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.

Is this Perth’s greatest building?

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Welcome to the Stripped Classical, our favourite architectural style named after our favourite way of not wearing clothing. You are certainly familiar with Newspaper House on St George’s Terrace, but probably only because it now leads to a range of different drinking establishments behind. But before you drop into Print Hall for a glass of Shiraz, take a moment to study the façade.

If the building looks almost perfectly proportioned, that’s because it is. Designed by warrior-architect J. J. Talbot Hobbs and opened in 1933, every ratio, every line, every window is exactly (and we mean exactly) according to the rules laid down by architects from the Renaissance onwards. To see what we mean, look at the building below.

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This is the Deutsche Bank building in Bremen, Germany, which was finished in 1891 and is designed in the Historicist Style. It obviously has many more pretty bits than Newspaper House, but if you were to overlay a picture of Perth’s building onto the German one every column and window and floor would line up perfectly. Talbot Hobbs did not copy this building, he just used the same mathematical rules as the German architects.

But where are all the famous columns, entablatures and architraves (and other technical words it is necessary to know to convince people you are a real architectural historian) that we associate with classical architecture? They are simply missing. Well, except for two Ionic columns we will return to later.

Stripped Classicism is a response to two things: Modernism and the Great Depression. Modernists were obsessed with getting rid of all the decorative elements on a building, and façades should only reflect exactly the function of the rooms behind them. No ornament, no trimmings, no colours, just arrangements of spaces. A mechanised architecture for an increasingly industrialised society. And, yes, Modernists thought this was a good idea.

The Depression meant developers had less money to spend on buildings, so anything that saved cost, like not having ornamentation on the outside, suited them perfectly. Yet Newspaper House is not a Modernist building, and its shape does not simply reflect the functions going on behind the façade. So what is going on here?

There is a big argument in the history of architecture as to whether the Stripped Classical is anti-Modernist or just another development of Modernism. We won’t go into details here, but simply state that we hold to the second opinion. Talbot Hobbs was Modernist enough to want to get rid of details, something the owners, The West Australian, would have loved, but didn’t want to go down the route of plain white concrete walls. Instead, he chose classical proportions and allusions to pillars, while keeping the building thoroughly modern and cheap(ish).

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For a very different Stripped Classical building, although slightly less naked than Newspaper House, look at Munster House on Murray Street, not too far from King Street. Designed by Frederick Upton and opened in 1929, it has slightly more going on at the top and a few more twiddly bits, but exactly conforms to the mathematical principles of classical design.

So, if Stripped Classicism was cheaper than standard classical architecture, and more pretty than Modernist buildings, why did it only exist for a such a short time? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is two people: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. They fell in love with Stripped Classicism and many Nazi and Soviet buildings show exactly the same design principles. After World War II, doing things that Hitler liked was, for some strange reason, not very popular, so it fell out of fashion.

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And now to return to those two Ionic columns in the middle of Newspaper House. Why are they there? Did Talbot Hobbs suddenly regret his use of a modern idiom and start to long for a return to older architectural motifs? Probably not. The answer almost certainly lies in the fact that Newspaper House was built in the centenary year of The West Australian, and they would have wanted this connection with the history of the State to be reflected. Look at what they hold up: the words ‘Newspaper House’. The whole building is supported by real history, although thoroughly modern at the same time.

So Talbot Hobbs created one of Perth’s most interesting buildings, by combining history, modernity and the needs of the owners. And now you have our permission to go inside for a glass of wine.

Gay clubbing in 1918

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1910s professional female impersonator, Julian Eltinge

What was it like to go to a gay club in 1918? To find out we need to follow an undercover reporter and his friend into one of the best Perth had to offer. At least he said he was ‘undercover’. Strangely, our hack seems to know almost everyone present. But we’ll play along, and assume he was there strictly for journalistic reasons.

Back in the gold boom days, the best gay club in town was ‘Flora Dora’, which was so established it seems people didn’t mind being seen there, but there were others. But just after World War I, only one club was up and running for men who wanted to hang around with other men, unless you count such places as the Weld Club. Which we won’t.

In 1918, underground advertisements for ‘The Misogynist’s Ball’ started circulating. We assume the event name was ironic, or perhaps a simple way of being able to not invite the wife. “Darling, I’d love you to come, but you would hate all those misogynists.” The sale of tickets was kept very private, only available to those in the know, and almost everyone attending wore fancy dress and a mask to keep their identity secret. Or, at least, to pretend to keep their identity secret. The advert ran:

Almost all the social elements of a large city have their club or meeting place—the fat, the bald, the bachelors, the widowers—why not the misogynists?

The location was one of Perth’s well-known dancing halls, and our ‘undercover’ pair entered around midnight. Dancing was going on, to the music of a good orchestra. Naturally, it being the past, the air is thick with tobacco smoke, preventing the newcomers from making out the details of the scene. Most of the people were masked, and very few in formal dance wear of suits and ballgowns. But now our intrepid couple can make out one lady, who pirouetted in front of them, cigar in her mouth, and with a small beard half-hidden by makeup. She was now talking to someone dressed as an angel, in tights, with an exposed breast and bare arms. You won’t be surprised, and nor was our journo, to find out these were “men dressed as women!” [Exclamation mark in the original.]

Someone dressed as a clown was speaking “tender words” to a ballet dancer, with his arm around her waist. Despite her good figure, her brilliant earrings, her necklace, her “shapely shoulders”, and all the other hallmarks of the fair sex, the ballet dancer also turns out to be a man.

On the other hand, some who are clearly identifiable as men are behaving effeminately. With his carefully trained mustache, makeup and blackened eyebrows, a salesman from one of the larger confectioners is sporting an elegant black gown, gold bracelets and a fan held in white gloves.

