Melbourne Central is one of Melbourne’s most well known landmarks. It’s hard to imagine the inner city without it. But it was only built in 1991, and so is only a relative newcomer to our urban landscape.
The Melbourne city blocks bordered by Swanston, Elizabeth, La Trobe and Lonsdale Streets, where Melbourne Central stands today, were once the industrial heartland of the city.
This rectangular area was a rabbit warren of winding lanes, alleyways and cul-de-sacs, populated by small scale industry; ironmongers, carpenters, metal workers, brick makers and coach builders, among many others.
As the city boomed in the decades after the gold rush, beginning in 1854, the economic activity in this area skyrocketed. Into this lively domain stepped James Coop.
Born in England, from a hard scrabble family, James Coop arrived in Melbourne in 1855 looking to make his fortune.
A plumber by trade, Coop found work in the thriving local construction industry, and shortly went into business for himself. By 1868, he was based on Knox Place, in the midst of the bustling industrial neighbourhood described above.
By the 1880s, Coop's son Walter was running the business, and he decided to expand its operations.
A lucrative industry in the 19th century was ‘shot’ manufacture.
Shot - effectively small balls of lead - was an important industry in the Victorian era; it was used as ammunition in firearms, and also as weight for scales, and ballast in commercial shipping.
Over the years 1889-90, Coop oversaw the construction of the 'Coop Shot Tower' on Lonsdale Street. Made out of red brick, and standing 50 metres high, when constructed the tower was the tallest structure in the city.
It was also the key component in the shot making process.
To make shot, lead bars would be transported by pulley to the top of the tower, and then melted down over a gas hotplate.
When the metal was viscous, the shot maker would tip it through an iron sieve (picture to the left, above), from where it would fall, as droplets, into the tower itself.
In free fall, the molten lead would accelerate and rotate, spinning itself into a perfect sphere. It would then land in a pool of water, which would cool and harden the metal instantly. The lead balls would then be retrieved (picture to the right, above), sorted by size, and sent for refinement and packaging.
This process could produce 25 million pellets of shot an hour, and by 1894 the Coops were selling 6 tonnes of the stuff a week.
The Coop's kept the business in the family.
Walter bequeathed control to his son Walter II, who in turn left the business to his sister Ellen, who assumed control in 1919 (a rare example of a woman managing a substantial business in early Melbourne).
Ellen ran the company for two decades and, when she died in a tram accident in 1939, left the business to her son James.
But by the 1940s, the hazardous side effects of lead had been established; it is highly toxic, even in small doses.
Heavy industry began to transition to less toxic metals. And synthetic plastics, put into heavy use during World War II for the first time, had begun to supplant some metals altogether.
The Coop Shot Tower ceased operation in 1961, and shot making disappeared into history.
Meanwhile, the industrial zone the shot tower stood over had been undergoing change as well.
As Melbourne had continued to grow and modernise, many of its old buildings, and small winding streets, were no longer adequate for modern use. Cramped, dark, and lacking in safety features, many of the buildings around the shot tower had fallen empty in the decades since the war.
Across the 1960s, the State Government began to acquire some of these properties, with a view to packaging them and selling the entire block for a major redevelopment.
But, in the short term, the land was needed for another reason.
In 1971, the State Liberal Government began work on the City Loop rail project.
Prior to this, all of the trains in the city rail network had run from either Flinders Street Station, or Princes Bridge Station (now long gone, read more about this here).
But directing all of the city's trains through two stations created a logistical nightmare; the number of trains that could be run each hour was limited, and there were frequent delays and bottlenecks.
The proposed solution was the City Loop; three new underground stations around the city, connected by a looped rail line, that would allow greater flexibility across the train network.
One of the new stations was to be built on the corner of Swanston and La Trobe streets, across the road from the State Library.
As the Victorian Museum was still based in the library building, the new station was to be called 'Museum'. The construction effort was so significant that La Trobe Street had to be redirected around part of it (see picture above).
It was a major project, which took a decade to complete; Museum Station opened January 24, 1981.
