Melbourne isn’t really a see the sights sort of town. There aren’t that many ‘things’ to go gawk at, pose in front of and instagram, unlike say the tourist trifecta of Sydney – the ‘bridge, the opera house and Centrepoint. The Manchester Unity Building though is properly iconic. It never fails to pause me in my tracks, nor cause me to shut a shutter of some sort in its general direction. I remember back in my Cityscope days, I actually entered the sale of the building into the system, and the subsequent transformation of the tower up top into an apartment, something which instantly gave me a new aspiration in life – to own it – and an answer to those – what would you do if you won lotto? type questions. The tower is now part of a dentist’s office – may be the only way to get me to go? – but has graciously been lovingly restored (see some pics here, as I couldn’t manage to wrangle my way in there on my stroll) and maintained by its owner – even to the point of hand-sourcing period glassware, cutlery etc and using only lettering and fonts of the era from when it was built. There is still a legendary conference room in its original state with a six metre table that had to be built in-situ, due to its huge size and volume.
The building itself means, and meant a lot to Melbourne. The corner is sits upon was renowned as a meeting spot for promenaders, and had the nickname of ‘puppy dog corner’ due to all the swoony couples who would gather there, and also Stewart Dawson’s Corner after a business located there. The building was constructed for the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows – a membership based friendly society that has benevolence and empowerment as its core, but a slightly shady, undocumented, yet long history, but as an organisation has dwindled in relevance in today’s world. Not too much is known about how the group came to Australia, but the Victorian order dates back to 1850.
What was significant about the Manchester Unity building, was its granduer and speediness of construction at a time when the country, and indeed most of the world were reeling from the Great Depression. The grand gothic styling, and the fact it was the tallest building in Melbourne, and constructed at a rate of one level per week and was completed in an astounding eleven months acted as a beacon of hope for the city of Melbourne, and restored the faith in future prosperity, literally and figuratively as it’s imposing tower was first illuminated on December 17, 1932.
As well as boasting being the tallest, it provided numerous firsts including the first ever use of as escalator in Melbourne, a pioneer in automatic cooling, rubbish and postal chutes on all floors, and had the largest generator in Australia providing backup power if needed.
The building today has an uneasy mix of dentists and jewelers, a coffee academy, and some scattered small services including hair dressers and diamond setters. The inside is ornate in a fading splendor sort of way, with art deco details lingering throughout, and the ground floor arcade a wonderfully lavish array of marble, wood, and tiles. I mention the outside, just so I can use the phrase ‘flying buttresses’ – but it is world renowned and thankfully protected on the national and state Heritage Registers for its unique use of terracotta faience and vertical columns in creating a masterpiece of looming gothic drama. Even the big MU signal glows blankly over the city hinting of strange bygone days, but still proving hope to the beleaguered people below and evoking mystery at what transpires in that imposingly splendid tower.