View of Block Arcade looking south toward Collins Street
|Location||282 Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 3000|
|Management||Allard Shelton PTY LTD|
|Owner||Block Arcade Melbourne Pty Ltd|
|No. of floors||5|
The arcade proper is L-shaped, connecting Collins Street at the south end to Elizabeth Street on the west. The 'L' shape is converted into a 'T' through the junction on the north side with Block Place, a partly covered pedestrian lane that leads to Little Collins Street, opening opposite the Royal Arcade. The Block Arcade is best known for its history. The Block Arcade was named number 4 in TripAdvisor's "Australia's top 10 landmarks".
The arcade which was erected between 1891 and 1893 was designed by architect David C. Askew whose brief was to produce something similar to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. The result was one of Melbourne's most richly decorated interior spaces, replete with mosaic tiled flooring, glass canopy, wrought iron and carved stone finishings. The exterior façade of the six storey office has nearly identical facades on Collins and Elizabeth Streets and is one of Australia's best surviving examples of the Victorian Mannerist style.
The arcade was formerly known as "Carpenter's Lane"; however, the precinct was widely known as "The Block". Once the works were complete, local shopkeepers successfully petitioned to have it changed to its present name.
The name came from men walking around 'the block' one direction and women in the opposing direction, as a tradition before going to the Victorian Football League matches.
It is a significant Victorian era arcade and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. Along with Melbourne's other main arcade, the Royal Arcade, and Melbourne's lanes, it is a tourist icon of the city.
On 1 June 1837, the first auction took place in Melbourne. The location of the land was on Collins and Elizabeth Street, purchased by William Briscoe & Son. The Briscoes Bulk Grain Store occupied this location from 1856 to 1883.
The building was then sold to the George Brothers, which would eventually become the first Georges Store in Melbourne. In the 1980s, the owners sold the Block to Time Corporation for AU$15 million. By 1991, Westpac took over the mortgage and sold the building to the Kearney in 1993, during a public auction.
In 2014, the Cohen family purchased the Block Arcade. The Cohen family have had long ties with Melbourne which date back to the 1840s. The great grandmother of Trevor Cohen was born on the first floor of the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Street in the original building, while his great great grandfather struck one of the first leases in Melbourne in the ground floor of the same building. The Cohens are passionate about the precinct, and continue to refurbish the Block Arcade to its former glory with an eye for detail.
At 6:15 pm on Friday 13 September 1889, a fire damaged most of the building, owned by Georges Store, causing over AU$400,00 worth of damage. The fire continued over a long period of time due to the fire brigades being owned by various insurance companies. This fire caused a change in the operations of the fire department. As a result of the Georges fire, the Metropolitan Fire Brigades (MFB) was created.
With the population growth within and around Melbourne, shopping centres became very popular, with lanes and arcades created all over the city. After the fire, City Property & Co Pty Ltd. commissioned the creation of a new arcade located in the heart of the city. Melbourne architects Twentyman & Askew were hired to build a version of the Galleria Vittorio in Milan. In 2003, the City of Melbourne signed a sister city agreement with the City of Milan, with the connection between the Block Arcade and the Galleria Vittorio.
Fergus Hume evocatively described 'doing the block' in his The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, first published in Melbourne in 1886:
It was Saturday morning and fashionable Melbourne was 'doing the block'. Collins Street is to the Southern city what Bond Street and the Row are to London, and the Boulevards to Paris... Carriages were bowling smoothly along, their occupants smiling and bowing as they recognized their friends on the side walk... Portly merchants, forgetting Flinders Lane and incoming ships, walked beside pretty daughters; and the representatives of swelldom were stalking along in their customary apparel of curly brimmed hats, high collars and immaculate suits. Altogether it was a pleasant and animated scene...
The walk around 'the Block' was how the name "The Block Arcade" formed.
The Hopetoun Tea Rooms was opened concurrently with the opening of the Block Arcade in 1892. The Victorian Ladies' Work Association named the store in honour of Lady Hopetoun, wife of Lord Hopetoun, Victorian Governor (1889-1895). Bought for £18, the Hopetoun Tea Rooms is known for its high teas and magnificent mirror, which was hung outside the shop. It used to be a luxury for ladies as they shopped, as mirrors were rare at the end of the 19th century.
George & Georges Drapers was the original store located where the Block Arcade now resides. It was a prominent department store, but moved further down Collins Street in the late 1800s.
The Singer Sewing Machine Company moved into the Block Arcade in 1902. Selling sewing machines on the bottom floor and running classes for how to sew in the basement, the Singer Sewing Company was a common place for women of the early 1900s. Philip Goatcher, an artist, was commissioned to design and paint a mural on the ceiling. This mural can still be seen in Crabtree & Evelyn shop on Collins Street.
The Block Arcade also housed the first Kodak store, the camera company from Rochester, New York. Kodak allowed the average person to take photographs and promoted the arts of photography to the general public. The store sold parts, cameras, and equipment to both amateurs and professionals.
The Block Arcade has four entrances to the main arcade: one from Elizabeth Street, one from Little Collins Street, and two from Collins Street. The Block Court, one of the entrances from Collins Street, is a newly renovated and restored section of the Block Arcade, housing Bendigo Bank. The last time Block Court was renovated was in 1990 and the new restorations brought back the former architecture characteristics of renowned Melbourne architects, Buchans, with Heritage Victoria and the National Trust having set the specifications in the 1990s.
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Throughout the early 1920s, the arcade underwent a series of cultural changes and became known as a hive of criminal activity in the Melbourne city centre. It is perhaps, best known for its larrikin[clarification needed] youth gang known as the 'Barcade Boys' who were involved in criminal activities including drug dealing, prostitution and extortion. Their name is a conjunction of the words "Block" and "Arcade", where the gang often met. The Barcade Boys are estimated to have had up to 60 members in 1924 and were led by Charlie Feehan and Norman 'Nostrils' Heath who were introduced to the crime world by notorious Melbourne underworld boss Squizzy Taylor. The group's prominence declined in the latter half of the decade and ceased to exist by 1929. Little is known about many members of the Barcade Boys; however, their graffiti can still be seen throughout the Block Arcade and its surrounds.
Languishing in the bowels of the Block Arcade for nearly half a century, the four trumpeters who now perform on the hour originally paraded as Christmas minstrels who serenaded the wrapping of Christmas presents purchased at the Block during the festive season. Following months of planning, these minstrels have been brought back to life as eighteenth-century Italian musicians costumed by the Block's Master Tailor, Adriano Carbone. In their new setting above the Block's dome, they play their tune on the hour. Concurrently, clock hands have been installed in the original circular decorations, which face both sides of the western section of the dome. This provides visitors and tourists advance notice to view these musicians at work.
This story is but one tiny piece of the history of the buildings comprising the Block and the land they stand on, which is a microcosm of the history of Melbourne itself. The Block houses a museum dedicated to the history of the Block Arcade.