Thinking about walking

Tram on Beaufort Street near Dundas Road

I am currently writing a guided walk which takes you on a journey through the history of Inglewood. But what does it mean for a suburb to have a history? Too often, local heritage tours are little more than a catalogue of dates and early occupants: such and such a building was erected in 1935 and was originally a deli. If history is understood to be the exploration of causes of events, rather than just a description of the events, then this kind of tour is not historical. It may be enjoyable, nostalgic, or even result in an increased appreciation of local streetscapes, but it is quite different to a walk grounded in history as a discipline. This is not to say my style of tour is better, it just the type of guided walk I prefer to do.

So, what historical causes lie behind a suburb? At heart there is only one answer: money. Houses cost money to make and sell for more money than they cost to erect. Roads may be made by local authorities, but they must pay the workers. Shops are places where cash is traded for goods needed, or just desired, by residents. Tracking the flow of capital, then, is one way of peeking behind the curtain to discover the causes of a suburb. In Perth histories this often takes the form of explaining 1890s architecture, especially in the CBD, as the consequence of the wealth generated by the gold boom.

This is a start, but only a start and other explanations must be added. Gold does not automatically create ionic columns on a façade, so the origin and meaning of the Federation-era classical revival requires input from architectural history. Technological advances also play a role, most importantly the development of reinforced concrete. The other place for technology is transport. A suburb is only desirable if the residents can get to and from places of employment. Since these were concentrated in the CBD for much of Perth’s history, the development of places like Inglewood requires mass transportation, such as trams. And trams need rails to be laid and electricity to be supplied, before houses become useful for commuters, which takes us back to money.

The historian has an obligation not only to explain causes but to be engaging. Table after table showing the correlation between land prices, average income and commuting times may be explanatory but they are very boring. They may be useful for research, but the reader often prefers history as narrative. Stories rather than numbers. To illustrate this, I will look at an unlikely source for a theory of history involving Inglewood: developers.

In October 1926 Peet & Co advertised to country visitors coming to Perth to attend the Royal Show. They were asked to note the improvements in the road network, tram and bus infrastructure, even that there were more taxis on the streets.[1] Of course, this was advertising, not government boasting, so there was a point to all this. Increased accessibility meant more desirable suburban houses, so the price of land would go up. The target audience was not those who wanted a new house to live in, but people looking to invest. Once you could not give land away in Inglewood and Victoria Park, claimed Peet & Co, now only the rich could afford to buy there. This is deceptive advertising for two reasons: Inglewood was not as desirable in 1926 as claimed here, and Peet & Co had little to do with that suburb anyway, which was predominantly developed by different capitalists, Gold Estate Ltd.

Overall, however, Peet & Co were right about the link between transport and land prices. It is only when the advertisement suddenly lurches into historiography we might be taken aback. “Real estate history, like all other history, repeats itself”. Now these developers are not the first capitalists to advertise guaranteed returns on your investment. Because history. It is probably superfluous to note worldwide events just three years later showed most people such claims were lies as the Depression hit Western Australia like everywhere else. But Peet & Co did not need to believe their advert, the prospective buyer did: the investors, retailers and homeowners who make suburbs what they are. For now, I just want to notice the explicit claim made by these capitalists linking the guaranteed growth of your investment to the guaranteed growth of a suburb to the guaranteed continuous expansion of the (often publicly funded) transport infrastructure. Suburbs are not born, they are created.

The necessity of transport for developers is made clear when an extension of the tram service up Beaufort Street was proposed in the middle of World War I. The line had ended at Walcott Street since 1899 and there was a desperate need for better service north of this. Clearly, the war had impacted house sales, and lack of easy connections to town was not helping. Consequently, the main developers of Mount Lawley and Inglewood, Gold Estates Ltd, offered to subsidise the new line by £800 if the extension was to Second Avenue or £1,000 if the extension was to Fourth Avenue. The government took the former option, asserting that, in 1916, the war effort meant a shortage of iron rails.

This economic analysis, which involved few numbers, offers an explanation for patterns of development but fails to offer insights into the precise nature of the built form resulting or the patterns of class structure within a neighbourhood. For these we need input from architectural and technological history and, perhaps surprisingly, the history of fashion. Two examples should suffice for now: a row of shops and a California Bungalow.

