Pennies from heaven?

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With the opening of the new children’s hospital there has been interest in the origins of the first one, Princess Margaret. One popular retelling of the tale is:

In 1897, a young girl entered Charles Moore’s department store. She was drawn to an unusual moneybox into which she put three pennies. When Mr Moore asked her what she would like in return for her money, she asked to give it to the children’s hospital. Moore said there was no such hospital and the girl replied, “Then why not have one?” Moore responded, “We certainly will, and we will start it with your pennies.”

When Charles Moore told this story in 1909 at the opening of the hospital there wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the room. And since Moore himself related the tale, it must be true. Mustn’t it? Well, no, so let Dodgy Perth debunk it. But first, why is the moneybox always described as ‘unusual’?

The following section contains racially charged language and an image some may find offensive.

Moore said the moneybox was a “negro” one, where a coin placed into the hand would be thrown into the box. These were sometimes called ‘jolly negro’ moneyboxes or, worse, ‘greedy n****r’ boxes and were popular around the turn of the 20th century. Casual racism like this was the norm in the Perth of a century ago, so we shouldn’t read too much into Moore’s story, or the fact that this box apparently stood on the hospital’s front counter for years. However, today it is obviously unacceptable, which explains why modern accounts of Moore’s tale like to leave out some of the details.

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So, there was a moneybox and Moore said it was part of the hospital’s origin. So it must be true, right? Not so fast. Let’s introduce two golden rules of history which will never lead you astray. First, if a story sounds too good to be true, it is almost certainly too good to be true. Always suspect a good story. Secondly, the older the account the more reliable it usually is. Let’s see what story Moore told back in 1897 when he started to raise funds for the children’s hospital.

Then he said he’d been in a rival’s shop, Bickford & Lucas, and noticed they had a penny-slot musical box, an early form of jukebox, probably something to keep the kids entertained while the parents shopped. He thought he should get one for his store and give the proceeds to charity. It was then he decided Perth needed a children’s hospital and the pennies collected in the machine should go towards that.

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Quite a different story. No little girl with her three little pennies, a simple question and Moore’s sudden realisation the young lady was right. Just an imaginative idea of starting a new fund for charitable purposes, and one he carried out tirelessly from 1897 until the hospital opened some years later.

Why did he invent a new story? Perhaps it was simply modesty about his own role, perhaps he just thought it was better tale. Either way, we can’t take anything away from Moore as a philanthropist and Perth owed him a great deal. But just because he was a good citizen, it doesn’t mean we have to believe everything he said.

Beer and Buildings

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What could be better on a cold winter Saturday afternoon than drinks with friends in a few different venues? Especially if you can introduce them to Perth’s heritage and make yourself look clever at the same time. Welcome to the Dodgy Perth ‘Beer and Buildings’ self-guided tour. At a mere 2km you will pack in a number of drinking establishments en route. We recommend pacing yourself carefully.

Drink One: The George, 216 St George’s Terrace

Meet around 2pm. You can start earlier, but a few later venues don’t open until 3pm on a weekend. When you’ve finished your first drink of the tour, step outside and look at the buildings opposite. None of them are heritage buildings, but a lot have classical references in their pillars. You’re going to see a lot of pillars today, so just soak in the fact that architects have never stopped using them.

Walk towards the CBD, passing The Cloisters (1858) on your left. Designed by Richard Roach Jewell, it was originally a secondary school. Keep going until you are opposite Newspaper House.

Drink Two: Newspaper House, 125 St George’s Terrace

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Discover more about this 1933 building by clicking here. Then go behind the place and take a couple of flights of stairs up to Bob’s Bar. This rooftop venue (it has a retracting roof if the weather is not ideal) will provide an opportunity for a wide range of beers.

When you return to St George’s Terrace, keep going in the same direction, cross over William Street and take a right turn into Howard Street.

Drink Three: Haynes, Robinson & Cox Building, 18-20 Howard Street

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Discover more about this 1907 building by clicking here. Then take the small laneway opposite to find Helvetica, one of Perth’s top providers of fine whiskeys.

Afterwards, return to St George’s Terrace and keep going towards Barrack Street. Cross over, and enter Stirling Gardens, heading towards the Supreme Court.

