Friday, July 16, 2010

The Block Arcade: The Basement

In the previous post, I discussed the history of the Block Arcade from when it was built in 1892-93. But what about beforehand? In fact, the site of the arcade dates back to 1837 when the plot of land was bought by Briscoe & Co - a company dealing with grain, ironmongery and, later on, railways. In 1856 the company constructed a building on the site which it occupied until 1883, after which it relocated to Queen Street. The building was subsequently bought by the George Brothers and became the very first Georges department store in Melbourne! In 1889, there was a spectacular fire which seemed to destroy all of the building apart from its bluestone foundations. The fire was so ferocious that three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze. After the fire, Georges relocated up the hill to its well-known home at 163-168 Collins Street. Three months later, the City Property Company bought the site and commissioned the construction of the Block Arcade that we know and love today. 

Last week I read that the basement had in fact survived the fire and that remnants of the 1856 building still existed down there today. Very curious, I made my way to the Block Arcade and down the stairs towards what is now Downies Coin Auctions. The basement is a secure site and, as such, locked from the public. However, there is a windowed viewing platform which reveals incredible, hand-made brickwork dating back to the Briscoe & Co building of 1856! 

On the day I visited, I was fortunate enough to meet Roger and John of Downies. They happened to share my passion for Melbourne's history and architecture and allowed me to take some photographs of areas not visible from the window. Their insights and postcard pictures were a great source of inspiration! They gave me many ideas for future posts. 

Incredible brickwork from ca. 1856. 

The Block Arcade already has such a long history. So it is fascinating to find evidence of an even longer history which exists (and can still be seen) beneath the building! 

Does anyone know of any other remarkable basements in the city?

Buckrich, Judith, Collins: The Story of Australia's Premier Street (2005) 
Cannon, Michael, The Land Boomers (1966)
Block Arcade website:  
Heritage Victoria website:

Photos: My own, 2010 

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