Stories Above the Tracks
A History of Flinders Street Station
Discover the stories, hidden by peeling paint, in Flinders Street Station’s hidden third level.
One of Melbourne’s most storied public spaces, the upper level and ballroom at Flinders Street Station, has remained hidden for more than two decades. Patricia Piccinini’s A Miracle Constantly Repeated has reopened the space and transformed its rooms into a nurturing eco-system. But embedded in the walls’ peeling paint is a history of community and cultivation.
For many people, a big part of their visit to A Miracle Constantly Repeated is seeing Flinders Street Station’s folkloric ballroom. But the ballroom is just one of ten rooms inhabited by the works of Patricia Piccinini, across the station’s third floor—an extension opened in the early 20th Century as the headquarters of the Victorian Railway Institute (VRI).
Upon opening, the new level provided improved facilities and activities rooms for railway employees, but also came with an ulterior motive. The new facilities were created, in part, as a response to railway strikes in 1903, with the intention of counteracting the influence of trade unions and fostering a “corporate culture”.
A striking response
The Fit Out
The new level was designed by James Fawcett, an architect and Railways Department employee who had previously won a competition to design the station.
Completed in 1910, his new additions to the station included billiards and games rooms, a gymnasium and 10,000-volume library, smoking rooms and classrooms, and a concert hall—the precursor to the fabled ballroom. At the time, the rooms were said to be decorated with “tastefully framed and artistic pictures.”
Fawcett’s most famed design element was an extensive pressed metal ceiling in the concert hall, inspired by the Art Nouveau design movement. A 1990 conservation study found the work carried out in the concert hall, or ballroom, was considered some of the most diverse and extensive in any Australian public building.
With space to gather and facilities to use, VRI members formed all sorts of community groups. An amateur dramatic society would read from scripts, music and orchestral societies took advantage of the concert hall, and sweating rail workers would box, wrestle and practice gymnastics in the gymnasium. A monthly newsletter outlined the building’s events program as well as new volumes added to the library’s catalogue, from which members could have delivery arranged across the rail network.
Following use by various clubs for dances and socials, from as early as 1918, the VRI began converting the concert hall into what we now know as the ballroom in 1932—33, officially opening in 1934. The conversion saw the removal of the stage, making more room for dances and even a boxing ring for amateur bouts and wrestling displays.
Thank you very much
The space became a social focal point for Melbourne, and one of the city’s largest dance venues. During the peak of social dancing in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the ballroom would host 50/50 dances—events in which the era’s two most popular styles, modern and old time, were given equal room on the floor.
The venue served snacks and was unlicensed, but some attendees would head to nearby establishments for a drink. In her book, Beyond the Facade: Flinders Street, More Than Just a Railway Station, historian Jenny Davies describes how single men wishing to meet a date would arrive holding a box of Cadbury Roses chocolates.
Decline and Reopening
By the 1970s, the popularity of rock and roll saw a downturn in interest in ballroom dancing. Many of the VRI’s rooms were now being rented by other community groups, including the Cat Protection Society and Australian Matchbox Collectors; as well as Australian Football cheer squads supporting Melbourne, St Kilda and Collingwood.
As usage of the ballroom declined, maintenance costs became unmanageable; in 1985, the VRI moved its headquarters to Flinders Street; and in 1995 most of the rooms were converted into offices (the ballroom and gymnasium were left intact)—remnants of which can be seen in the strip lighting and filing cabinets that are scattered throughout A Miracle Constantly Repeated.
The staging of A Miracle Constantly Repeated required over two years of planning before RISING was able to set foot in the building. Its Heritage-listed status meant the utmost care was taken to preserve the building’s interiors, including caring for its peeling paint and storing its worn carpets.
Over the years, various plans for the ballroom have been mooted, but beyond a few small public tours, including by Open House Melbourne, Flinders Street Station’s third level has remained hidden from the public. Now, for the first time in more than 20 years, A Miracle Constantly Repeated, has made Flinders Street Station’s upper level and ballroom a community focal point once again—one of many stories yet to come.
A Miracle years in the making
RISING would like to thank the State Library of Victoria and writer Blair Gatehouse for their extensive piece, “Dancing above the tracks: The VRI Ballroom at Flinders Street Station”, which was the primary source for this article.
In addition, RISING would like to thank historian Jenny Davies for sharing her knowledge of the station, ballroom and upper level. You can read her extensive work in Beyond the Facade: Flinders Street, More Than Just a Railway Station (2008).
Davies, J, 2008, Beyond the façade, J Davies, Mt Macedon, p 58
Table Talk, 27 January 1910, p 10
Allom Lovell & Associates, 1990, Flinders Street Station conservation study: prepared for Flinders Street Festival, Allom Lovell & Associates, Melbourne, p 83
Victorian Railway Strike, West Australian, Thu 14 May 1903, P5. Via National Library of Australia.