The Nicholas Building sits on the corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Lane. It’s an area that was once the centre of Melbourne’s garment industry, or, as the people who worked in the lane described it, the schmatte trade. If I were compelled to sum up Melbourne in a single building, it would be this one, with its striking terracotta and dark-green faience-glaze facade.
Once a building full of bootmakers, dressmakers and button makers, it’s now an artistic hub and the place exudes an energy that is hard to replicate through organisation or force of will. If the Nicholas Building didn’t exist it would be as if the city had lost a part of its soul. That soul is already in danger because it’s not clear how much longer artists will be able to afford to work there, given recent rent rises.
Melbourne architect and urbanist Anna Tweeddale puts it like this when she spoke to Ben Eltham for a Meanjin article about the Nicholas Building’s history: “One of the things that is so special about a vertical space like the Nicholas space is the unplanned interactions that happen in the communal spaces, and that’s very much the way that cities work, those unplanned interactions in the streets are really important ways of interchange and exchange.”
You enter the building from Cathedral Arcade, which acts as a laneway within the building, reflecting the streetscape that lies around it. It still has its original leadlight, barrel-vaulted ceiling (Melbourne’s first), complete with the glass chute that used to carry letters down from the floors above. There are three lifts – and this is the best thing of all about the building – two of which are staffed by Joan McQueen and Dimitri Bradas, the only two lift operators on the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union’s books. A third operator, Tim Fleming, is a working artist with a studio in the building.
Joan has been spending her days in her lift for 35 years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants. Joan’s daughter operated the second lift until 2004. When she left, Dimitri took over. He once ran an art gallery in the building. He fitted his lift out with red velvet curtains and a stuffed bird he’d bought at the Coburg Trash & Treasure Market.
Eltham also interviewed Joan. She recalled: “There was a theatre on the first floor, and it was run by brothers, you know, live theatre [she says with a wink and a flourish]. And they were like topless usherettes in there, so we used to be busy with elderly gentlemen. Then there was one of the girls, they were transvestites, I think, and anyway one had a snake, she used to bring the round basket in here with the snake in it.”
The bridge between the building’s original uses and the hive it is today, between the old and the new, was the artist Vali Myers. Born in Melbourne, Myers lived in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel for many years before returning home in the 1990s and starting a gallery in the Nicholas Building. According to Dimitri, “Once Vali moved in, every other artist and his dog wanted to move into this space, because I remember there were not many artists before she moved in, it was mainly craftspeople, jewellers and the like.”
Joan and Dimitri only work during the week. So, Virginia and I had to walk up the stairs to the sixth floor to Carolyn Fraser’s Idlewild Press, which was one of several small presses that operate out of the Nicholas Building. The studio sat at the back of the building and opening the door was like looking into another century. The space was dominated by two printing presses: one a Vandercook (1968), the other a Chandler & Price (1925) bought out from Cleveland in 2004. Alongside the presses, Carolyn had drawers full of type, most of which were purchased from printers in the American Midwest. It seemed somehow fitting that these remnants of America’s print revolution had found their way to Melbourne, and not just because one of the city’s first settlers, John Pascoe Fawkner, was a printer.
Melbourne is a city that is both attempting to come to terms with revolutionary changes in the publishing industry and providing a home to many people dedicated to recovering, or working with, older technologies.
It is crucial that Melbourne find a way to continue to provide spaces for less corporatised forms of culture to exist. As Marcus Westbury wrote in a Meanjin essay titled ‘Tiny Revolutions’, in which he laid out the thinking behind his highly successful Renew Newcastle project.
From the commanding heights of global capital markets, the intimate spaces of our lives, our communities and cities are often invisible and imperceptible. Local economies and their possibilities are little more than decimal points or rounding errors. Their potential is easily lost in pursuit of the ‘efficiencies’ offered at the massive scale. Yet our cultures are resisting and shrinking, sometimes in defiance of but often in concert with the same logic and irresistible forces that are reshaping our cities. The City of Melbourne benefits from the Nicholas Building, using it in promotions and claiming it as an example of the city’s investment in art and culture. But the building’s tenants have no protection at all. Rents increased by up to 40 per cent in March 2010. According to Dimitri: “If you’re a genuinely poor artist or architect or anyone, you couldn’t afford to be in this building, because although it’s still cheap, it’s still a fair whack of money, so it tends to be people on the good side of precarious who choose to stay in this building.”
By September 2010 the rent rise had forced Carolyn and Idlewild Press out, which led to buggerisation all over again. When Carolyn finally left, a cabinet full of type fell over in the back of the truck, scattering type like so many breadcrumbs all the way from Swanston Street to the roller doors of Idlewild’s new home at the Compound Interest, a warehouse in Collingwood.
Melbourne is one of a series of books on state capitals, published by New South. $29.95.