139 Collins Street still stands today at the corner of Collins Street and Russell Street. This beautiful building was built as a medical practice for Doctor J.G Beaney in 1886. In fact, the lane behind the building which leads to the Spice Market bar is named after him. While today the top-end of Collins Street is home to a mixture of luxury stores, exclusive hotels and offices, it was originally regarded as the medical end of town. Back then, the street was lined with elegant townhouses occupied by doctors, dentists and optometrists. Due to skyrocketing rental prices and changing demographics, only a few rooms in some of these old buildings are still used by medical specialists today.
Currently home to Louis Vuitton, 139 Collins Street has a history of attracting wealthy, fashion-conscious women to its doors. In 1917 it was acquired by the Alexandra Club - an exclusive club for women. It offered its members a haven in the heart of the city where they could socialise, relax, dine and stay overnight. The idea was inspired by the private men's clubs which had become fashionable in the late 19th century, including the Melbourne Club and the Savage Club. Like its male equivalents, the Alexandra Club still exists today, although it is now located at 75-81 Collins Street, after 139 Collins Street was sold in 1981.
The building itself was originally designed by architect William Salway in the Victorian Mannerist style. By definition, this style is based on the High Renaissance architecture of France and Italy but it also allows for great freedom to deviate from traditional rules. This often produces an eclectic aesthetic, as is the case with 139 Collins Street. The building is made up of a hotchpotch of different architectural elements: each level features a distinct style; the window designs vary greatly from storey to storey including exaggerated arch voussoirs at street level; and there is a more heavily rusticated ground-floor (in order to give weight and authority to the base). It is incredible that despite the diversity, the overall effect of the building is beautifully harmonious. This is certainly a testament to the vision of the architect and the inherent beauty of Victorian Mannerism.
It is remarkable how much larger and more imposing the building appears in the older photo. Some might argue that the Hyatt hotel and skyscrapers dominate and detract from its grandeur. I tend to think that a building this elegant and charming is capable of holding its own. I think that the towering, modern backdrop provides an interesting contrast which reinforces its distinctive, old-world charm.
What do you think?
Above: John T Collins; 1976; State Library of Victoria (Picture Collection).
Below: My own photos; 2010.
Buckrich, Judith, Collins: The Story of Australia's Premier Street (2005)
Starke, Monica, The Alexandra Club: A narrative 1903-1983 (1986)