The Nicholas Building

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So many of the weekends, road trips or daft gig attending trips to Melbourne usually ended up with a visit to Retrostar Clothing. While still fond of a fine shirt, having now moved here, I have come to have a greater recognition and appreciation of the building that Retrostar is in, far and above the shop itself. I do have fond memories of the Nicholas Building from back in my Cityscope days too – where we would have to go floor to floor of every building in the city to check vacant spaces, tenants and any renovation/development done. I’m sure I must’ve  had a ride with the legendary lift operator back then, and ascended to the top to wind the way down the checkered tiled stairways and the enigmatically, if at all signed doors hinting at whomever may be inside. On my visit the other day, upon stepping into the lift the two people already in there were talking of her. “There used to be a really amazing lady in here that ran the lifts” one said to the other. “She was incredible, I took a photo of her once, and the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra bought it” I eavesdropped. The building has a wonderful and colourful history, and dates back to 1926, from a fortune made when the patent for Aspirin was revoked as part of reparations against Germany for WWI, opportunists renewed the patent and made Aspro.

Now it is a fading beauty, with a handful of micro-industry tenants and largely obsolete organisations clinging on to the character amid rent rises and neglect from the owner. But it became the commercial equivalent of New York’s Chelsea Hotel back in the day when firecracker Vali Myers took up residence here, and a bohemian band followed. While I can’t shed too much light onto its importance to the city from practical experience, you can still get a sense, even today, that important things happened here. You can almost visualise and imagine how a hidden community flourished above the cities bustle, a grand old building which almost forced its tenants regularly into common areas, due to its maze like layout of tiny studios and  dim hallways. It would create a place of easy exchange of ideas and inspiration, each of the spaces small and sparse, and allowing focus, while corridors rang out with the industrious noise of making, breaking and creating. Today there were mostly miliners, lots of dogs, and a couple of really great galleries – Blindside and the Edmund Pearce space dedicated to photography. Read more about its affect from Sophie Cunningham who commented on the changing nature of the building and its seemingly sad fate in her Melbourne book

“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.”

Anna Klein also notes “Like sex and drugs, when discovering the Nicholas Building, you tend to feel like you’re the first.” in her excellent article for the Lifted Brow.

Currently it seems like the artists are being squeezed out due to a combination of rent increases and lack of interest in any sort of maintenance by the owners. The lifts have been automated – the inconvenience of occasionally having to wait too long – or heaven forbid, use the stairs – seemingly not worth the quirk and uniqueness of daily conversation and human connection, and an age honoured ritual that had lasted half a lifetime, and probably won’t be seen again came to an end in 2012. While cheap, character filled space appeals to creative types for one reason, it also probably has the low cost renovation appeal for developers too – and I’m sure one sad day the building may end up as slightly edgy flats called the Nicholas Studios or somesuch.

Let’s hope not, but here’s some photos of my wander through


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