As it looked before and how it looks today. The New Colonial Bank of Australasia was constructed in 1880 on the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets (source: DailyMail Australia)

The exhibits (above and below) compare historic photographs of long-demolished Melbourne buildings with contemporary views of the same sites taken from Google Street View. They’re from an article published in The Daily Mail Australia on Saturday.

The old photographs were sourced from a new iPhone/iPad app developed by the State Library of Victoria, Street History: Hoddle’s Grid. According to the Library, “the app uses your location to reveal rarely seen photos and stories of the surrounding buildings and streetscapes, as well as amazing aerial views”.

It’s disappointing at any time to lose beautiful old buildings like the opulent Federal Coffee Palace or ones that played an important part in a city’s history, like the beautiful Melbourne Fish Market.

But it’s especially upsetting to see what exists today on sites that were once graced by the likes of the Cromwell buildings and the New Colonial Bank of Australasia building (see exhibits). It’s hard to believe that anyone could possibly think that what we’ve ended up with today provides a better social outcome than protecting the original buildings would’ve given us.

The structures standing on these sites now aren’t so much larger that it can be argued the old ones held back Melbourne’s economic development. Nor have the original buildings been replaced by infrastructure that is so important a case could be made it warranted priority use of the site.

Such instrumental arguments don’t necessarily justify demolition and wouldn’t even be entertained today for buildings of this quality, but it’s dismaying to think such magnificent assets were traded away for so little.

No doubt it didn’t look that way to all concerned when the decision was taken to demolish them. Perhaps it’s an indicator of how little they were valued at the time, or there were grander plans for these sites that didn’t come to fruition. It’s possible subsequent land use planning changes have severely limited what can be done with these sites. (1)

The State Library of Victoria deserves plaudits for creating this app; it reminds us that it’s not always a fair swap. The Library’s Director of Digital Strategy, Peter McMahon, told the ABC:

We need new ways, using technology, to connect new audiences to them, to do it in a way that’s fun and engaging and rewarding for those who are interested. It’s about getting collections out so people can experience them on their own terms and an app’s a good way to do that.

But the Library seems to have pulled up short. A more effective way of connecting with people would’ve been to start with an Android version given that iOS only has a third of the market and is losing ground (the library “hopes” to develop one). In fact I think it would’ve been far better to start with a version integrated with Google Street View so viewers could explore the Hoddle grid from their home/office computer or smartphone browser (all images used in the app can be found here).

Kudos too to the DailyMail Australia for putting together the before-and-after photographs; there’re more at the paper’s site (I wasn’t aware the DailyMail had an Australian version). (2)

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  1. The Cromwell buildings were initially replaced with an office building which was subsequently demolished to make way for the existing retail centre.
  2. Here’s another take on the same theme at Beside the Yarra: Melbourne’s wonderful demolished buildings (and the junk that replaced them).
How it looked before and what we've got today instead. The Cromwell Buildings were contructed in the early 1890s on the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke Streets. Tenants included the Melbourne School of Art. It was demolished in the 1970s (source: DailyMail Australia)
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