This superb 1932 arcade in the heart of Melbourne may no longer house small boutique shops, but it has two cafes and a dental practice whose owner opens up the building for public tours on Sundays
My experience in the arcade
I’d always loved the Manchester Unity Building and had visited a few times just to gaze at the mosaic tiling on the floor of the arcade or looked up at some of the engravings high up on the walls of the ground floor. So as a birthday treat this year, we decided to join the official tour of the building and stump up for the champagne breakfast that goes with it.
It was well worth it.
We were told at the outset that we could take photos throughout the tour but were not to take notes, I guess to preserve the Big Reveal of stories and information when you do the tour. That troubled me at first, as I knew there would be some overlap between the stories I had found on Trove, and the tales the tour guide would tell, but I think overall I managed to keep to their rules, and certainly took no notes from the rather good story the tour guide told us.
So, as usual, this first section is designed around my impressions of the place, with the History/Stories section below very definitely taken from my search through Trove and NOT from anything told us by the guide!
This is no longer an arcade in the shopping sense – there’s really only a couple of cafes left now, but at least it has been preserved while others around it in the centre of Melbourne have gone.
The Manchester Unity Arcade name engraved over the entrance already hints at the 1930s art deco that continues all the way to the top of the building.
There’s lots you can look at without having to wait for that guided tour, too. The Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows made this building its HQ once it opened in 1932 and it clearly wanted to impress.
The Oddfellows was actually an early kind of insurance society, so the drawings carved into the copper or marble up above your head depict the fundamentals of life they were looking to cover: health, education, housing etc.
The depictions of muscular males looking after nurturing females might seem almost fascistic (or from the Soviet side) if looked at with a 21st century eye, but this was a classic look in the 1930s, even I guess down to the fig leaf protecting the men’s privacy…
There’s lots of imagery of ordinary Australian life, too, so spot the pictures of the miners digging up there next to the clock.
Then look down at the wonderful mosaic tiled floors, both for the intricate patterns of the MU logo…
And for the grander and more colourful emblem of the Society itself.
Even the letterbox by the lifts on the ground floor caught my eye.
To see the mail chute at the top of the building, though, you’ll need to do that tour!
The Manchester Unity Building had Melbourne’s first escalator, and its successor is still in place today, though not in use for the tour, sadly. Our tour guide certainly told the story of the escalator and the sheer numbers who came on the opening day to try it out. My own search on Trove found journalists ecstatic about what they called Melbourne’s ‘magic carpet’, like something from the Arabian Nights.
There seem to be just two businesses operating today out of the ground floor of the arcade: the 1932 café, which was our base for the rather good breakfast we had before the tour; and the Switchboard Coffee Shop, which is tucked around the corner and not open on Sundays, sadly, but is one of my favourite places for coffee in Melbourne, as they serve out of a hatch across the angle of the arcade, and you can sit in the narrow space that once housed the building’s switchboard.
The high-end shops that once ran in the arcade, on ground floor and up on the mezzanine, are long gone.
But it’s the very fact of them being high-end which led to so many robberies in and around the building in its early years, and right up to the 1970s, as Trove told me on countless occasions. Only a couple of these got a mention on the tour, though she did provide more information (some of it pretty gory) on the 1978 murder of three jewellers on the premises than I had found anywhere else…
The tour group took the marble staircase up to the first floor, and this is where the official tour of the Manchester Unity Building starts to pay back with its sights and stories…
Some of the lamps on the first or mezzanine floor are original from the 1930s.
The old shop units still have individual frontages but are now part of the massive dental practice that operates out of nearly half the building these days. And for anyone whose first reaction might be hostility to an apparently up-market dental business taking over such a historic building and limiting access to the public, it is actually thanks to the owner of that practice that we still have a Manchester Unity Building in such good condition. His interest in the old architecture and determination to restore the building to its past glory, not to mention the brilliant idea of organising tours, is what keeps the Manchester Unity the icon it still is today.