Interlude: The Old Courthouse, Stirling Gardens

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Discover more about this 1837 building by clicking here. Don’t worry too much about your next drink, it’s coming soon.

Return to St George’s Terrace and stop opposite the State Buildings (now COMO).

Drink Four: State Buildings, St George’s Terrace

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Discover more about this 1890 building by clicking here. Then enter Petition Bar, either through the St George’s main arch, or round the side on Barrack Street. We recommend the tasting tray of four different beers, but your mileage may vary.

When you’ve finished the last drop of beer or wine, leave by the Barrack Street exit and head north. You will pass the Town Hall (1870) on your right, and now comes the longest stretch without beer in the entire tour. Keep going over the bridge, past the Court Hotel, until you reach Dominion League. It may be best to cross over to other side of Beaufort Street to get a good view.

Drink Five: United Friendly Societies Dispensary, 84 Beaufort Street

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Discover more about this 1911 building by clicking here. A great wine list and a cosy atmosphere inside, although it can get a little busy as the evening goes on.

On the home stretch now. Leave the Dominion League, turn left towards the pedestrian crossing, go over Beaufort Street and head into the Cultural Centre. For the best view of the PICA Building look for a raised area to your right, just in front of the library.

Drink Six: Government School, 51 James Street

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Discover more about this 1897 building by clicking here. Now chill out for the rest of the evening at the PICA Bar, knowing you’ve discovered all about Perth’s heritage, had a healthy walk, and possibly (just possibly) more than a single drink.

Since the tour ends here, you will find public transport back home is within a short stroll, whether you need a bus, train or Uber.

An unFriendly attack on a great wine bar

 

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Before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: we love the Dominion League. One of those cosy bars with such a fashionably dark environment you can’t read the menus without the aid of your phone flashlight. We still love it, though.

It’s the building containing the bar that is, let’s say, problematic. The fault lies with four issues: the subsequent history of the area, the changing nature of retail, the client, and the architects themselves. All four will be explored below, but first one common myth to clear up. Despite what it might look like, the building was not erected in 1899.

It’s common to assume that a four-digit number on the front of a building tells you when it was put up. But not always. In this case, 1899 is the foundation date of the United Friendly Societies, and the place was designed by Wright, Powell & Cameron in 1911. If you don’t believe us check out the badly installed (probably repositioned) inscription below.

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For the later history of the area, look at the building on the left of the Dominion League. This was erected in the early 1920s as a billiard saloon and linked the Ferguson Building (1907) further to the left with our place. The cornices on the linking building make no attempt to line up with those on the Dominion League and just smash into empty space. This was a builder (we doubt there was an architect involved) who clearly gave no f*cks. And let’s not talk about the monstrosity set back on the right. Just no.

The 1911 building was commissioned by the United Friendly Societies to operate as a pharmacy on the ground floor with residential flats above. As the nature of retail changed, along with different construction technologies, the bottom of a commercial building could now have large plates of glass enabling shoppers to more clearly see the goods on display. This resulted in the absence of structural pillars on the ground floor, since the frontage was no longer structural.

Which leads to the two Corinthian piers (the rectangular ones at the edges) and columns above the shopfront. Since there are no structural elements below, these simply terminate on a concrete beam. Although we cannot be certain what the original shopfront looked like, it is unlikely that any architectural elements carried the piers and columns visually down to ground level. They don’t even line up with the door on the right which gave access to the flats. In theory, the verandah is meant to introduce a visual break, and allow the columns to sit happily above a modern frontage. It doesn’t work.

And the pediment is grotesquely oversized, with far too many twiddly bits, with no relationship to the scale of the building below. All in all, it looks like the client’s ego demanded a classical building but with a modern shopfront, and the whole had to look really impressive, but not cost too much to put up. We imagine the conversation went something like this:

Client: Make us a classical building on this spot. With modern retail on the bottom.

Architects: It won’t work. How about a nice entirely modern building instead?

Client: No, we want classical and modern and cheap.

Architects: Here is a quick sketch of what such a monstrosity would look like.

Client: We love it. Make it happen.

