Recently I was lucky enough to gain access to the Flinders Street Ballroom. Whenever people hear that I am writing about Flinders Street they ask whether the ballroom exists and if I’ve been there. The artist's collective, Contemporary Site Investigations (CSI), who had a month long residency here, call it “a coveted space” which certainly sums up the fascination of my questioners.
I’d seen the old black & white photos, and the more recent images in The Age, but they didn’t bring across the lovely atmosphere of the Ballroom. Perhaps it was the spring afternoon sun slanting through the dusty windows rendering the stained walls golden brown, or the graceful way the curved pressed metal ceiling enfolded you, but the room was cozier and less spooky than I expected it to be.
It's solidity was reassuring. The room had wonderful acoustics, the parquet floor didn’t echo or shudder under our feet, and the place smelt of dust, nothing worse. Pattering over the dusty floor, my over-active imagination started to churn and I pictured myself hiding out during the zombie apocalypse or wandering through white muslin curtains festooned with overblown roses to find Sleeping Beauty’s four poster bed or Miss Haversham’s wedding cake. But enough of such borrowed stories... I've discovered a story of my own which I will detail later.
When I stepped through into the bright kitchen beyond (the stove was still there, and you could easily imagine people warming up party pies and sausage rolls for supper break), I was aware of being in a quiet eyrie at the end of the building, way above the busy city street and bustling station below.
Although it’s the ballroom that’s captured the popular imagination, it’s not the only lovely space within the station. There was once a whole little entertainment centre on the 3rd floor, all belonging to the Victorian Railways Institute (VRI). The VRI‘s aims were the “self-betterment” of railway workers with a subtext of luring them away from the suspect pleasures of unionism. To that end, there was a ballroom, classrooms and meeting rooms for a whole range of societies, a billiard room, a library and a gymnasium. Click here to explore Jenny Davies website of stories about the VRI at Flinders Street Station.
Since the VRI rented out many of these facilities to the public, the station acted as a kind of community centre/neighbourhood house for the inner city. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it could do so again?
The light and airy gym was last used in 1994, and the old ropes still hung from the ceiling. One of the CSI artists, Robbie Rowlands, used the gym to present a filmed performance piece called Vulnerable that re-constructed the boxing ring that was once there, and turned pieces of 80's office furniture into sculptures. In one corner, old digital watches which the artist had collected from around the space, were piled into a heap. No one knew how they got here or why they were abandoned, but they seemed oddly symbolic of the space itself.
After seeing the gym, we climbed a narrow flight of stairs onto a flat section of the station roof, once used as a running track for athletes. What a view! We leant against the parapet and admired the river sparkling below and the trains and people bustling in and out of the station. I felt smugly privileged to be here. We could see west to the bobbly white shapes of the sports stadiums along Batman Avenue, and east to where the thin masts of the Polly Woodside were reflected in the glass cliffs of the Melbourne Convention Centre.
Later, at a bar on Southbank, we looked back at where we’d been. When you know where it is, you can see the ballroom clearly. It’s under the curved galvanized steel roof at the Elizabeth Street end of the building.
I recently asked my father about his experiences at Flinders Street Station. He startled me by saying that in the early 60's he met my mother in the ballroom - fancy my reaching my forties and not knowing that fact! The Youth Hostels Association used to run meetings there, and Mum came up and signed on for a bush walk that Dad was organising. Given how many of their friends met through YHA, how many other groups met in the same space, and that for many years dances were held there, the ballroom may well be the great unsung hero of Melbourne genealogy.
I'm sure there are more stories out there. So, as part of our blog we are calling for love stories related to the station… Funny, poignant, delightful… it may be an awkward first date that began under the clocks or, a story about your parents. Comment here or contact us on the Culture Victoria Facebook page or email us at [email protected]
Flinders Street in Art
On 19-21 October, 2012 Contemporary Site Investigations (CSI)– artists Campbell Drake, Cameron Robbins, Elizabeth Drake, Robbie Rowlands, James Carey and Jeremy Taylor - presented a series of site-specific art events from within the historic, hidden realms of Flinders Street Station as part of a Public Art Commission from the City of Melbourne’s Public Art Program. Pieces set in the Mailroom, the Ballroom, the Gymnasium and the Elizabeth Street Clock tower were recorded and broadcast through various public spaces at Flinders Street and on the big screen at Federation Square. The artists also created and distributed a broadsheet celebrating the paperboys who used to work on the Flinders Street Steps under the clocks.
Renowned composer and pianist Elizabeth Drake and fellow pianist Caroline Almonte helped create a new story for the ballroom by performing Simeon Ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato, Piano Phase. I'd love to know how they got the twin grand pianos up the narrow stairs. Since the space remained off-limits to the public, the performance was broadcast into the dome, through the platforms and via a live feed to Federation Square. I sat in one of the Fed Square deck chairs and watched the performance on the Big Screen as the evening sun dipped behind the station.