While construction of the train line had been ongoing, the State Government had continued to search for a large scale tenant for the remainder of the site.
By 1983, this was up for open tender, and 28 consortiums submitted proposals, which a special committee was convened to assess.
The committee deliberated for two years, before finally announcing the successful scheme; a joint project between local firm Essington Limited, and Japanese development giant Kumagi Gumi.
Budgeted at $1.2 billion over 5 years, the new property would be a multi-purpose building, featurung a major shopping complex, an office tower and a luxury hotel (later abandoned, as costs rose). The new property would be called ‘Melbourne Central’.
The construction of the complex was difficult, exacerbated by the old shot tower, which had been granted heritage protection.
The Government had made preservation of the tower one of the key conditions in the tender process, and now the winning consortium had to find a way to incorporate it into their design.
Their solution was innovative. Chief architect Kisho Kurokawa designed a 20 storey high glass cone, to fit over the tower and so enclose it within the new building. The cone was, and remains, the largest structure of its type in the world.
The opening of the centre was heavily hyped:
Darimaru is a Japanese department store, one of the largest in South East Asia.
It was founded in 1717 as a dry goods company, in Kyoto, and continued in that line until the 20th century. In the 1920s Daimaru began selling household goods, which proved enormously popular.
By 1960 it was the largest retailer in Japan, and had established shops in Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Daimaru was now ready to expand further, and decided to open two shops in Australia.
One would be on the main tourist strip on the Gold Coast, one of the major destinations for Japanese tourists, while the other would be in the new Melbourne Central shopping complex.
Daimaru Melbourne opened in early 1991.
The new store spanned six levels and included an extensive (and fondly remembered) food court, alongside clothes, electronics and household goods.
Daimaru’s interior opened onto a vast, open plan area in the middle of the centre. With the shot tower in the middle, this also featured whimsical decorations; a colourful hot air balloon, a wooden bi-plane and a giant pocket watch, with a 12 foot gold chain.
There were few overseas retail stores in Australia at the time, and Daimaru offered something different, and mildly exotic.
The new store attracted 2 million visitors in its first three weeks, underlying the intial excitement of its opening.
A travel article from the Canberra Times gives a sense of the era:
'In the bustling food hall, fish counters display pickled octopus, periwinkles, abalone, and green lipped muscles.
At the griddle, chefs flip over huge vegetable pancakes called okonomiyaki. At $5, they are certainly economiyaki too.
With difficulty, I tear myself away from the food, and head over to the Clarins Beauty Salon, where I surrender to being pampered. Soft, firm fingers massage my back and neck, and administer skin peels and rejuvenating gels.
I might have been in Paris.'
- Diane Armstrong, The Canberra Times, April 1992
The excitement around Daimaru reached a frenzy during the Boxing Day sales of 1992, when a local woman lost the tops of two fingers when they became trapped in a security door.
The woman had been queued up to enter the shop, and had been pressing against the doors in an enormous crowd, trying to push her way in. Several other shoppers were also injured in the scramble.
But the excitement did not last.
The retail market in Australia was, and is, very competitive.
And, in Melbourne, established players like Myer and David Jones responded aggressively to Daimaru taking their business. What followed was years of costly price cutting, and heavy discounts.
Despite Daimaru's initial popularity, the company always struggled to make money from its Melbourne store.
Finally, after a decade, the company decided to call it quits; Daimaru Melbourne closed 31 July, 2002.
There have been a number of major tenants at Melbourne Central since, including a giant ‘Borders’ that was a well known hang out for local book lovers. But no one has attempted to install one large, multi-level store at the site since Daimaru.
And even the Border’s is now long gone, as the company went bankrupt in 2010; another casualty of the increasing popularity of online shopping, and Amazon.
Melbourne Central is mostly fashion shops now; the top level belongs to Hoyts, and there is a large, although fairly mundane, food court.
There is one small reminder of the Daimaru era though.
Above the entrance to Hoyts, you can still see two platforms on the wall, now connected to nothing. At one time, these were the landing platforms for two sets of escalators, leading to Daimaru's top floor.