floor. It didn’t have all the advertising then and I’m sure the flat roof on the tower is a later addition to replace the original. I’ve seen it described elsewhere as an Arts and Crafts building. I think some of the window frames have been replaced recently and I just wish whoever owns it would restore it to what must have been its previous charm.
Top Shop was originally a large Milk Bar in the 1970’s. Later in the 70’s the end of the Milk Bar facing Hotham St was partitioned and fitted with fryers and a separate entrance was installed and sold fish and chips/take away food. Sometime in the mid or late 1980’s after it closed down, the whole shop was gutted and fitted out as a Seven Eleven. The old Top Shop signs were originally Seven Eleven signs. Diagonally opposite Top Shop on the corner was also another Milk Bar in the 1970’s with an entrance on the corner. I think that closed in the late 1970’s (I think it was a dentist when I left Melbourne in 2015). Five Milk Bars existed in Ripponlea in the mid 1970’s. Another Milk Bar existed around the corner at 15 Glen Eira Avenue. I think that also closed in the late 1970’s. The Hairdresser/barber next to Brinsmead Pharmacy was run by Joe Bonnici, he started working there in 1970 and now his son, Andre works there. I remember Mr Johnson at Brinsmead. Opposite there use to be 3 banks in Ripponlea. A Commonwealth Bank, a State Bank and ANZ. Now there are none. I think the restaurant Attica is where the ANZ was. I rememeber as a kid before Appels Pharmacy opened on the corner of Hotham St, it was a take away shop with bain maries. This would have been around 1975-76. It didn’t last long and Appels opened in its place. Ripponlea Fish Supply run by Johnny originally had his shop where the small supermarket is now. He vacated the shop around 1978 and moved to where he is now. His original shop and two others were demolished to make way for the supermarket.
Nice to read the article and comments about Ripponlea.
You were close with your guess as to the wording on the Brinsmead wall. It read Brinsmeads Influenza Mixture gives prompt relief. I have a crate full of old “brinsmead” labels, the Influenza label says – recognised as the most efficacious remedy for influenza in all stages, including feverishness, headache, pain in the back and limbs, cold in the head etc” If product descriptions like that were still legal – & common as they were in that era- it would be a Covid cure. There was a metal sign that protected the writing for 50+ years. That sign & the Kodak one were visible from Hotham St for a long time as there was a Woodyard then garden supply yard until the early 70’s when the shops now there were built -mostly obscuring the signs now. The hand cream was actually a skin rash cream & indeed produced for many many years, mixed by hand using a broad spatula and marble pad. Customers arrived from all over Melbourne for it, although it was a tedious job to mix. It was produced more as a favour and commitment to customer care than for profit.
There is an error in the Historical Society records which says the shop was sold but it is still in the Johnson family. It has been for 80 + years.
CF (Campbell Frazer) Johnson bought the shop pre WW2 and sold the business 55-56 years later.
He was my father.
Fascinating, thank you David