St Kilda Flat Living

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You sleep in the fireplace, dine off your kitchen floor and walk through your bookcase… to open your clothespress.’1

The pros and cons of flat living have been hotly debated by Australians for a long time, but widely embraced in St Kilda where flats of all kinds abound.Carnong Courts

Seeking fast money, Melbourne property developers have recently taken advantage of weak state planning laws to build tiny flats that in some cases, are only slightly larger than a car space.  Living in flats that wouldn’t be permitted in London, Hong Kong or Sydney, Melbournians have begun asking questions. Government response has been to ‘consult,’ with an eye to tweaking urban planning guidelines. Some warn that without sufficient regulation today’s apartments will become tomorrow’s slums.2 Others see possibilities for urban renewal on a grand scale, with inner-city living achievable and desirable for all. The outcome of the current review will impact on the St Kilda flats of tomorrow.

raglanterraceBack one hundred years ago flat living in Australia was also contentious. Early observers argued it was unhealthy,  “The flat dweller, because of her environment, becomes flaccid and unwomanly, losing physical, mental and moral tone – her muscles are all untrained, her body unnaturally weak…”3A Perth magistrate described a domestic squabble that was represented in his court as ‘flat it is, a most unnatural  way of living’.4 Others commented ‘These flats are often crowded together on ridiculously small blocks, breaking the building alignment and otherwise spoiling the appearance of the whole street. Laundry, including girls’ lingerie, is hung out of the windows with a very disfiguring effect.’5

Flat development in St Kilda was rapid in the first half of the twentieth century.The suburb’s earliest purpose-built flat development Majestic Mansions (1912) consisted of both self contained suites of rooms and hotel-like rooms sharing amenities. The earlier Waldorf (1911) was more a high class hotel/boarding house with the Canterbury (1914) probably the suburb’s earliest purpose-built flat complex. Early mansion/house flat redevelopment included the pre-1855 Marli Place (1911) whose Victorian lines were disfigured by awkward external stairs  and Carnong Courts in Robe Street that both reconfigured the internal layout of it’s 1850s terraces, known as Raglan Terraces, as well as adding a new façade of balconies and stairwells in Arts & Crafts style.

Every effort was made to make Majestic Mansions a fashionable address when it was built. The front door of each suite contained lead light glass while inside ‘light and artistic’ soft blue and buff coloured walls, ornate pressed metal ceilings, electrical lighting and heating made each suite stylishly comfortable. “ The whole of the suites are let unfurnished, so that guests are at liberty to furnish according to their own taste and length of purse, and as each suite is self contained and has appliances for simple cooking, it is entirely a matter of personal choice whether the guests take advantage of the café or not…”6

This contrasts a much  later period of the building’s history, the late 1980’s, when the Majestic had become tired. With striped canvas awnings tattered and weathered it had become a low tariff boarding house with budget rental flats, a place to live for people with few other options.’twas a doss house for the mentally ill ‘n’ junkies between accom(sic) ‘n stood over by a nasty lil (sic) lady who would take benefits n’ deal cigarettes! …(My room) ‘twas a tiny room on the ground floor w’ decaying wallpaper n’ starched sheets, hardly any daylight and random screams thru the night! It was a solemn soul destroying place for most. Not all got out alive!Ambulances always took their time attending Majestic! It’s grandeur was long dead!7

The Majestic, Early Apartment Living in St Kilda tells the story of a building that has a significant place in the architectural and social history of Melbourne. Read more at www.stkildapress.com.au


 

1‘Flat Living, what it has come to’, Daily Telegraph, Thursday 15 February 1906, p.3.

2‘Neustein, M.,  ‘Size Matters’, Architecture AU, 6 May 2015.

3‘The Home or The Flat?’, Building, 12 May 1915, Vol. XV, 93, pp.125-6.

4‘The Daily News, Monday 27 August 1945, p.14.

5‘Longmire, A., The Show Goes On, The History of St Kilda, Volume III, 1930-1938, Hudson Hawthorn, Melbourne, 1989.

6‘A Mansion Home, The Majestic at St Kilda. Residential Flats and Café’, The Prahran Telegraph, Saturday 19 April 1913, p.9.

7‘Shane Shags’, St Kilda Images and Stories (Facebook group), conversation with author 29 September 2013.

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