Melbourne’s grandest dames


On a return trip to his favourite city, Neil D.A. Stewart explores some old favourites and discovers some of vintage Melbourne’s hidden places

Melbourne’s grandest dames

Every visit I make to Melbourne, I travel in time. Backwards, taking a nostalgic trip along the streets I used to walk to work on Chapel Street when I lived in South Yarra, or for the weekly shop at Prahran Market, where the fresh pasta stall has been serving up the same great ravioli since I first set foot there twenty years ago. Backwards, seeing through a palimpsest of subsequent architectural and infrastructural comings and goings to the Melbourne of previous visits, or looking down from Birrarung Marr – once a single bridgeway connecting the Yarra river to the CBD, now part of a huge network of such walkways – to the sandy riverbank where there once stood a grove of spearlike metal pennants, then a Niki de Saint Phalle-like gryphon in ceramic, and this time the site of a night market selling dim sum.

Rumour was that off one corridor in these offices lay a ballroom, a fact I and my colleagues found implausible

I gain new favourites each time, such as the chic, architecturally exquisite United Places next to the Botanic Gardens (on the site of what used to be a favourite café, My Legendary Girlfriend) – all Le Labo and B&O, a boutique hotel I’ll very happily return to in future. But each time, too, I find the new old: places I overlooked, or that nobody – caught up in the welter of the always-new in a city that sometimes seems keen to demolish any building that’s stood for more than a few decades – thought to suggest I visit.

The Work Room, RONE

One unchanging landmark, since 1909 anyway, is the great yellow span of Flinders Street Station. As a working holiday visa-holder, I spent one spring doing data entry in the offices under the famous dome that overlooks the corner of Flinders and Swanston Street. Rumour was that off one corridor in these offices lay a ballroom, a fact I and my colleagues found implausible. In Time, his 2022–3 installation on the top storey of the building, street artist Rone inserted a parallel dimension into Flinders Street, transforming newly vacated rooms into leaf-scattered, dust-bedecked spaces – libraries, classrooms, factories (above) – that seemed to have lain undisturbed for impossible decades. Here, at last, was that ballroom, where creepers were slowly taking over tarnished metal trellises and an unseen gramophone spun ancient tunes.

The Rendezvous Hotel

Across the road and a few years after the station was unveiled, the Rendezvous Hotel – now part of a mini-chain with outposts in Singapore and throughout Australia – opened as the Commercial Travellers’ Association of Victoria. Nowadays its rooms are trim and comfortable, but there’s a hint, in the grander architecture within which they’re set, of the building’s glamorous past. Long corridors seem to mimic the over-track halls of the station opposite. A viewing gallery encircles the upper level of the double-height entrance vestibule, upheld by huge black marble pillars; the baroque-inflected façade – designed, like the interior, by Henry “Harry” Tompkins – boasts scrolling buttresses and a pair of mascarons with rather petulant expressions explained, perhaps, by the cantilevered hotel entrance being supported on struts that protrude from their mouths. Like seemingly all streets adjacent to major train stations, this part of Flinders Street is a bit unlovely, which may explain why I passed the Rendezvous many times without registering it; when you pause to take it in, it’s really rather beautiful and, despite this plum location, oddly un-talked about.

@oldvintagemelbourne, Instagram

For Melbourne-philes, the @oldvintagemelbourne Instagram account operated by Chris Macheras is a trove of historic images. Familiar streets are cluttered with long-defunct businesses; milk bars with corrugated roofs come and go, train stations are merged or demolished – yet, pleasingly, it also shows us how many of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century behemoths have endured. One of them occupies a whole block on Spring Street, the boulevard that marks the east end of the CBD: the Hotel Windsor, first opened in 1884. It’s another terrific location, facing Parliament House and the park that surrounds it. Inside, I experienced a different kind of interdimensional travel: to a parallel world in which my grandmother had successfully decorated a grand hotel. Fabulously, I stayed in the King George V suite, a flat-out enormous series of rooms filled with gilt-framed pictures, champagne-coloured curtains with scalloped pelmets, three-piece suites in rose-gold and a superabundance of “brown furniture”: sideboards, dressing tables, console cabinets and what I concluded, after some confusion, must be a coal scuttle. On these sit tilting mirrors, candelabra and busts of historical worthies (bedside tables, in a rare anachronistic misstep, bizarrely feature built-in clock radios). Yet its scale means the suite feels remarkably uncluttered.

Making your way down these five flights you feel simultaneously like you’re in a spy drama and an Inception-style sci-fi

Outside, the public spaces are both luxurious and pleasingly weird. Lush red carpets unroll along seemingly infinite corridors; minor staircases off them, shrouded in deep shadow, lead upwards to black voids. The hallways give onto a huge and surreal grand staircase: from above, the dimensions are just a little bit off, with the broad, very shallow steps resembling a possibly unending series of ramps; cartouches on each carpeted tread and mandala-like mosaics on landings give a slippery, Magic-Eye effect. The King George V suite invites you to roleplay a cut scene from The Crown; making your way down these five flights you feel simultaneously like you’re in a spy drama and an Inception-style sci-fi. What awaits you outside, just as it would have in the 1880s, might be a Melbourne that’s windswept and rainblown, or scorchingly bright. In here, the hours and seasons have had no effect: the Windsor is a timeless dream. C


United Places, 157 Domain Road, South Yarra, VIC 3141
61-3 9866 6467;

Rendezvous Hotel Melbourne, 328 Flinders Street, VIC 3000
61-3 9250 1888;

The Hotel Windsor Melbourne, 111 Spring Street, VIC 3000
61-3 9633 6600;


Neil D.A. Stewart visited Melbourne with the kind support of Visit Victoria and Visit Melbourne