After leaving St Kilda we headed north through the suburbs of West St Kilda and Middle Park. This part of town is mainly residential and middle class, and unlike many suburbs, you get the sense it really hasn’t changed that much over the years. It’s not just the architecture and the wide leafy streets that go to create the atmosphere and mood of a place. It’s the names you give the houses, the way they are decorated, even the style of the lettering.
It’s enjoyable to wander these streets, checking out the names and the playful, stylish 1930s lettering. Some names refer to fashionable places like Deauville (a ritzy French resort known for its casino and racecourse) and Henley (home of a posh English sailing regatta). No doubt those who named them were trying to create the sense of cosmopolitan sophistication. These ghost places – Irish towns like Listowel, American cities like San Diego – seem to haunt the streets, although the lettering now seems reminiscent of a time as remote as the places named, giving the buildings a faintly other-worldly feeling, as if to walk through the front door is to enter the pages of a novel or walk onto a film set.
Many of these buildings are apartment blocks built in the first few decades of the 20th century, when apartment living was a craze for Melburnians, especially in this part of town. In the 1930s, as a writer of the time put it, “Melbourne has taken to flats with some of the feverish eagerness of a teetotaller converted to liquor”. Among these flats are some attractive deco examples, such as ‘Avila’ (which is a town in Spain, I believe).
Here are some more pictures of Avila from the Art Deco buildings blog.
Not all the house names are easy to identify. I was struck by an ivy-covered building on Mary Street, with houses obscurely named Trelech, Corphwyfsa, and Cartrefle. Based on three seconds of internet research, they appear to be Welsh words. How they are pronounced is frankly anyone’s guess.
On Cowderoy Street, St Kilda West, we came across a beautiful deco building on a smaller scale, hidden away beside a small reserve. Originally Quilkey’s Dairy, today it is a cafe. The playful lettering in cement and the horizontal stripes are evocative of the 1930s. Clearly, Quilkey was keen to make a statement by having his dairy built in the fashionable style.
Deco isn’t the dominant style around here, though. The majority of the houses are in the Edwardian style, built in the early years of the 20th century. They exude a heavy sense of sober responsibility, indicating that a hundred years ago this suburb was as solidly middle class as it is today. You walk through street after street of red brick Federation houses with steep red roofs and you see what the deco movement was rebelling against. However, some of the old houses have attractive timber, tiles and Arts and Crafts features.
Not far away, on Canterbury Road, is an unusual building which was in its way a pioneer. Built in 1914, ‘The Canterbury’ was one of Melbourne’s first apartment blocks, so in a way the whole trend of apartment living started here. Originally each floor had one flat, with a dining room facing the sea. This block looks like a classic Edwardian house but squeezed into a vertical shape, with an unusual tower of oriel windows topped with a tureen lid.
Continuing along Canterbury Road, we passed a ghostsign for the St Kilda Squash Courts, converted into apartments a few years ago. Along here there also used to be tennis courts where I played regularly through the 90s, but they are long gone.
Nowadays if you want your house to make a statement there are other ways than giving it the name of an exotic overseas location. You could put the face of a TV siren on the glass facade of your home. This happened at 270 Canterbury Road, where Pamela Anderson gazes sultrily at passers by. The house has been there 15 years and with Pamela no longer at the height of her fame the facade is arguably more interesting. In 50 years, if this house is still there, will anyone remember who she was? Will Pamela become a ghostsign?
More prosaically, at 87 Canterbury Road, delightful ghostsigns survive in the windows of Browns former shoe shop. Nugget, perhaps the brand with which most Australians used to shine shine shine their shoes, was for much of the last century made across the bay in a factory in Williamstown. The sign evokes a time when Melbourne still had a thriving manufacturing industry, much of it based on boots, shoes and associated products.
A faded sign in Middle Park attests to the presence of Parker’s dairy on Hambleton Street.
And not far away on a Victorian shop at 32 Mills Street there are the remains of a Robur sign, with something indecipherable in white and blue lettering beneath – perhaps Victorian. Any suggestions are welcome.
Most of the houses around this part of town are well maintained, but as usual I am drawn to anything that is faded, a bit shabby, past its best. I was delighted to come across an evocative, run down Victorian house on Park Street, named ‘Lundie’. Here’s a house with a few stories to tell. Perhaps in another hundred years, Pamela Anderson too will have reached this state of decrepit, weathered character.