But, and there’s always a ‘but’, for all its flaws the Dominion League has its own endearing quirkiness on the outside and needs to be retained as an example for future architects about what not to do. Oh, and keep it for the wine list inside as well. Definitely for the wine list.

Great bar with an art gallery attached

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Sometimes it isn’t easy doing history and heritage for a living.  Sometimes we have to tell people that they are wrong for liking a particular building for various technical reasons, which we will tell them at great length. Mostly they just back away slowly and find someone else to talk to at the dinner party. But it is a duty we will not shirk. Welcome to the PICA Building.

Designed by George Temple Poole and opening in 1897, the Government School is clearly in a classical style, with a sort-of Italianate tower between two wings. Built as a primary school, the reason for its classical details is initially a bit of a mystery. Especially when the internal design was based on the most modern educational principles of the day, with a central double-height hall and classrooms leading off this. Boys on the ground floor, and girls on top.

Further, it is basically a steel frame with concrete floors, with pipes and other services concealed between double brick walls. This is a very modern building, both in intention and construction, so why does it have a historic façade?

The answer probably lies in the school’s controversial location: the middle of a city. By the 1890s it was thought that kids needed fresh air and large ovals to become healthy citizens. The James Street school had tiny playgrounds and no oval at all. In addition, it was located near corrupting influences, such as pubs, prostitutes, and rampant capitalism in the form of retail and industry. This was not a place to develop the young mind to its full potential.

Another issue facing the architect was that government schools were themselves controversial. While the government had been involved in education for some time, it was only towards the end of the 19th century it started taking a leading role. Some parents worried that compulsory education would turn out over-educated children unsuited to be good housewives or labourers. Poole had to find an architectural solution which would pacify the concerns over both location and intention.

He chose to envelop a thoroughly modern school building with a traditional design. This would emphasise the importance of the building, its distinctiveness in a commercial environment, and show this was a great place to send your kids. So far, so good, but it all goes downhill from here.

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As early as 1909, one architectural critic noted that the school was “notable for its large dimensions rather than for graceful design”. The style of building Poole intended requires that the central tower has two identical wings. A glance at the PICA Building shows that the two wings have nothing in common. The bricks are a different colour, the windows are different proportions, and there is a decorative frieze on the west wing (right as you look at the building) completely absent on the east. No competent architect would have designed the building this way, and Poole was far better than merely competent, so the only conclusion is that a lesser hand designed the west wing later. But not too much later, since the earliest photographs we can trace all show both wings as they are today,

Then there is the central tower. This is meant to be Venetian, but fails dismally. It is not hard to find good Italianate towers around the world, which all show elements of good design. Here, for example, is a fire station in Brandon, Manitoba, by W.A. Elliott in 1911.

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The vertical element is stressed through the brickwork at the corners, and the wrought iron balconies add to the beauty of the whole. Or consider a local example, Bunbury High School by William Hardwick in 1923. Perhaps a little more Spanish than Italian, the vertical is stressed by the openings in the tower, and it was described as adding a ‘monastic’ air to the school.

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Now compare the tower on the PICA Building. There is no sense of the vertical, the brickwork fails to convey an upwards movement, and the whole thing looks squat and, to be honest, fairly ugly. Even an attempt at a vertical element on the front is swamped by the brickwork and fails to do its job.

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Was there a budget cut or was this Poole’s original intent? We will never know because the original plans have been lost, and we only have ‘as built’ blueprints from the 1920s.

So, having criticised the building, does this mean it should be knocked down? Not at all. There are many other reasons for keeping PICA. Asides from the environmental costs of bowling over an old building and putting up a new one, it functions as a popular art gallery.

But most of all, we at Dodgy Perth would chain ourselves to railings to stop anyone taking away the PICA Bar, which is where you will often find us after a hard fifteen minutes of research at the State Records Office or State Library. Sometimes we don’t even last fifteen minutes before hitting the bar. So it has to stay. Seriously.

A bit of Paris in Perth

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Next time you drop into Petition, make sure to order something French. They have a Petit Chablis which has good reviews, so that’s on our must-drink list (yes, we have a must-drink list) when we take another look at George Temple Poole’s Old GPO building. This is now part of the Central Government Buildings or, as they are more commonly known, the Old Treasury.

