Harry Norris and I have a long history. It began in the Coles cafeteria when I was four, and now I am in my forties. I suppose you could call him my other lover, for I have occupied his space and mine for as long as I can remember. He has been there for me on so many important occasions.
Norris was born in 1888, part of the Victorian era. A man of ordinary means who became a prolific interwar architect. One of the first to introduce the Art Deco style to major commercial projects, completing over twenty notable buildings in a career that spanned forty years from 1925 to 1965. These buildings are in Melbourne, my hometown. This collision course that Harry and I share began long ago at the G.J. Coles Building on Bourke Street, which opened in 1930.
One of my favourite things, other than Harry, is to daydream. Others have always been critical of this past time, but not me. Daydreaming is about details. My vacant brown eyes stared at the ceiling in the Coles Cafeteria on level six. All those squares, layers of patterns, each sit inside one another—fans, scallops, triangles, and columns extending down the wall. And so began my love affair with Harry, comparing him to all others. After our visit, we would walk up the hill to get the tram home. I would turn and look back at the façade, something I now know is called faience. It was mauve, the colour of the building; it fascinated me. Norris had learned about faience in America from the Chicago school. It is a glazed architectural terracotta that can be used as skin for a building. I came and went from that building for ten years, and then it changed, like everything changes. It became David Jones, and they hid the ceiling.
Before I knew it, I found myself working full-time in town. After some years, I ended up in Block Court Arcade. In my early twenties and with my own office. I had arrived. Norris had remodelled this Victorian building in 1930 to insert a shopping arcade connecting Collins Street and Elizabeth Street. It included entrance signage in Jazz Moderne typography and stylised floral and zig-zag motif. A multi-coloured terrazzo arcade floor, ornamental bronzes, and copper shop fittings. Divine. Upstairs I had an arched internal window looking down on this scene—more food for my hungry eyes. And then I met ‘the one, my love.
“But you, dear Harry, are coming with me. It is not the time for divided loyalties. We shall be three”.
It was time for a Wedding. I wanted a ballroom, as romance was the only reality I had ever considered. Finally, I found the northern extension of The Windsor Hotel, designed by Norris in 1961. My lip quivered as I stared at the ceiling; it was a homage to the old, not decorative like the Victorian ceiling of the original hotel but imprinted with the memory of it. A parquetry oval dance floor beneath. And so, I, my betrothed and my other lover, had an excellent Wedding reception. And we danced and danced; it was just as I had imagined it would be. I go from that building every year to mark the date. First, there were two and then three, four, five, and six, each of us participating in this shared experience that celebrates our love. The ballroom no longer exists; it became the Hard Rock café and something else.
“I didn’t like this, Harry, but acceptance is something I am good at.“
I went on a journey recently to Burnham Beeches in the Sherbrooke Forest, built-in 1931. It was a day of surprises. She is listing a beautiful streamlined building reminiscent of an ocean liner. But a spotlight has been placed on her now, and I am confident it will be okay. Empire Rone had a fantastic art installation there, and now Burnham Beeches is to be a five-star hotel. It was a lovely excursion to the countryside and a chance to think.
“I didn’t know she was one of yours, Harry, a treasure you left hidden in the forest for me”.
Now it is time to get back to work. My children have grown up. All roads seem to lead to the Nicholas Building, designed in 1925. It is commanding with its large-scale classical elements, a great example of the ‘Commercial Palazzo’ style. The lifts are the longest-running manual lifts in Melbourne. I have visited thrice in the past year, and now this week, I see a little room to rent for a modest price. My eyes enjoy the kaleidoscope of colour as I walk under the leadlight barrel-vaulted ceiling in Cathedral Arcade.
“Is this where I am supposed to be, Harry? This was the beginning for you; perhaps this is the end for me. Is it time for us to part? I think this is your masterpiece. Coffee in hand, as I walk to the lifts, I look at the others; their eyes are turned down. They do not see you. But then I feel grateful for all those stolen moments, the times I have to keep you all for myself”.
Harry Norris died at 78 in 1966, only six months after he retired. To my knowledge, he was not awarded during his lifetime. He worked in an era of emergent opposition to decoration and ornamentation. Nevertheless, he had a strong vision and was unwavering in his design ethos. A number of his buildings have been destroyed in recent years. But his work endures in many prominent city locations.
“I think it would make you sad to see them now, Harry, these spaces you created for us. They desperately need rejuvenation, someone to bring back the romance“.
Harry Norris is my all-time favourite Australian architect.
For further information or to do a Harry Norris walking tour http://melbournewalks.com.au/architecture-jazz-age/