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Nicholas Building


Nicholas Building, Swanston Street, Melbourne VIC, Australia


Exterior – Free to view

Interior – This building contains a mix of businesses which may be visited during their respective opening hours, and creative studios and other tenants, who may have restricted access. General building access is available during business operating hours, see website for details.

Architectural History

Influenced by the design of commercial buildings in America, the Nicholas Building adopts a Renaissance palazzo form with mannered Greek revival styling in its facade treatment. The two main facades feature an implied piano nobile, containing two floors with a Doric colonnade, and heavy corniced attic storey above.

Between these two levels, the mass of the facade is dominated by giant Ionic pilasters which divide the upper facades into bays and provide verticality to the composition. The terracotta cladding used on the building was revolutionary at the time, it was the largest example of terracotta ever used in Australia. The basement, ground, and first floors were designed as retail spaces and the interior includes a glazed leadlight barrel vaulted arcade at ground level, Cathedral Arcade, providing a link between Swanston Street and Flinders Lane. The shop fronts, particularly at first floor level, remain largely intact and few major structural alterations have been made to the internal fabric of the building. An addition was made to the ground floor of the building in 1939. The Coles retail company occupied the ground floor and basement until 1967.

Social History

The history of the Nicholas Building is an important part of the broader economic history of Melbourne. As late as 1961, textiles, clothing and footwear still accounted for 15 per cent of all Australian manufacturing employment; in Victoria, the most industrialised state, this figure was higher. Much of this rag trade was centred in and around Flinders Lane, the heart of Melbourne’s garment district. By 1939, there were 610 businesses in Flinders Lane, a level of business activity maintained until the early 1960s. The Nicholas Building was an integral part of this.

There are remnants of signs, and elements of decoration throughout the building indicating the building's diverse range of activities and occupants over the years. Initially the building was home to businesses that included those associated with the Flinders Lane garment trade, commercial artists, medical practitioners and architects. The building continues to house some of these activities, particularly those associated with fashion, but it has more recently housed studios and exhibition spaces for numerous artists.

Prompts & Activities

  • Why do you think the architect used Greek influences in this building? How does it relate to its purpose, and the people who would have occupied it?

  • In comparison, how is it used today, and is this thinking still relevant? Or does the modern use of the building subvert its history?

  • How many of the mentioned Greek architectural elements can you see? Can you count columns or other design features? Which types of columns are used, and why do you think this is?

  • What is your favourite element of this building? Does it have interesting ornamentation? What part does this element play in the overall design of the building, and why might it have been included? You might like to draw your favourite components! Observational sketching is a great way to get a deeper understanding of something.

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