An Unenviable Reputation Part Three: The Afterlife of the Eastern Arcade

Demolition of the Eastern Arcade, 2008. Courtesy Melbourne Heritage Action.
Demolition of the Eastern Arcade, 2008. Courtesy Melbourne Heritage Action.

In my previous post I discussed the mix of businesses that occupied the Eastern Arcade during its 50 year existence in it’s intended form. We left off the story in 1926 by which time tenants were all gone and Clauscen & Co’s Furniture Emporium occupied the whole building. But the arcade’s story does not end there.

For the next 83 years it was occupied by a succession of Melbourne homegrown businesses: first Clauscen & Co’s, then Fletcher Jones, later Allans Music and finally Dimmeys. The promenade was built over and it its interior gutted, but its walls and unique façade remained. As an arcade it was largely forgotten and was mainly remembered in the press and popular imagination for its associations with the Haymarket Theatre and the Gun Alley Murder. It was only in 2008, after a hard fought battle by heritage groups, that the entire arcade was demolished and replaced by the Citadines Hotel.

While these dramatic changes occurred within the Eastern Arcade over the space of half a century, two blocks away at the Royal Arcade, things had changed relatively little since it opened in 1870. The same general mix of shops from this time had endured and the arcade had even been expanded at the turn of the century. What were the conditions that rendered the story of the Eastern Arcade so different to its nearby counterpart?

A complex interplay of factors probably acted together to precipitate these changes but the location of the arcade may have played a key role. Initially it seems to have been the 1890s depression that made a significant impact on trade, resulting in a large vacancy rate between 1893 and 1895, followed by a distinct change in the types of shops that occupied it after 1896. Although only two blocks away from the Melbourne’s shopping heart, the block bounded by Collins, Swanston, Elizabeth and Bourke Streets, this distance may have also played a role in the decreasing popularity of the Eastern Arcade. While it is a common claim that the arcades were outmoded by the development of more modern forms of shopping, such as large drapers and department stores, the Victorian Era arcades located in this central section of the city – Block, the Royal and Queens Walk Arcades – continued to be destinations for customers for decades. In fact, for these arcades, the crowds that flocked to the new fashionable department stores built in close proximity to them from the 1890s onwards were probably highly beneficial. The Block and the Royal are still busy thoroughfares today, as well as shopping destinations in their own right and this use of them as a shortcut through the large Melbourne city blocks has long been an advantage.

The very emphasis on the area surrounding the Eastern Arcade as an amusement district may have also had an impact. We might surmise that visitors wandered up Bourke Street more for its entertainments than its shops but also that this location affected its reputation among shoppers. The Eastern Market, which had eventually been rebuilt in 1879, and the area surrounding the arcade continued to attract the condemnation of some. One Tasmanian visitor in 1888 commented on the noticeable ‘larrikin element’ in Melbourne and that at the entrance to the Eastern Arcade he had seen

a crowd of 1000, principally of this class … assemble one afternoon … as if by magic, because two policemen were apparently trying to arrest some one. (Launceston Examiner, 8 August 1888, 3)

In the 1890s the Hanover Hall within the arcade itself was a magnet for larrikins wanting a boisterous and boozy night on the town. In 1901 Bourke Street was described as ‘a non-stop vaudeville show’ with a wide variety of entertainments ranging from music halls to shooting galleries (quoted in Kristin Otto, Capital: Melbourne When it Was the Capital City of Australia 1901-27 (Melbourne, 2009: The Text Publishing Company) 47-48). The shooting galleries of the Eastern Market and the presence of an amusement parlour in the arcade itself probably attracted a number of visitors who did not fit the ideal.

