Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A new use for an old building?

Exactly one year ago I attended the auction of the old Melbourne Tramways and Omnibus Company (MTOC) building at 673 Bourke Street, these days apparently known as Donkey Wheel House. It was passed in but sold soon afterwards.

Unlike the long-derelict Savoy across a narrow laneway, things are on the move at the MTOC. The Wine Society moved out maybe 6 months ago. A student art project inviting the passer-by to contemplate vacancy briefly appeared a month or two back. And there's now a notice advising that modifications to this heritage bulding are proposed for its new use.

I frequent this area and have contemplated how it was early to mid last century. While the state was governed from the east end of town, and the city run from Swanston Street, it was the west end that contained the state's weightiest transport.

Melbourne's noisy, industrial and fast-moving western end started its rise in the late 19th century as railways and radio replaced shipping and semaphore flags (which required water and height respectively, hence the use of Flagstaff Hill for signalling).

At the time between horse coaches and mass car and air travel those from the country and interstate came by train, disembarking at Southern Cross Station. Victorian Railways and the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works also called Spencer Street their home for at least some of their offices.

Mail also came via train and was then conveyed via tunnel to the Royal Mail Exchange just across Spencer Street. Inwards and outwards parcel facilities were provided at opposite ends of the station.

Information being the most perishable of commodities, it was not suprising that The Age was located nearby at 250 Spencer Street. But if something was too urgent for the press then a short sprint up Lonsdale Street would have you at Broadcast House, home of ABC radio stations 3AR and 3LO.

The area contains its fair share of derelict and underused buildings and retains a shabby down-at-heel apperance. Air travel and the decline of rail freight reduced its previous advantages. The tramways, ABC and mail sorting moved away. Away from the CBD's view, Docklands sprung up behind the station and the City Circle tram for tourists was removed from Spencer Street.

However we have also seen a new station at Southern Cross and booming patronage, especially for upgraded regional rail services. Southern Cross is also the hub for the successful SkyBus from the airport. Apartments and discount shopping outlets (of ordinary construction) indicate private investment in the area.

No one knows what will happen to No 673, but this will be one building to be followed with interest given its transport heritage.

More history and pictures of the building and the general area.

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