Perhaps in another corner, our journalist explorers can discover some normality. Several elderly gentlemen are gathered round a group of ladies who have amazing breasts, although they are all drinking and cracking indelicate jokes. These, at least, must be real ladies, declares our hero. His companion corrects him. The one on the right with the brown hair is a barber, the blonde with the pearl necklace was a tailor who appeared tonight as Miss Ella, while the third was a well-known female impersonator from Perth’s stages, the famed Lottie.

Our hack is shocked. Lottie has a great waist, an amazing bust, and delicate arms! Even so, Lottie was once an accountant, and now makes a living by being a professional woman, tonight singing in an experienced contralto voice. Somehow our ‘undercover’ reporter is well acquainted with the fact that this former accountant wears an embroidered night-dress after dark. Let’s not ask how he knows this.

Perhaps unexpectedly, there are cis women at the ball. But they seem to keep to themselves, while the males ignore them. Perhaps some cis women went to a gay club like some might today: to find a space where they can have a good night out without anyone hitting on them.

Anyway, Perth’s gay and transgender community was very much present in 1918, as they were before, and have been ever since. They were here, queer, and it seems a pity it took so long to get used to them.

Slander in suburbia (not to mention the pyjamas)

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Fences make for good neighbours. Allegedly.

Edwin Oswald was an elderly man, who in 1925 lived with his wife in Bayswater. But, like many a married man before and since, he decided he wasn’t getting enough at home, so resolved to get some elsewhere in exchange for a monetary transaction. If you get our meaning.

Fortunately for Edwin, he knew where some was available on King William Street in Bayswater and wrote a very precise letter stating the date and time he would turn up, together with a few somewhat explicit lines detailing what he would require when he got there. Then he put the missive in the mailbox and waited for the appointment.

At 7pm on his chosen day in March 1925, he arrived and knocked on the door. The door was opened by Mrs Ethel Drew who demanded to know what he wanted. After telling him she didn’t want him there, he replied with the romantic words “But I want you.” At this point, one Constable White stepped forwards from the shadows and arrested Edwin for using insulting words towards a lady.

But this was not a simple case of a mistaken address, for Edwin had good (if wrong) reasons for believing his indecent request would be fulfilled, for it was common knowledge that Ethel was King William Street’s most available prostitute. Only she wasn’t. She was a war widow with two young daughters, and nothing but gossip to link her to the world’s oldest profession.

The rumours had been started by one of Ethel’s neighbours, Edith Nelson. The pair had once been friends, and had fallen out for some reason or other now lost to us. Edith told everyone who would listen that more than a dozen men a week would go in and out of Ethel’s house, and that she only ever paid tradesmen with (ahem) gifts in kind.

She went around the neighbourhood letting mothers know that all sons should beware of a certain house on King William Street. And Edith was not without good evidence. Oh no. Not only had Ethel started dressing better of late, Edith, with her own eyes, had seen men’s pyjamas drying on the washing line. And why would an innocent widow have pyjamas on a line unless she was a hooker? Why indeed, we would still ask today.

So, like the good Christian she was, Edith went straight to the parson of the church where both Edith and Ethel worshipped, and demanded he denounce her neighbour from the pulpit. Rather understandably, Rev Howes declined the offer, even though Edith pointed out that the church was now in the unenviable position of taking offerings each Sunday from a woman of ill repute.

The visit of Edwin Oswald to her door seems to have been the last straw for the much-maligned Ethel, who sued her neighbour for slander. After a case which very much entertained the reporters, his Honour decided that Edith was indeed a slanderer, and she now owed her neighbour £60 in damages. Which presumably meant that Ethel could dress very nicely indeed after that victory.

Fighting the British, one arch at a time

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All arches are created equal

Some buildings are revolutionary. Literally. Like kick-out-the-Brits type revolutionary. And you probably wouldn’t think that a humble church hall in Claremont would be the place to start looking for this. But you should.

If you travel down Stirling Highway, probably cursing the traffic as you crawl along, you’ll notice Congregational Hall at Claremont, which was built in 1896. The church, on the right in the picture above, was erected a decade later. While it might not seem much to look at now, the hall was part of a movement to rid ourselves of British influence.

When people in the 1890s started talking about Federation and a new country, architects were not going to be left out of this exciting new movement. Henry Stirling Trigg was the first qualified architect to be born in Western Australia so, unsurprisingly, he wanted to contribute. But if English architecture was to be abandoned, where was he going to look for new ideas? He needed a country that had also broken free from the motherland and formed its own identity. Naturally, he thought of the good old U. S. of A.

The Americans call the style the ‘Richardsonian’, but we decided it was sexier to described the architecture as being ‘American Romanesque’. The easiest way to spot it is to look for rounded arches and, quite often, rustication, which is where you cut back the edges of the stone leaving a perfectly regular block with a rough surface in the middle.

The entrance to Congregational Hall and the windows above are good examples of the American Romanesque at work. Even better is the very fine Trinity Church on St George’s Terrace, also by Henry Stirling Trigg and opened in 1893. Although it’s in brick not stone, this is American Romanesque at its finest.

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Or nearly its finest, because there was an even better building which we have now lost. On the corner of St George’s Terrace and Howard Street used to be Surrey Chambers. Designed by Edward Herbert Dean Smith in 1903, this was one of the greatest buildings ever to be put up in Perth. Just look at those rounded arches. And, if you feel like being depressed, go and look at what’s replaced it.

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So, there you have it. An imported style of architecture specifically intended to be not-British for a new nation which saw itself coming into being. Next time you see these rounded arches, you’ll know that it wasn’t just a fashionable design, it was a political statement.