Over some two hundred years, the Johnson
family have for six generations been involved in the building industry: as
carpenter, builders, engineer, but no less than four as architects. Probably
George Raymond Johnson (1840-1898) architect is the best known. I’m not aware
of another such dynasty in Melbourne, although two generations in the one family
does occur, one thinks of the Lewis’s, Lyons’s, Boyd’s,
Grounds’s, Stoughton’s three generations of
McIntyres and of the Bates, Smart and McCutcheon families within Bates
George was the son of William, journeyman
(employee) carpenter and builder from Marston-on-Dove,
Derbyshire. He was articled to George Hall, architect to the Midland Railway
Co. He practised briefly in London
before immigrating to Queensland
in 1862. He worked as surveyor and builder as Godfrey & Johnson (1863-64), then
came to Melbourne
in 1867. He was soon a successful architect here, designer of three groups of
almshouses, including: the Jewish, at 619 St Kilda Road, St Kilda (1869, 47)
and the Old Colonist Homes for George Coppin, the
famous theatrical entrepreneur, at North Fitzroy (1870) and then fifteen
theatres, including the Prince of Wales Opera House (1872), the Theatre Royal,
Adelaide (1877), the Bijou, Bourke Street (1889), all now demolished and the
Theatre Royal, Perth (1897) as well as many shops and hotels.
But George Johnson’s greatest works are
splendid town halls: Hotham (North Melbourne, 1875), Daylesford (1882),
Maryborough (1887), Fitzroy (1887), Collingwood (1885-90), Northcote (1888-90)
and Kilmore (1893-95), as well as the Metropolitan Meat Market (1879-80 & 89),
the 1888 extensions to the Royal Exhibition Building and the Hospital for
Incurables (the Austin, 1881). The only surviving building known to me he
designed in St Kilda, is the Daniel Tuomy house,
owned by the artist Albert Tucker, later in his career, at 55 Blessington Street
(9). George Johnson’s practice collapsed in the 1892, losing all his
assets in the subsequent financial crash. He left Melbourne
with his architect second son, Harry M.G. Johnson (1867-1931).
Harry’s son, Harry Raymond Johnson
(1892-1954), known as Ray, returned with his parents to Melbourne
and settled in MiddlePark.
He was articled as an architect to his father, then
began practice in Milton Street,
Elwood in 1915. During the 1920s, his practice blossomed, designing many country
and suburban hotels including the still-intact Waterside Hotel, 508 Flinders Street
(1925). His project for the Egyptian Art Deco of Richmond Town Hall (1935) was
controversial and his largest built project. Ray was elected councillor for the
City of St Kilda,
West Ward (1931-40) and became Mayor (1932-33). He probably effectively acted
as honorary architect for the major additions to the Town Hall (1939, 33).
He designed houses at 94 Milton Street,
(1917) and 8 Broadway, Elwood (1919). Over 1915-28, he designed houses in
Milton, Ruskin, and Addison Streets, Elwood.
In 1920, Ray Johnson was architect for
Yurnga Flats, 36 Brighton Road,
then for conversion of 28-36 Alma Road,
St Kilda (1925) into flats in a stripped, Mediterranean manner. Numerous blocks
of flats in Elwood and St Kilda, followed. Before World War II, these included
Marlo Flats, 30 Mitford Street
(c1929), the stylish Streamlined Moderne of Casa
Milano, and 20 Grey Street,
facing Jackson Street,
(c1933) and Oslo Guest House additions, 32-46 Grey Street
(1936). Ray was also the designer for the ScootaBoatBuilding
at Little Luna Park (1934), which I so enjoyed as a kid.
After World War II, Ray’s office was joined by
Mordecai Benshemesh. Over the next four years
Benshemesh was responsible for the firm’s design.
They were very prolific. In 1946, the office produced two blocks
of flats at 42 & 44 Southey Street,
acting like sentinels on either side of Southey Court,
and Rajon flats at 3 Tennyson Street.
There are similar flats in Mitford
Street, Barkly Street,
and three blocks in Hotham Street
near Cardigan Street.
Their architectural style can be described as late Streamlined
Moderne transitional to International Modernist.
There are pressed cream bricks, corner steel-framed windows, the stair expressed
as a vertical element, with full-height glazing and cantilevered round cornered
balconies, with solid brick balustrades. The lines are very clean and planar,
and the massing boldly expressed.
at 21 The Esplanade (cnrRobe Street)
is transitional in style to Benshemesh’s next phase
(although it is uncertain whether it was built before or after EdgewaterTowers).
