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Melbourne Open House: More than I expected!

G21st July 2008

C5 Comments

Tarchitecture, heritage

Touring the Melbourne Town Hall, Plaza Ballroom and a secret room at the Capitol Theatre.

Yesterday, I participated in the inaugural Melbourne Open House – a scheme to showcase some of Melbourne’s architectural masterpieces by opening them up to the public.

Since I had a busy day, I decided to visit just three of the buildings: the Plaza Ballroom (at the Regent Theatre), the Melbourne Town Hall and the Capitol Theatre. I had also planned to visit the Manchester Unity Building and Council House 2 (CH2), but the queues for these two venues were prohibitively long.

My first stop was the Regent Theatre’s Plaza Ballroom, which was constructed in 1929. Located in the basement of this lavish picture theatre, the Plaza Ballroom functions as a sophisticated reception centre. I’d never been inside the Regent, and was impressed with what I found.

Visitors listen to a talk at the Plaza Ballroom, below the Regent Theatre.

The Plaza Ballroom was an interesting space, with Art Deco and Spanish Revival influences. The ceiling was intricately painted and the room featured ornate copper light fittings. The entrance spaces, including the reception foyer and lounges were also beautifully ornate. I can only imagine what a grand venue this must be when it’s illuminated in all its splendour.

The next stop was the Melbourne Town Hall, home to the City of Melbourne council. Built between 1865 and 1880, this is one of Melbourne’s most lavish buildings. I had to wait 20 minutes to get inside, but it was worth the wait. The Council Chambers were the most elaborate part of the building, with fine mahogany wood panelling, leadlight windows and a decorated plaster ceiling. I was also able to look inside the Lord Mayor’s office, and stand on the portico at the front of the building .

But what really made my day, and in the most unexpected way, was the Capitol Theatre.

The Capitol was a priority for me to visit, because I’d heard about the theatre’s legendary coloured ceiling, designed by Walter Burley-Griffin. So I was extremely disappointed when I arrived to find that the ceiling was not illuminated. Seriously, what were they thinking?

The Capital Theatre’s famous ceiling remained unlit..

As I was wandering the theatre, feeling somewhat let-down and cheated, I came across a door to a rear portion of the building that had been chocked open.

Since it was an open day and there was no “Staff Only” sign, I proceeded through the door and found myself in this large room:

This room was once a reception area, but its glory days were clearly over.

Well-illuminated with temporarily positioned fluorescent tubes, the room was very shabby with various colours of paint on the walls, cracked tiles and remnants of long-removed fittings. As you can see in the above photo, there was a set up steps leading off somewhere, so out of curiosity I decided to see where they led. The steps delivered me to a mezzanine, which was even shabbier than the level below:

So many fittings and fixtures had been stripped from this place that it took on quite a bizarre appearance.

This space was once the dress circle foyer mezzanine lounge but had been reduced to a dingy series of passageways. As I was wandering around, I found another passage through a door, that was also chocked open. Again, since there was no “entry prohibited” sign, I entered.

By now it was very quiet and I was the only person up there, but was curious to see what lay beyond. Since all was beautifully lit and apparently open-access, I had no qualms about proceeding.

As I walked along the passage way, I found a brick wall that had been partially collapsed. This surprised me somewhat, given the current concern about public liability and all. The exposed space seemed to lead to a dark internal cavern somewhere below, which was filled with the rubble from the wall.

Beside the opening was another set of steps that led up to another door, also chocked open. So I entered…

I then found myself inside a small, dimly lit room which contained an authentic 1920’s sink and set of cupboards, a shelf, an electrical switchboard, and two more doors at the end. By now it was deadly quiet, except for the creaking of floorboards around me. I noticed that the old wooden door had faded gold text on it which read “PRIVATE. No Entry”.

This space intrigued me because I couldn’t see any purpose to it other than as a service area. It had such an extraordinarily low ceiling that I was hardly able to stand upright. The room provided access to the electricals, but the reason for the sink in such an awkward place was a mystery. In any case, the room clearly wasn’t intended for the public, as its walls were not plastered but rough bare concrete. The room had a small chicken-wire window looking over a neighbouring building.

There were two small doors at the end of this tiny room.

One was at the top of a small set of steps and was chocked open. However it was dark inside and confined too, and I was frankly too scared to proceed any further. But I was curious to see what lay behind the door on the left, so I opened it….

…and therein lay a wonderland of electric lights!

This was the upper side of the illuminated ceiling in the entrance foyer. Small square wooden frames supported a piece of frosted glass over which sat a single light bulb. What amazed me was that this space was probably 10 metres long, but barely a metre tall. Yet despite the confines, some poor soul would presumably have the job of periodically crawling in there to change the bulbs. One foot (or hand) wrong, and they’d have put a hole in the ceiling!

Having had a good look around the space and taken photos to document my adventure, I decided to proceed back downstairs.

As I re-entered the theatre, I noticed an official-looking man walk past me at speed. He was muttering to himself “Why on earth is that door open?”, but walked right past me as if he hadn’t seen me enter through it. Without any hesitation, he immediately closed and locked the door.

If I’d come downstairs more than a minute later, I could have been locked in there! (If this had happened, I could have yelled down from the mezzanine and been released, but it would have been very embarrassing).

Feeling quite lucky on several fronts, I left the theatre with a much richer experience than I’d expected to find.

That said, I think I’ll be more careful in future not to let curiosity get the better of me!



5 responses to “Melbourne Open House: More than I expected!”

  • Written by David Thompson on 21 July 2008:

    Wow. What an adventure. Thanks for showing what goes on behind the scenes.

  • Written by Donna on 22 July 2008:

    Great photos and story and good on you for taking ‘Open House’ so literally 🙂

    BTW, in the MOH booklet it states that there are guided tours of the theatre on the 3rd Friday of each month. We read this as we stood in the queue and then the line suddenly caused gridlock with the MU queue and passing traffic so we didn’t need much convincing to leave 🙂 Still, I doubt they will allow us into the regions you were able to venture.

  • Written by steve on 22 July 2008:

    The tour man said that the coloured lights broke a few years ago and are going to cost millions of dollars to fix. The government has put a few mill towards it, but the current custodians do not have the budget nor sufficient motivation for such an investment. Besides, it would only distract the students from paying attention!

  • Written by isobel on 26 July 2008:

    What a pity the lights in the Capitol Theatre no longer
    work, they really were a great sight, it was lovely to get to the theatre early and watch the lights go through the series of colours.

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