FLOOD, FIRE AND FEVER
A History of Elwood
Flats, Flats and more Flats
In the early decades of the 20th century, Elwood became virtually a new suburb. Waves of construction created many of Melbourne’s earliest purpose-built apartment blocks that today constitute some 65% of Elwood’s dwellings. One of the earliest blocks was designed by architects Schreiber and Jorgensen at 73 Mitford Street (1917), followed by blocks on Ormond Road such as Ormond Mansions at numbers 40-42 (1919) and Wandsworth Flats at number 13 (1920).
Courtyard flat developments and multi-storey blocks spread rapidly across Elwood in many styles including Streamline Moderne, Functionalist, Mediterranean, Spanish Mission and Tudor Revival. In 1934, the Elwood Progress Association complained that an epidemic invasion of flats was ruining the appearance of streets but the council and government were unresponsive.
Leading apartment architects are represented, especially that of Elwood resident James Esmond Dorney, including Surrey Courts at 71 Ormond Road and the Streamlined Moderne style block from the 1930s called Windermere at 49 Broadway. Another Elwood resident, W.H. (Bill) Merritt was responsible for Elwood buildings such as 444 St Kilda Street (corner Head Street) and other landmark buildings in St Kilda such as Belvedere Flats on the Esplanade. Some of the most striking designs are described in Elwood Walk published by the Art Deco Society in 2004 (see Chapter 16). One of the earliest modernist blocks of flats in Australia was Woy Woy at 77 Marine Parade in 1935. 20
The 1930s depression, followed by the Second World War, slowed down development. By the mid 1950s, wartime restrictions on materials and labour had eased sufficiently for Elwood to undergo a second apartment boom. Immigrants and refugees from war-ravaged Europe were pouring into Melbourne and there was a desperate shortage of accommodation. Multi-story apartment blocks seemed to spring up everywhere, particularly in choice sites near the shoreline and overlooking the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. Despite several appeals by residents against over-development on small sites, the public demanded cheaper housing near the coastline and Elwood filled this need, supported by councillors (some of whom were also real estate agents).
The better blocks were the work of notable local designers such as Jewish émigré architects Kurt Popper and Mordecai Benshemesh. New styles included freestanding units around motor courts such as 2 Southey Grove (1955).
The 1980s saw a mini-boom as strata titling created greater capacity to sell flats on their own title. By 1995, property values had begun what would eventually be a meteoric rise leading to concerns that the ‘real Elwoodians’ were being driven out by gentrification.
Surrey Court Flats
20 Woy Woy is one of 47 iconic buildings described in A Place of Sensuous Resort. Buildings of St Kilda and their People by Richard Peterson published by the St Kilda Historical Society (see www.skhs.org.au )