The lifts up to the higher floors are a marvel of hardwood inside, with beautiful leadlight ceilings.
The tower at the very top was never part of the arcade, but is now also owned by the Dental Practice and must be a fantastic place to have your teeth fixed.
The views over Melbourne from here are amazing. There’s the Town Hall over the road, and behind that the Plaza Ballroom, which got a look in on Vintage Victoria when we reviewed the Regent Theatre in Collins St a few months ago.
The Executive floor is really worth getting up to see. There’s a nice story around these workmen’s boots, which I won’t tell so as not to spoil the spiel of the tour guide.
The boardroom has been restored to its original usage (after spending some time in someone’s apartment up here), with fireplace restored (though never used for flames), and boardroom table and leather chairs looking stunning.
The CEO Kia Pajouhesh has the best views from his office, though, with the Cathedral just below him. It’s even nicer than my old London office which had Big Ben chiming in the background…
And of course I loved the Tea Room door up on that top floor, too. I assume this was more of an office kitchen than the entrance to a venue for afternoon tea, especially as I think the official tea rooms in the 1930s were in the basement, with a café and ballroom on the roof, but I’m not sure so if anyone can help me out here, I’d love to know.
To finish off the tour we were shown a video introduced by Kia Pajouhesh, who spoke of his vision for the building and his work. It’s a clear bit of advertising for the Smile Solutions business, but who can blame him, and he comes across as a really interesting guy, making good use of the money he has earned.
A really good experience and a wonderful Vintage Victoria entry.
Access to the ground floor and to the two coffee shops is open all the time every day.
The tour of the other floors and the tower of the building takes place on the first Sunday each month, and on other special days like Mother’s Day. Check the website for details. Tours cost $65 but that includes your champagne breakfast, brunch or lunch.
No toilets in this arcade unless you are on the tour.
History and stories about Manchester Unity Arcade
When the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows opened this building in 1932, it had 28,000 members paying subs for funeral and sickness benefits. They bought the land in 1928 because they were ‘un-depressed’ by the Depression!
This plot had previously been known as Stewart Dawson’s corner, as Dawson the jeweller had bought it off the Howey family in 1914. But there was nothing near here in those days like the 11-storey Manchester Unity Building, so it caused quite a stir when it was proposed in 1929 and then built in 1932. In fact there were protests from some when Dawson’s was demolished to make way for the Manchester Unity, and when you look at the photo in the present-day boardroom, you can kind of see why, as the old jeweller’s was in a rather nice building.
But this was the heyday of arcades. The Herald newspaper, commenting on the forthcoming demolition of buildings on the spot where the Manchester Unity Arcade sits today said: “When an arcade is of use to pedestrians as a definite route to some shopping centre or traffic terminal, its success is assured, provided the arcade itself is attractively planned.”
And it went on: “Arcades are proving both useful to the public and profitable to shopkeepers. There is a demand for the small shop, and a place in the city for it. The arcade provides frontages for small shops, and makes waste space revenue producing.”
On 1 September 1932 the arcade shops opened, just 8 months to the day after demolition of Dawson’s had begun. This would be extraordinary timing in 2019, let alone 80+ years ago. Everything from demolition to delivery, from building to finishing, was planned to the day and to the exact measurement: a form of speed-building only previously seen in Chicago.
When the arcade first opened, it was over two floors with the upstairs level of shops visible from the ground floor. (Not much sign of that in 2019…)
Escalators were the novelty in the Manchester Unity Arcade. ”A notable installation in this building will be the escalators, sometimes called moving staircases,” said The Herald in August 1931. It also noted that these new modes of transport up a building had been ‘popular’ in Sydney for some time, after first appearing in Paris in 1900 – so Melbourne was catching up with its city rival. When they appeared and were operated for the first time in August 1932, The Herald called them the modern-day equivalent of the ‘magic carpet’, and went into detail explaining how they worked.
