June 21, 2024

Before Federation Square

Federation Square is one of Melbourne's most significant landmarks. Built in the 1990's, the site has a colourful history, stretching back to the city's earliest days.

The location ofMelbourne's first morgue, 1871
Melbourne's first morgue, 1871.

The rectangle of land on the north bank of the Yarra, next to Princes Bridge, was initially left vacant. In the early days of Melbourne, the Yarra was prone to flooding, and several sections of the bank were left clear.

It wasn't until 1871 that the government found a use for the land, when they constructed the city's first morgue there. Prior to it's construction, dead bodies in the city had been simply laid out in public rooms, often times in Government buildings, while they awaited burial. Growing concern over public hygiene, and Melbourne's booming population, lead to the construction of the morgue.

But having such a macabre building so prominently situated proved unpopular and the morgue was only in operation for 12 years before it was relocated. The morgue building itself would remain on the site, unused, before being demolished.

From 1883 the corner location was incorporated into Melbourne's burgeoning public transport network.

Princes Bridge Railway Station was built on the corner in 1859, but in the 1880s it would expand considerably. After the closure of the morgue, Princes Bridge would serve as the terminus for all East bound trains, as well as housing administration offices for the railway corporation.

The station in 1918. Photo: trove.com

By 1910, it was linked to the previously separate Flinders Street Station, across the road, by an underground tunnel.

The station would continue to be used in this capacity for several decades.

The above ground station near the end, 1964. Photo: trove.com

In the 1960's, with the growing demand for prime real estate in the CBD accelerating, the State Government would undertake a dramatic revamp of the corner location.

Wanting to modernise the look of Flinders Street the State Government demolished Princes Bridge Station and moved it underground. The revamped station would share some platforms with Flinders Street Station, and be topped with a shopping arcade and public square.

The 'Gas and Fuel' towers. Photo: trove.com

The land where the station had previously stood was sold for corporate development. In 1967, twin office towers were constructed on the site. Known as the Princes Gate Towers, from their opening they were tenanted by Victoria's Gas and Fuel Corporation.

And almost from the moment the redevelopment was finished, it drew criticism. The office buildings themselves were derided as ugly and accused of blocking views of the river and overshadowing St Paul's Cathedral, while the concrete square adjacent was thought to be windswept and uninviting. Neither would garner much affection from the local population.


Central Station records. Photo: trove.com
A queue waiting to see the band 'Wasp'. Photo: trove.com

More popular was the arcade below the public square, which provided a last minute shopping option for commuters. The arcade was also home to Central Station Records, whose shopfront was on Flinders Street, and which became a hub for Melbourne's music community (and which is fondly missed, based on the emails I've received).

But overall, the office and shopping complex on Flinders Street remained unpopular.

By 1980, the gradual process of Princes Bridge Station being swallowed by the larger Flinders Street Station across the road was complete. Three platforms of the old station would be fully incorporated into Flinders Street (platforms 14, 15 and 16) and the rest would be abandoned. The closure of the train station meant that the next redevelopment of the site could be undertaken in an uninhibited fashion.

But some years would pass before any plans for updating the site were put forth.

The site under development, late 90s. Photo: trove.com

In 1996, outspoken Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett would announce a major redevelopment proposal, essentially clearing the site and starting again.

Calling the Gas and Fuel towers a 'dreadful eyesore' and a 'blot on the city,' Kennett promoted a mixed use option for the land; featuring a cultural centre, cutting edge office suites, shops and a public space that could be used for a variety of events. He also wanted to cover the train tracks, from the corner of Swanston Street back to Russell Street, to allow easier access between the city and the Yarra and to free up more space on the site. The ambitious proposal was budgeted at a hefty $450 million and would require cooperation between local, state and federal branches of government to realise.

A view of the corner site, 2004. Photo: google images

The new site would be called 'Federation Square,' in honour of a hundred years of Australian federation, and it was initially hoped it would be completed in time for the centennial on January 1, 2001. But a change of Government during construction lead to changes in the plan for the site, and the resulting delays meant construction was not finished until October 2002.

The heart of the new square would be the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), a combined cinema and display space, and the Ian Potter Gallery, an offshoot of the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road. Some of ACMI's underground gallery space would utilise parts of the old Princes Bridge Station.

Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations, broadcast in Fed Square.

They would be joined by the offices of SBS and numerous bars and restaurants. Labor Premier Steve Bracks oversaw completion of the project, and the opening:

'This space will change the face of Melbourne forever, making us truly a riverside city.'


- Steve Bracks, Fed Square opening speech

Response to the Square's design was mostly positive, although some rejected the modern stylings of the architecture. Despite these misgivings, the rumblings of which continue to this day, Premier Bracks was right, the new Federation Square certainly had changed the city indelibly.

Whether or not it remains the final reinvention the corner undergoes, remains to be seen.


One thought on “Before Federation Square

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *