Mid-2021, the owners of the historic Nicholas Building in the heart of Melbourne has set the benchmark in the market.
Built in the 1920s and 1930s in the modern commercial palazzo style – characterized by its use of decorative elements from the Renaissance and Greek Renaissance – this 11-story building was developed by The wealthy Nicholas family of Melbourne for offices and shops.
the Nicolas brothers made their fortunes in the pharmaceutical industry and were generous benefactors for many arts and educational institutions at the time.
From the start, the building housed companies from the Flinders Lane the clothing trade, fashion designers, clothing importers and textile manufacturers, as well as medical and other professional services.
Today, the Nicholas Building offers more than 100 spaces for small businesses, artists and creatives – home to retail, offices, studios and galleries – a hub for Victoria’s creative industries.
But with the Nicholas Building on the market, that could all change.
Our project team at Australian Center for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage (ACAHUCH) based at the Melbourne School of Design have created a collaborative and people-centered approach legal application at Victoria Heritage at modify the National Heritage List of the Nicholas Building.
Our goal has been to identify what made the Nicholas Building exceptional during its century-long life, to centralize community perspectives in heritage processes, and to recognize more holistically the cultural significance of this historic building. . This is a pressing opportunity to advance the practice of Australian heritage.
The existing heritage list concludes that the heritage significance of the building actually lies in its design by prolific Melbourne architect Harry Norris. This includes the exterior facades of the building, the cathedral arch on the ground floor and the storefronts on the first floor. The list does not highlight the social and cultural history of the building.
The community is concerned that a new owner could evict existing tenants and potentially turn the building into boutique apartments or upscale offices. It would be a blow to the creative industries and damage the unidentified cultural significance of the place.
It is therefore understandable that the communities associated with the Nicholas Building reacted to its impending sale with a collective sense of fear, frustration and sadness.
A key area of ââthis frustration is that the heritage list seems unable to capture many aspects of what makes the Nicholas Building important: its social, cultural and contemporary histories.
Fortunately, advocacy and activism have long enabled people to question and challenge statutory heritage systems. Our current model of protecting buildings and sites like this only appeared in the 1970s as a direct result of activism.
Our project team felt that the historical, aesthetic and social significance of the Nicholas Building has evolved over time and is, in fact, constantly changing.
The remarkable contribution of Harry Norris and the Nicholas Brothers has been to create a diversity of beautiful spaces that could be loved and adapted by generations. Few, if any, commercial buildings in Victoria have been used for creative purposes for so long – and continue to support artistic and craft efforts in this way.
This means that the original floor plates, circulation spaces and mixed rentals have vital cultural significance.
Heritage management has traditionally ignored the incredible dynamism and the community relationships that make many places culturally significant, but perspectives change.
Take a people-centered approach, our project involved a collaboration with tenants of buildings and representatives of the arts and heritage sectors, as well as a peer review of the existing Victorian Heritage Register List.
We have identified six gaps in these existing heritage protections:
1. The early social and cultural history of the Nicholas Building and the Nicolas family;
2. The aesthetic, functional and historical aspects of interior spaces, including foyers, technologies, offices and studios;
3. The historical role of the Nicholas Building in Melbourne’s deindustrial and regenerative transformation of the late twentieth century and the emergence of creative industries;
4. Associations with pioneer woman bohemian artist Vali Myers, years 1990-2000;
5. The Nicholas Building as an endangered or rare class of places linked both to the Flinders Lane rag trade in the early 20th century and to the regeneration of Melbourne at the end of the 20th century; and,
6. In progress community, cultural and social value for Victorian and creative communities.
Heritage has also traditionally been poor to capture the stages in the life of buildings.
Our proposal identifies how the Nicholas Building has contributed over the past decades to reinforce Melbourne’s transformation into a livable 24/7 global city and renowned hub of the creative industries.
the australian artist and activist Vali Myers, which once occupied rooms 701 and 702, made the Nicholas Building a “Bohemian oasis in the center of Melbourne”; including her in the heritage list is one more step to counterbalance the under-representation of women in the Victorian Heritage Register.
Our change request renames the Nicholas building towards six of the State’s eight heritage criteria and will be evaluated by Heritage Victoria and the Victoria Heritage Council.
A revised heritage list would capture the cultural significance of this place more holistically, providing certainty to new building owners, existing tenants and the community at large.
Our project also aims to set a precedent for how to implement people-centered approaches to reassess the historical, aesthetic, social and cultural value of heritage places from the turn of the 20th century – and to conserve historic monuments like the Nicholas Building.
Banner: The Nicholas Building / Wikipedia