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If Melbourne is to show a happy face, Flinders Street Station will need a lot of work, writes Alan Atwood.
ONE night recently I was gazing across the Yarra from the south side of Princes Bridge. I was admiring the view, especially the venerable Flinders Street Station all lit up, when I remembered the music I once heard seeping out of the building.
There hasn't been any music for a long time now. And much of this Melbourne landmark's interior has been allowed to rot like teeth overdue for the dentist.
That music I heard, wafting into a warm evening around 25 years ago, came from a dance band playing in the Victorian Railways Institute ballroom on the third floor of the station building, down the Elizabeth Street end. It was like a hidden world up there: the ballroom; a gymnasium; a lending library; meeting rooms - facilities once described as "more akin to a gentlemen's club than a railway station".
They have all been let slide. A whole section of the heritage-listed building is locked up and derelict. I had a look four years ago. Getting in wasn't easy, for those parts of the station that don't help trains run on time are like the unwanted pet in a family break-up.
State Government, through the Department of Infrastructure, owns the building; Connex manages it. Neither has had the will or imagination or money to work on the ballroom, originally a lecture theatre dating back to the early 1900s.
I remember a closed metal gate dividing refurbished areas of the building, used for administration, from the rest. I thought of Charles Dickens' Pip returning to Miss Havisham's faded mansion in Great Expectations. Where once there had been music and laughter there were rat-traps, pigeon shit and crumbling plasterwork. The parquet dance floor had lifted around the edges.
Yet for all its neglect and grime, the ballroom and surrounds, which have great river and city views, didn't seem like a hopeless case - certainly in a better state than the GPO after the fire. And look at it now. There has been no shortage of proposals for the Havisham sections of the station, ranging from a boutique hotel to a campus. All have come to nothing.
That isn't how it was meant to be. In mid-2000, Connex had grand ideas about revitalising all the Flinders Street building. But running the train system has proved to be a more costly and complex task than it expected. The focus of work at the site has been platforms and concourses. Meanwhile, the Government has had problems of its own trying to update Spencer Street Station. Its public transport policy for the next decade, released this week, ignored the epicentre of the train network.
But look what's happened elsewhere. In the US, where the car is king, Grand Central Station in New York and Union Station in Washington have been magnificently restored. In Paris, you want a camera as well as a ticket when you head to a station. But pragmatism, not romance, rules at Flinders Street. There's little to encourage lingering, let alone exploration.
This Government doesn't deserve all the blame. It wasn't its idea to privatise public transport. And Connex has a bottom line to worry about. Heritage Victoria would prefer all parts of the historic building to be restored and in use, but can't make it happen. The best hope for action may rest with the former tenant of the closed-off areas, the Victorian Railways Institute.
The VRI's general manager, Mark Elliott, tells me he is about to "go down the burrow" to ascertain the legal status of the ballroom and what might be done about it. Elliott has both a strong sense of history and an eye on the future. After moving out of the station building in 1984, the VRI now has a ground-floor office at Flinders Street - as Elliott says, "back to where we started". That was in 1908. Which means the institute has a centenary coming up. What better place to celebrate than a ballroom?
Before then, of course, comes the Commonwealth Games. Already the feel-good ads are in evidence. All those visitors are coming; Melbourne should put on a happy face. Wouldn't it be lovely if the smiles didn't mask decay. And we could dance high above the Alamein line.
Alan Attwood is a Melbourne author and journalist.
The Age - Opinion
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