No industry is as responsive to the opportunities offered by new technologies as retail. The two key technologies for understanding suburban shops are reinforced concrete and the ever-lowering cost of large sheets of glass. Inglewood has no fancy large department stores or, to be blunt, any retail outlets with noteworthy architectural features. By contrast, Subiaco retains a few double-storey buildings showing appealing ornamentation from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But lack of ornament should not discourage the architectural historian from explaining a building with the same methodology they would use on a grand hotel.

Inglewood’s most common older retail takes the form of small blocks, usually in fours, of single-storey shops with a pediment and cantilevered verandah. Because such premises were constructed by a developer without knowing who would occupy them, it is pointless to seek evidence for particular trades. Each shop is intentionally generic to attract the widest variety of potential occupants. Nor is it often worth looking at the aesthetic balance of the frontages, because if architects were involved, the primary motivation was to produce useable and attractive shops at the minimum cost, not to conform to classic notions of ratios.

That said, while form definitely does follow function, function should not be restricted to a space to stock goods while they await a paying customer. Even the suburban retailer needs to attract shoppers and display their ware both internally and to the outside world. Which is where the ever-increasing size of single panes of glass became important in the world of commerce. And even the pediment required some decorative elements, at least in the 1920s and ’30s, to advertise the shopping block as having some ‘class’. As such, the façades and pediments on Beaufort Street can be usefully analysed as a demonstration of at least, if not often exceeding, the minimum standards of aesthetics the average consumer demanded of a retail outlet. Such tastes changed over time, so differences between rows of shops can also be explored.

And the question of taste links us to the California Bungalow, the most common style of architecture seen on the ‘avenues’ of Inglewood. Heather Burke, a much better architectural historian than I will ever be, argues that architectural styles are signifiers of class, so the California Bungalow is advertising something about how the occupants see themselves. Somewhat hesitantly, given Burke’s standing, I wish to both demur from this view and to complicate it. She tacitly assumes the owners of houses select their appearance and therefore, either consciously or unconsciously, agree with the ideology represented by the style. But Inglewood streets were constructed and retailed by developers, who therefore chose this style and then needed to seek an appropriate market. Or to create the appropriate market.

Creating a market is a way of defining taste in the target audience, to say what is fashionable or, in the word most used in the 1920s and ’30s, modern. In fact, the term California Bungalow was rarely applied to Inglewood homes, they were simply described as modern. To see this in action, I will look at a home which is still around on the corner of Fifth Avenue and John Street. (Yes, this is technically Mount Lawley, but the example still works for Inglewood homes.) Erected in 1926, the advertorial uses the word ‘modern’ in both the headline and body text: it is a ‘modern home’ embodying ‘modern design’.[2] It is also ‘charming’ and ‘pretty’, but it is modernity which is the key selling point with cement verandahs, with dwarf walls and roughcast pillars, and a beamed ceiling. In passing, it should be noted there was also a shelf for your ornaments, although mentioning this does seem excessive.

Of course, it is possible to argue this home reflects the status and personality of the owner who commissioned it, but the language of the advertorial is not aimed at Mr W. C. Brear but at the reader who is supposed to desire the same style for themselves. For large areas of Inglewood, and Mount Lawley, it is possible to see house after house constructed in an almost identical fashion. These were not built to reflect the status and personality of an individual, but to be bought by people who had read the advertising and come to identify themselves as a prospective owner of such a place. For Inglewood, this was predominantly people from the lower middle class.

When combined, movement of capital, technological opportunities, and advertising what is fashionable explain the patterns of development and the built form constructed there. A tour of Inglewood’s history must cover all these aspects. Which leads to the central problem for the writer of such a walk, in this case me. No one wants a twenty-minute lecture in front of each building, just a few sentences to encapsulate the meaning and importance of the place within the context of the tour and the history of the suburb. I believe this is possible but requires experimentation and feedback from trial audiences to see what works and what does not. Trust me, I am doing my best.

[1] Sunday Times 3 October 1926: 36

[2] Sunday Times 14 March 1926: 10