Leaving Elwood, I headed north towards St Kilda, a suburb about which there are many legends, stories, songs (like ‘From St Kilda to King’s Cross’ by Paul Kelly) and TV shows (like ‘The Secret Life of Us’). It’s one of Melbourne’s most multilayered suburbs, and you can see ample evidence of its ups and downs as you walk through it. I’m no expert on St Kilda but I did live in the area for a few years in the early 90s so I have some sense of how things have changed.
We entered St Kilda from the south, passing through St Kilda Botanical Gardens on the way. This happens to be where my partner and I got married more than 20 years ago. My memories of that day include the wedding party sheltering from the rain under a tree, while the galloping celebrant – who had another wedding to get to – sprinted towards the exit with the words that bound our lives together scarcely out of her mouth.
The gardens are peaceful and attractive, with their lawns, glasshouses, pergolas, exotic species, duck-populated lake and hundreds of trees – many of which are on the Significant Tree Register (who knew such a thing existed?) No doubt it is still a popular venue for weddings but none on the day that we passed through. The sculpture, Rain Man by Corey Thomas and Ken Arnold, is beautiful and hallucinogenic, viewed from certain angles.
Emerging into Blessington Street, and heading towards Acland Street, we soon saw Gruner’s butcher’s shop with its idiosyncratic hand-painted signage, showing a mixture of typographic styles and depicting the heads of livestock in white against a red and yellow background. It’s more like a mural than a piece of signwriting – a bit like the Champion footballer in Richmond. Pity that at some point an additional sign was placed right over the phone number and sheep’s head.
The old phone number, beginning with 5, dates from pre-1995. Those animal heads also date from an era when people were far more familiar with the idea of livestock than they are today. Today, urban meat consumers rarely see a real life pig, sheep or cow, whereas up until the 1980s live beasts used to be driven through the Melbourne suburbs to market, as I wrote here. In that sense, this sign harks back to an older style of butchery.
And so into Acland Street, a street much celebrated and written about, and still appearing in many tourist videos about Melbourne. These days there is little that is special or appealing about it. Only a sprinkling of the famous old cake shops still survive. I called into Monarch Cake Shop, said to be the oldest, for a coffee and a piece of plum cake, where it’s good to sit surrounded by Saints footy memorabilia and browse architecture magazines from the 1970s. According to St Kilda Historical Society, the cafe has been in business since 1934, and some of the signage certainly looks like it.
Other cake shops have closed their doors, such as Cafe Scheherezade where I used to drink mocha in the 90s, the haunt of old Jewish refugees, revolutionaries and Holocaust survivors whom Arnold Zable wrote about in Cafe Scheherezade 15 years ago (reviewed here). Their stories of tragedy, war, politics and displacement, their cultures and the history, added immeasurably to the life of St Kilda in the post-war years. Now that generation has all but gone, and Acland Street consists mainly of dull, generic shops and supermarkets, with little that is special or unique. Call it gentrification or blandification, there’s been a smoothing away of the weird, raffish and bohemian aspects of Acland Street, though these have not disappeared from St Kilda entirely.
Heading onto the Esplanade, we passed Mandalay, two stylish Art Deco apartment buildings looking out to sea. Built in 1935, they evoke the decade when middle-class Melburnians were embracing apartment living. They date from around the same time as nearby modernist and deco apartments such as Windermere and Woy Woy in Elwood. These days they are surrounded by much larger and less attractive buildings.
A little further along the Esplanade, we reached the legendary Espy Hotel, where thousands if not millions of bands have performed over the years. It is said to be Australia’s longest running music venue, and the SBS music show RockWiz is or was filmed there. The hotel is closed for renovations, with reports that locals have objected to plans to create a rooftop bar. Given that St Kilda has long been noted for its nightlife, objecting to a rooftop bar seems nimbyism of the highest order, but there you go.
The hotel was once the home of Alfred Felton, a 19th century businessman who made his fortune as one of the partners in Felton, Grimwade & Co, the largest drug company in Australia at that time. Felton had business interests over my side of town, a bottle factory at Spotswood and an acid works in Yarraville. But it was here he chose to live, surrounded by his artworks, books and objets d’art.
At that time, St Kilda was a highly fashionable place, and the wealthy came here to take the healthy sea air and escape the more polluted parts of the city. Felton’s name lives on in the bequest he gave to the National Gallery of Victoria to buy artworks ‘calculated to raise or improve the level of public taste’. You’d like to think that Felton, had he lived, might have enjoyed popping into the Espy to check out some face-melting metal.
Here’s the Espy in 1959, when it stood alone on its patch, the most striking building on the seafront.
Today the Espy has a melancholy air. The doors are papered up, painted signs point to a closed bottle shop, the words ‘Home of Live Music’ are painted over, but names of ghost bands remain faintly legible on the walls. The hotel quietly awaits its new incarnation.
These are just a few of the many layers of St Kilda. More about this complex, storied suburb next time.