One of the things architects fear the most, other than mislaying their designer glasses, is being seen as derivative. A difficult job to undertake is designing additions to an existing building or set of buildings. The new work has to complement the structures already there, but not copy them so closely that you don’t look an original architect. In other words, the architect must triumph over their predecessor, but not look too arrogant while doing so. This is a very difficult feat to pull off, but it is exactly what George Temple Poole achieved with his additions to the Central Government Buildings, which opened in 1890.

Poole was faced with a site which already had two older building, both designed by Richard Roach Jewell, and are now the wings along Barrack Street and Cathedral Avenue. These were proving completely inadequate for the needs of civil servants, and Poole was asked to link the two buildings with new offices and to include a post office while he was at it. His solution was so effective that some architectural critics believe he was simply showing ‘architectural good manners’ and respecting Jewell’s earlier work. He was most definitely not.

The only acknowledgement of the existing buildings was to use Flemish bond brickwork, which is alternating ‘headers’ and ‘stretchers’, usually in two different colours. Speaking of colour, have a look at how the new bricks are completely different to the older ones. This is most noticeable in the third storey of each of the wings, since Jewell’s original buildings only had two floors and a flat roof. No attempt was made to match the shades of the bricks.

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Under construction, 1889

The inspiration for the central element on St George’s Terrace was definitely French architecture. One possible model is the Hotel de Ville in Paris, which shows similar chimneys, Mansard rooflines, and dormer windows. But Poole did not copy this building, he just took some of the ratios and overall concept, adding in a little English Queen Anne style for the windows and other details. Poole was declaring that this was his building, and his alone.

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To link the central element to the older buildings, the setbacks either side of the middle gives more prominence to Poole’s contribution, and once again clearly shows what is old and what is new. Finally, the windows on Jewell’s portion were redecorated with the same design as the new ones, and when third storeys were added, they also got Mansard roofs. The new skin on Jewell’s earlier buildings transformed their character, making them just another part of Poole’s overall project. His project.

And it works. The style conformed to expectations for what a government building should look like, integrated existing buildings, and created what was the most impressive building in Perth at the time. Plus, this was no simple addition, it was a novel work, one which showed Poole could meet head on the circumstances he was faced with and triumph as an original architect. Not bad for a simple linking element.

And now for that glass of Petit Chablis to celebrate our unusual French(ish) building on St George’s Terrace.

How architects exorcise their demons

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One of our favourite bars is Helvetica, in a laneway off Howard Street. If you’re a whisky fan there is no better place to be. Before heading in for a dram (or two) pause on Howard Street to look at a very fine piece of Gothic architecture, the Haynes, Robinson & Cox Building, which opened in 1907.

The history of Gothic Revival architecture is complex, but it basically boils down to a rejection of industrialisation and a longing for a time when objects were not mass produced. Its leading supporters saw Medieval cathedrals as the greatest buildings ever, whose every stone told a story of an individual skilled artisan taking pride in their work. And now for a brief digression on pubic hair. Seriously.

A significant figure in promoting Gothicism was the English art critic John Ruskin, and the story goes that he was unable to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because his entire knowledge of the female body came from Greek statues, which don’t have much going on down below. As a result, on their wedding night the sight of her lady parts revolted him, or as Effie put it: “He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was”. Eventually she left Ruskin for his protege, John Millais, with whom she had eight children. So somebody appreciated her body, anyway.

Anyway, back to the Howard Street building. Designed by Charles Oldham to be used as offices for lawyers, it is a no-expense-spared construction (we wanted to say erection, but see above) with fine Gothic detailing on both the exterior and interior.

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Yet the Haynes, Robinson & Cox Building was not erected by teams of traditional masons struggling for decades to produce fine stonework, but is thoroughly modern in design and construction. So what is going on here? The answer almost certainly lies in how big an architect’s ego is. Every architect wants at least one building which is impressive enough to guarantee their name will go down in history. But they have the problem that the components of architecture are derived from tradition, and even more so when it comes to the Gothic.