The artwork on the walls and ceilings of the arcade were described by The Herald (which obviously liked to wax lyrical about this place) as a modern version of ancient Egyptian tombs: “What used to be for the Pharaoh is today for the Man in the Street.” The Herald calls the depictions of the Odd Fellows work in pensions, housing, health and industry a ‘moving picture of Australian life’.
Among the first shops in the 1932 Manchester Unity Arcade was The Stewart Hairdressing Salon. It was so named to maintain the link to Stewart Dawson’s jeweller’s, which had stood on the site since 1914. I loved the early review of this place, which spoke of wonderful hair driers, ‘the first of its kind in Australia’, and the wonderful views over Melbourne ‘for those who have to sit for tediously long hours while permanent waves are being imparted’.
A Tea room was to be found in the basement originally and a café on the roof top with pond and Japanese palms.
The early years saw lots of robberies from shops in the arcade. In 1934, a passer-by grabbed a pair of binoculars from a jeweller’s after breaking the shop window while the Melbourne Cup was being run, rightly reckoning that this would be the quietest time of the day (and year) in the Melbourne CBD.
But it was not always the criminal classes who committed thefts. One well-dressed woman stole a rare orchid from a florist’s in the arcade in 1933. She used her fur coat to hide the precious plant!
There were lots of fund-raising charity shops during the war, including one staffed by the Blue Wings Air Force Auxiliary, where their most popular product for sale was a batch of Russian shortbread – whatever that might be?? These shops proved big fund-raisers through the war years with over 10,000 pounds raised in one shop alone.
From 1945 it was back to business as usual, though, with one brief item catching my eye as the “man in the leather apron” got away from a police chase after being seen selling what he claimed were packets of nylon stockings. The article didn’t say what was actually in the packages, though…
Stockings were again the subject of another brief item of social gossip in 1948, when The Argus columnist was praising the skills of “Ladderless Hosiery” in the Manchester Unity Arcade; this business used to mend laddered nylons, it seems, something nobody does these days, unless I’m wrong?
By 1950, there were reports of robberies again from the upmarket businesses in the Arcade. One man used a tomahawk to smash the window of a furriers, grabbing a fur coat and fur collar before running off to a waiting car. He might well have got away with it, as there were no further reports on that incident later on.
And the Manchester Unity Arcade was a good vantage point for Royal watchers during the Queen’s visit in 1954, every window in the upper floors apparently having faces poking out of them to see the Royal couple go by in the streets below.
The most horrific story of all dates from 1978, though, when three jewellers were brutally murdered in the building. More on this on the tour, but those murders were never solved by the police, though the main suspect was later killed himself in prison…
Other links and writings on Manchester Unity Arcade
The arcade features on the official Visit Melbourne tourist site.
The Culture Trip website has a lovely entry on the Manchester Unity.
The Ellissi website article talks more about jewellers in the arcade over the years, with more on the 1978 murders, not to mention the awful story of the Pyjama Girl, who worked on the 8th floor…
This is the Victorian Heritage Council database entry for the Manchester Unity.
This Urban Planning website has some beautiful old vintage photos of the building.
What are your stories and memories of the Manchester Unity Arcade?
Was there a shop you used to love which is no longer there? Or did you ever take tea in the basement tea room (or have dinner down there when it was a tropical restaurant)?
Were you among the faces peering out at the Royal couple from the Manchester Unity windows in the 1954?
Or have you been on the more recent tours of the building and got your favourite vintage part or best story that caught your attention?
Coffee near the arcade?
Switchboard Cafe is actually inside the arcade and it might be my favourite coffee shop in Melbourne. The coffee is top quality (and the cakes rather nice) but best of all is the vintage atmosphere, as it is housed in the old switchboard space for the building. Amazing how many seats they can get in such a small space without it feeling cramped. It must surely have stories of its own to tell…