On Johnson’s retirement in 1948, Benshemesh left to
establish his own practice. His son, Raymond Milton Johnson (1925-),
unable to enter the architecture course at MelbourneUniversity
due to its closure for the duration of World War II, became a structural
engineer. He was designer of many large aviation and brewing projects around
He was also the designer of the alterations to the Victory Cinema in 1974 for
its conversion and use by the National Theatre (3). But Raymond Milton’s
son, Peter Raymond Johnson, is currently a practicing architect in St Kilda. (15).
In C.J. Koch’s novel, Across the Sea Wall
(1965), the hero returns to Melbourne
from the fastness of Sydney
and revisits Marine Parade, which he says ‘runs in my blood’.
Children ran on dry, prickly grass by the sea
wall; palms and a forgotten rotunda sulked against grey water; ice cream papers
skittered through the afternoon, which wore on with sweet tedium. Across Marine
Parade, a line of residentials waited in unnatural
silence: little stucco turrets surmounted by urns, front doors glinting with
leadlight glass. Strange Edwardian circus; survival from another civilisation,
peeling and persisting in the sun, here in India; abandoned backdrop, waiting
vainly for some marvellous action to start in front of it.
a hundred single and two-bedroom apartments, each with a fabulous view across
the bay, sprang up from Marine Parade to Mordecai
Benshemesh’s 1959-60 design of pure modernism. One of Melbourne’s
earliest, large-scale privately developed apartment blocks, a glistening, white
slab, stark against the setting sun. The Age extolled it as ‘everything
you’d find in a Manhattan
building, only minutes from Collins Street,
although to Phillip Goad, it is more 1950s Miami Beach.
I prefer The Age’s view.
The owner (or body corporate vehicle) was
Edgewater Towers Pty. Ltd. It was the first apartment development on this scale
on the bay and the apartments were accessed by express lifts. In the days before
the Strata Titles Act (1967), the apartments were stratum-titled. At ground
level were shops and offices. Throughout the 1960s there were numerous St Kilda
Council building approvals to enclose the balconies.
In South Yarra,
Robin Boyd’s (46), controversially intrusive DomainParkTower
flats, 193 Domain Road, South
Yarra (1960-62), followed the precedent of EdgewaterTowers.
Here, no balconies were permitted to be enclosed.
In St Kilda, at 333 Beaconsfield Parade
(1963-70), Sol Sapir’s sixteen-storied design in
brown brick and white precast concrete spandrel panels, is not quite in the same
class as either of these, but one of a scatter that emerged across the inner
eastern suburbs, with Sapir as both architect and
developer, including 189 Beaconsfield Parade and Hobsons
Bay Tower. Later in 1963-64, Benshemesh designed the
Palm Lake Motel, at 52 Queens Road.
Of the involuntary emigration of avant
garde architects from Vienna
in the late 1930s, many came to Australia
and with the singular exception of Harry Seidler, to
With Seidler, the best known are Dr Ernest Leslie
Fooks, Fritz Janeba and
Kurt Popper. With Benshemesh, other architect
émigrés included Bernard Slawick,
AnatolKagan and Herbert
Tisher. They furthered the work of an earlier
generation of flat-designing Jewish architects in 1930s St Kilda, including Levy
and Plottel (41).
Two other designers of flats in post-war
several of which are in St Kilda, were Kurt Popper and Dr Ernest Leslie
Fooks (1906-88). Fook’s
complex and rich career has been detailed in Prof.
Edquist’s essay and exhibition catalogue. Born in Bratislava,
in former Czechoslovakia,
he grew up in Vienna.
He obtained a master’s degree in architecture and a doctorate, majoring in town
planning. As an asylum-seeker, he was granted a residence permit by Australia
and obtained a position as a town planner with the recently created Housing
Commission of Victoria, in 1939.
Like most European-trained architects
(including in a later generation, although trained here, Nonda
Katsalidis, (11)), Fooks
saw apartment living as necessary to successful urban life. He published his
approach in X-Ray the City, The Density Diagram,
Basis for Urban Planning (1946), with a foreword by H.C. (Nugget) Coombs,
who was then Director-General, Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction. In this
work, Fooks was the first to discuss the issues
arising from what the present government has now attempted to address, in its
ResCode legislation, some 55 years later. He
became the first lecturer in the new discipline of town planning at
He exhibited his own paintings and drawings.