Despite the life of the streets around it, the arcade does not appear to have been well frequented, at least during the day, and was seemingly uncared for by its owners. The Melbourne Guide Book of c1895 wrote that it was ‘a quiet recess, wherein is no great sign of business’ (Melbourne: McCarron, Bird & Co, 27-28), while another commentator ten years later hoped that it would be demolished as ‘it [was] time that dirty and dingy arcade was put to some good use’ (The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People, 2 February 1907, 3). The trustees that had owned the building had been apparently discussing turning it into a residential hotel for two decades by 1921 and it is not beyond the imagination that the neglect was intentional. Although clearly on the decline for many years, it may have been its association with the Gun Alley Murder that affected business most significantly in the end. From this time onward, most mentions of the arcade in the newspapers revolve around the murder and the characters involved in it. In the end the Eastern Arcade, rather than being a transformative space for this section of Bourke Street, appears to have been transformed by the city streets around it.

Today very few of the Australian arcades remain. A few well-known examples have operated continuously since the 1880s or have been recently rejuvenated for modern consumers. But the many others, even those that still stand, have largely faded from the collective memory. Some lost popularity and closed relatively rapidly, while others never quite met expectations. Many underwent changes during the twentieth century to the physical fabric of the building and/or the mix of tenants in order to attempt to make them viable or in step with architectural fashion. Numerous examples were demolished during the course of the twentieth century and even into the twenty-first. Some, like the Eastern Arcade and the Prahran Arcade were transformed into buildings that would hold one large business, demolishing its individual stores and, in the case of the former, covering over its distinctive gallery space.

In the 1930s Walter Benjamin, in his work on the Parisian arcades, emphasised the idea of examining the afterlife of buildings within the city. He contended that, by examining the multiple historical layers of a site, we could better understand its place in the development of the city and by extension the history of the city that surrounded it. He used the arcades as a lens not only to tell the story of the nineteenth century but also to interrogate the social structures of his own era.

Examining the historical trajectory of the Eastern Arcade, we can see some of the changes that were inherent in the city surrounding it during a 100 year period. Not only from the 50-year period in which it operated as a shopping arcade and the changes in businesses, goods and inhabitants therein, but also from its subsequent histories, including the battle to retain it before its demolition in 2008.

While the contemporary discourse surrounding the arcades at the time of their construction makes it clear that these sites were intended as refined, elegant leisure spaces for middle-class clientele many, like the Eastern Arcade, reveal a more complex story. From websites, brochures and commissioned histories to heritage assessments to more serious historical studies, most promote an imagined view of the arcade, often focusing on the nineteenth century context and eschewing the afterlife of these sites. Marketing campaigns for those arcades that have been restored to or preserved in their so-called ‘original forms’ understandably focus heavily on such nostalgic perceptions in order to promote them as unique shopping experiences. The website for the Royal Arcade, Australia’s oldest, typifies the general bent of current popular discourse surrounding them:

Historical – Charming – Beautiful – Timeless. There are few words which can describe the feeling and olde-style charm captured in the Royal Arcade. Since 1869, the arcade has acted as a hub between Melbourne’s, Bourke St Mall, Little Collins Street and Elizabeth Street; The Royal Arcade houses some of the most well-known and beautiful shops in Melbourne (

Unlike the Block and the Royal, which had maintained their existence as an arcade since their inception, the Eastern took a different trajectory; but the changes in tenants, architectural fabric, eventual transformation and even its demolition do not diminish its significance. Rather, I would contend that the histories of sites such as this are vital to our understanding of the development of urban space from the nineteenth century until today.

I argue that the layers of these spaces are essential to our perception and understanding of the past, even more so than their original newly-built form and that the idealised perception of nineteenth-century arcades disguise many aspects of their histories, rendering them and our urban history in a one-dimensional, mummified form.

With heritage buildings being regularly demolished in Melbourne, partly based on the argument that the original fabric has been lost, perhaps we must consider that it is not only the original fabric but the accretions of layers of fabric that are just as essential to our understanding of our city.


  1. I have a photograph of my grandmother (taken around 1895) and labelled Eclipse Studios, Book Arcade, Bourke Street, Melbourne.

    Do you happen to know where in Bourke Street Book Arcade used to be located?

    1. Hey there John, thanks for your question. It quite possibly refers to Coles Book Arcade on Bourke Street. You might find more by looking through and searching for the photographers name in the newspaper advertising. I’d love to see the photo if you want to share!!

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