If Medieval cathedrals were the greatest buildings ever, what else is the unfortunate modern architect going to do except copy certain elements and always look derivative? Poets and novelists often face this same heart-breaking dilemma as well. Fortunately, the answer came with the arrival of steel and concrete.

George Temple Poole bemoaned the fate of the poor architect in 1909 when he pointed out that every building since 1400, when techniques of construction were perfected, was just a pale imitation of the original. All the modern designer could do was “play with our buildings”. But Poole was not going to let history beat him, and he announced that steel and concrete, things unknown to Medieval architects, allowed him a way to surpass his predecessors. Buildings could now be designed to any form or shape, and style can be introduced to any scale and (as the people paying for it will love) much cheaper than in the past.

In effect, Poole is putting a middle finger up to all the architects of history and saying that he can design and erect anything he likes, whereas they were constrained by the physics of the stone they were working with. You want Gothic? You got it. Italian Renaissance? No problems.

This did lead to complications for the architect, such as handing a lot of power over to engineering firms for the structural parts of a building, which would come back to haunt them a decade or so later. But for the meantime, architects could rejoice in the fact they had beaten the system, triumphed over history, and could now produce innovative works for which they would become famous. And our Howard Street building tells us exactly that story.

The Old Courthouse, Frankenstein and Ancient Greece

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What connects Frankenstein to Perth’s Old Courthouse? What links the columns at the entrance to Ancient Athens? And why hasn’t the courthouse been turned into a small bar like every other old building in the city? Answers to two of these three questions will follow.

Acclaimed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to a daughter. Her grieving partner didn’t feel able to cope with a new baby, so she was brought up for several years by friends, who had a young boy named Henry Reveley. This led to a life-long friendship between the young girl and Henry. She would grow up to become Mary Shelley and write the classic Frankenstein.

Henry became an engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, and comrade of Mary’s partner, the poet Percy Shelley, whom he even saved from drowning on one occasion. Unfortunately, Henry also persuaded Percy to invest in an expensive engineering project which came to nothing, and this must have put some strain on the friendship.

After a brief stay in Cape Town as colonial engineer, Henry was recruited by James Stirling and travelled with him on the Parmelia to help found a new colony in Western Australia. He was now responsible for all public works, under which circumstances he had to be less engineer and more architect. One of his buildings which still survives is the Old Courthouse.

Opening in 1837, this building was controversial from the start. Due to a lack of funds, Henry was instructed to erect something which could serve as both court and church. In America this would have been a clear violation of the separation of Church and State, something Western Australia did not have, but it still made a lot of people very uneasy.

It also created enormous difficulties for the architect. Courts and churches have very different internal arrangements and making one building which could do both jobs was no easy task, especially with a very limited budget. The solution involved a number of compromises, which meant it was neither a great court nor a great church, but the young colony muddled along with the end result anyway.

But there was still one problem left for Henry to solve. The very plain exterior of the building, there was no money for ornamentation, required some kind of grand statement to show that it was an important place in the new colony. Yet it also had to reflect the dual function of the new edifice. Henry’s answer was inspired: he designed a portico with Doric columns which are a replica of those at the Parthenon in Athens.

Over the centuries, the Parthenon had been many things: temple, court, parliament, Christian Church and Mosque. This made it the ideal model for a mixed-use building. In addition, in more recent times Henry would have known the Parthenon also stood as a symbol for democracy itself, especially in American architecture. Increasingly, Ancient Athens was the model for any new republic or way of organising a democratic society. Of course, the Swan River Colony was not yet a democracy in 1837, but one could always hope.

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How do we know Henry’s Doric columns are definitely modelled on the Parthenon? The capitals (the tops of the columns) are simple, mere ‘buns’, the shafts are fluted (the grooves), and the columns smash into the pavement with no base, which is a definite sign of being patterned on the Athenian building. No other ancient building could have been the reference.

There are still a few mysteries, such as why the pediment looks so modernist, being simple rectangular strips. If we didn’t have old photographs of the courthouse, it would look like a replacement for something more complex. But it does appear the pediment is exactly the way Henry designed it.

The only other mystery is how long it will take to kick out the Law Museum and get ourselves an upmarket small bar in the building. We suggest ‘Henry’s Place’ for a name.