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The Old Lady of Spencer St turns 130

25 Oct 2016

The Old Lady of Spencer St turns 130 Image

By Elliana Saltalamacchia

Formerly the offices for Victorian Railways, the Grand Hotel and Apartments on Spencer St celebrate 130 years this year. Resident Mike Kelly reflects on the Australians who have made it what it is today.

Mr Kelly lives in what he calls “The Old Lady of Spencer St”. He speaks of her magnificence and elegance, describing her as a “Victorian icon”.

She is the Grand Hotel and Apartments in Spencer St, and she is celebrating 130 years.

What was once the Victorian Railways administrative offices, Mr Kelly describes as one of Melbourne and Dockland’s “most impressive and historic buildings”.

Mr Kelly also speaks highly of the many Australians who have contributed to the development and restoration of the hotel.
The story starts in 1886 when railway commissioners decided they had outgrown their wooden offices as the Victorian railways began to expand dramatically. 

The location of the new offices was chosen because of its proximity to Spencer St, now Southern Cross, and Flinders St stations.

William Henry Greene
Engineer of existing lines William Henry Greene was appointed to draw plans for the grand building that would house the new railway offices.
“The scale of the building, even in the Marvellous Melbourne period of the 1880s, was remarkable,” Mr Kelly said. “She would become the largest office building built in Melbourne in the 19th century.”

Mr Kelly also said Greene was a “man of vision” who contributed to Melbourne in many ways.
In 1891 he planned and helped build the railway viaduct between Spencer St and Flinders St stations. Mr Kelly said he also drew the initial plans for Melbourne’s famous cable tram network.

Mr Greene is also grandfather to Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, and great grandfather to her son and media baron, Rupert Murdoch.

“William Henry Greene is perhaps not as well-known as he should be,” Mr Kelly said. “His legacy to Victoria should never be underestimated, nor forgotten.”

James Moore
In 1888, South Melbourne builder James Moore was given the task of turning “Greene’s vision into reality”.

Mr Moore was also the builder of the former banking chamber and vestibule of the Commercial Bank of Australia, now incorporated into the 333 Collins St complex.

The railway offices, and the banking chamber, were both completed in 1893. 

At the turn of the century Victorian Railways was the largest government department. Despite the building’s huge size, the new offices were already under pressure, housing around 1000 employees by 1912.

Work began to increase the size of the building. The addition of a third floor (level five) in 1912 and a fourth floor (level six) in 1958 provided much needed extra space.

By 1958, there were more than 1800 employees working in the offices. 

The building soon became known as “Head Office” to railway employees. It was so well known that it didn’t have a street number until the early 1960s when postal regulations numbered it 67 Spencer St.

“Head Office” employees
Many famous names worked in Head Office, among the most famous being Sir Robert Menzies.

“He was, prior to changing the face of Federal Australian politics, the Deputy Premier of Victoria, Attorney-General and Minister for Railways,” Mr Kelly said.

Between 1932 and 1934, during his time at Head Office, Sir Robert developed a close working relationship with chief commissioner for railways, Harold Clapp. 

“Clapp pioneered the employment of large numbers of women into the railways,” Mr Kelly said.

“The first woman he employed at Head Office was a lady employed as secretary to the Superintendent of Refreshment Room Services in February 1922.”

Mr Kelly also said there were a number of railway men who played in the Victorian Football League, today the AFL.

“Head Office had Joseph (Joe) Kelly, no relation of mine but I wish he was,” Mr Kelly said.

“Joe was recruited to the Carlton Football Club in 1926. In a wonderful career spanning eight years he played 137 matches.”

In 1937, after the shock resignation of Syd Coventry, he stepped in to coach Footscray, and in 1941, South Melbourne. 

“Again he took a struggling club and made them a competitive team,” Mr Kelly said.  “Joe achieved champion status.” 

Les Erdi
In 1985, the Ministry of Transport and the V-Line administration could no longer cope with the crowded environment of the building. They moved to Transport House at 589 Collins St, and the Victorian Railways Administrative Offices were vacated.

The Old Lady was earmarked for sale by the state government.

“There were a few attempts to restore her back to past glory, but the economy was in depression mode and she continued to fall into disrepair,” Mr Kelly said.
It was not until the mid-1990s that a lifeline for the building came along.

Businessman Les Erdi was contacted by the government to co-ordinate the restoration. With the assistance of around 63 other companies, the “formidable task” began.

Mezzanine floors were added into original offices giving for loft-style living with modern technology and comfort. 

“The beautiful central staircase of the residential section was faithfully restored to its original splendour. The impressive lights which hang over the staircase were imported from Italy,” Mr Kelly said.

“Les mentioned that he had more sleepless nights on this project than all his many other achievements,” he said.
The result was the Grand Hotel, comprising 118 self-contained suites and The Grand Central Apartments, a three-level residential complex. 

“‘The Old Lady of Spencer Street’ became ‘The Grand Old Lady of Spencer Street’,” Mr Kelly said.

In 1997, former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett opened the Grand Hotel. It became the first hotel and apartments in Docklands.
In 2006 a cocktail function was organised to celebrate the building’s 120th anniversary. Dame Elisabeth and Mr and Mrs Erdi were special guests.

“Fast forward another 10 years and the amazing transformation of the CBD and Docklands, this famous, elegant building has witnessed it all,” Mr Kelly said. “Those who have enjoyed the Grand Hotel’s ambience would agree that she, and Melbourne, are truly marvellous.”

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