The east end of Collins Street is often called, The Paris End of Melbourne. The label can be traced to a long demolished café, and its cosmopolitan owner.
In the early 1850’s, as Melbourne boomed during the gold rush, new hotels sprung up all over the city. Accommodation was highly sought after, and building rooms to rent a guaranteed money spinner.
One of these was The Bedford Hotel.
Built in 1854 at the very top of Collins Street, where Collins Place stands today, the Bedford was a mid-range property offering basic rooms, alongside a bar and restaurant. It operated for twenty years.
As the value of real estate increased in the area, the Bedford was superseded; it was demolished in 1878, and replaced with the Oriental Hotel.
Built on a much larger scale, the Oriental was considerably more opulent. Its guest rooms were spacious and lavishly appointed, and decorated with silk wallpaper and fine art prints.
The ground floor was largely taken up with a grand dining room, that quickly developed a reputation for having some of the best cuisine in Melbourne.
It soon became popular with the city’s elite; lawyers, bankers, politicians, and wealthy pastoralists would meet at the Oriental, to broker deals over lengthy dinners, and much fine wine.
One of these well healed patrons, was Pearson Tewksbury.
Tewksbury was a successful prospector, who had parlayed his gold claims into a broad business empire.
Initially living on a large rural estate, in 1910 Tewksbury moved to Melbourne with his wife. They were socialites who enjoyed entertaining, and had come to the city to live it up. They moved into the Oriental while they tried to find a permanent residence, but liked it so much they ended up staying for a year.
But their late-night carousing wore on the hotel management’s nerves; after 12 months, Tewksbury was politely asked to leave.
Instead, he simply bought the hotel outright, and installed new management.
A restless and energetic man, Tewksbury had grand plans for his new acquisition.
He immediately had the Oriental refurbished, to bring the décor up to date and provide a more modern look. He also bought and demolished the building next door, a private residence, to provide space for expansion.
At the rear of the hotel he established an entirely new business; the City Motor Service, a fleet of chauffeur driven cars for the use of hotel guests. The motor service soon proved so popular that it was made available to the general public; called 'Yellow Cabs Australia', it was Melbourne’s first taxi fleet.
Tewksbury then turned his attention to the restaurant on the ground floor.
This was also refurbished, and its menu revamped.
There were also plans for the footpath outside. Having travelled extensively through Europe, Tewksbury had been impressed by the pavement cafes he had seen in operation in many European cities.
This simple idea, eating outside on the footpath, was entirely unknown in Melbourne at the time. And the local climate, mild but pleasant, struck Tewksbury as perfectly suited to it.
In 1933, Tewksbury lodged a formal request with Melbourne City Council to allow dining on the Oriental's pavement.
The council turned him down flat.
Their ruling was that a pavement café, or tables, would disrupt pedestrian traffic and so create a hazard. The local press were bemused by the decision:
'A regular complaint in the Australian papers is, 'Why can't we adopt the French pavement cafe habit?'
But it cannot be done. Why? No one knows.
A queer thing, this difference in national habits.'
- Column in 'The Age', May 1933
In the ensuing years, Tewksbury continued to lobby the council to change their mind, but without success. He continued to expand, and remodel, the Oriental instead.
Pearson Tewksbury passed away in July, 1953.
The Oriental was then acquired by Leon Ress, a successful hotelier with a number of local properties in his portfolio.
Ress had his own ideas for the redevelopment of the hotel, and the property was extensively upgraded ahead of the 1956 summer Olympics. Ress was so happy with the result that he used the Oriental for his own wedding; in January 1957 he married Suzanne Szweica, a native of Paris.
Pavement dining is common in Paris, and the new Mrs Ress also thought the broad footpath outside the hotel perfect for a series of tables and chairs.
Her husband agreed and re-submitted the idea to the council.
But in one respect at least, Ress was much better placed than Tewksbury had been; he also sat on the city council, having been elected two years previously.
Unsurprisingly, this time the proposal was approved, and the Oriental was granted a license for nineteen tables on their footpath, for a three-month trial period. The service of liquor would be prohibited outside.
The new ‘cosmopolitan café’, as it was called, created quite a stir in Melbourne; locals flocked to the Oriental to try it out, while the press coverage was voluminous.
In a cute precursor to the present day, where restaurants are constantly looking for new gimmicks to attract the punters, everyone wanted to try pavement dining.
Mrs Ress happily took some of the credit, and gave enthusiastic interviews to the press.
'This is wonderful. It is just like the Champ Elysees back in Paris.'
- Suzanne Ress
This widely reported remark, quoted multiple times in the newspapers, is the origin of ‘The Paris End of Melbourne’.
But the phrase proved more enduring than the cafe that spawned it.
Despite its popularity and prominence in the city - it was used in a number of tourist ads promoting Melbourne - the pavement cafe lasted only two years before being forced to close.
The local police were responsible, claiming that the cafe restricted pedestrian and street traffic; the old argument about it being a hazard.
The council was now firmly in favour of the idea, as they had seen how much good publicity it generated, but they were unable to resist a police order. The pavement cafe license was rescinded.
The Oriental Hotel itself didn't last much longer.
It was demolished in 1972 as part of a block levelling exercise, to make way for the skyscraper known as Collins Place.
But it left a small legacy, every time you hear someone remark that they 'work up the Paris end of town.'