Then, in 1948, Fooks
established his own practice. In the thirty years from 1950,
Fooks designed over forty blocks of flats in St
Kilda, Caulfield, Toorak, South Yarra
and Hawthorn. Prof. Edquist considers his Park View
flats, 5 Herbert Street, St Kilda (1959), one of the best examples, ‘beautifully
sited facing St Kilda gardens’, possibly influenced by the Frederick Romberg
(another Jewish European-trained émigré architect), Newburn flats, Queens
Road (1939, 42), which are just outside the City of St Kilda, as well as
Scandinavian designs. Ernest Fooks’ office was at
1 Woonsocket Court,
St Kilda (1955-57).
Park View Flats required demolition of a very
fine Gothic Revival villa. This was designed by George R. Johnson in 1868 for
John Nicholson, son of the Victorian premier William Nicholson (24). The
value of architectural heritage was less understood in 1959, when the National
Trust had only existed for four years. His St Kilda flats include:
90 Barkly Street
(1956), 162 Brighton Road
Lodge, 99 Hotham Street
(1957), Ruskin Street
Elwood (1958), 16 Cardigan Street, East
St Kilda (1959), nine flats in Carlisle Street
(1950s) and 394 Inkerman Street
(1960). There are several single-family houses, extensions to ElwoodHigh School
(1981), buildings for the Jewish community and the Alfred Square Car Park
Kurt Popper was born in Vienna
in 1910. He was also trained in the tradition of severe Viennese Modernism and
arrived in Adelaide
in 1939. By 1945, he was working with Fooks at the
Housing Commission of V ictoria, but founded his own
practice the next year in Jolimont. Most of his work is domestic: 70 blocks of
flats and 60 houses, in the 1960s he was one of Melbourne’s
most prolific flat designers; and of Jewish community buildings. Later he
designed the first major apartment blocks in the city: ParkTower,
Spring Street (1968); 15 Collins Street
(1969) and Chateau Commodore, Lonsdale Street,
In St Kilda, Prof. Harriet
Edquist’s study has identified 14 blocks of Popper’s
flats built between 1949 and 1970: in Tennyson Street, Chapel Street (2),
Mitford Street (3 blocks), Alma Road (cnr
Westbury Street), Dickens Street, Acland Street, Inkerman
Street, Alexander Street, Hughendon Road,
Beaconsfield Parade and Kipling Street (2 blocks).
There is only one house, in Goatlands
Street and he also designed
the Elwood Synagogue, MoriahCollege
and Kindergarten, Dickens Street
(1956 and 1973). Other groups are just outside the area, in Gordon Streetand Hotham
After over 45 years of uninterrupted
flat-building, St Kilda took a breather. Virtually no flats appear to have been
built in St Kilda after the Sapir towers, for the
next thirty years, (11).
In 1982, the first of St
Kilda’s four heritage studies was completed and a very limited number of
buildings came to be protected in the council’s planning scheme for their
heritage value. At last the National Trust was not alone in fighting to
preserve the mansions and more modest significant buildings, such as
prefabricated houses (25), which had been frequently sacrificed to
provide cleared sites for flats.
The City of St
Kilda Building Permit Register
has been lost. So it is not confirmed that
was actually designed by Benshemesh, but Peter
Johnson notes that so many of the concrete details are similar. For the same
reason its dating either before or after
cannot be yet confirmed.
Harriet. ‘The Jewish Contribution: A Missing chapter’, in
45 Storeys.A Retrospective of Works by
Jewish architects from 1945.Exhibition
catalogue.National Gallery of Victoria.
March 1993. pp 6-11.
Harriet. Ernest Fooks: Architect. School
Melbourne 2001. Exhibition catalogue, Jewish Museum of
Harriet. Kurt Popper: From
and Design, RMITUniversity,
Melbourne 2002.Exhibition catalogue, Jewish Museum of Australia.
Ernest. X-Ray the City! The Density Diagram: Basis for Urban Planning. With a forward by Dr H.C. Coombs.
Graeme Butler &
Associates.RAIA Victorian Chapter.
Twentieth Century Architecture Register.1983.
Hansen Associates.City of St Kilda.Twentieth Century Architectural Study. May 1992.
The Age.4 November 1960.
News-Pictorial.4 November 1960.
St Kilda City
Permit no 57/1323, issued 27 May 1960.
Chung, Gregory Buhagiar, Tan
TeckChing. ‘A guide to High-Rises
and Flats of St Kilda and Caulfield’. B.
Architecture undergraduate research project, RMIT University 2000. In
association with the Jewish Museum’s exhibition: ‘Bagel Belt: The Jews of St
Kilda and Caulfield’. June-September 2001.
Much additional material, particularly regarding his family.