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Landmark move in legal precinct

Landmark move in legal precinct

By Karin Derkley


The 470 Bourke St sale marks historic change for the LIV.

After the sale of 470 Bourke Street in March, the Law Institute of Victoria will be moving to new rental premises in the legal precinct.

It is the latest chapter in the history of the LIV, whose first home was two rented rooms in New Temple Court off Collins Street.

During the 1880s, the LIV was accommodated in the Law Courts, and then in 1918 rented rooms at Collins House, on the corner of Williams and Collins Streets.

In 1922, the LIV purchased a three-storey building on the corner of Little Collins and McKillop Streets. Law Institute House, as it is still called, was home from 1922.

By the early 1960s the LIV had expanded to the point it needed larger premises and in 1961 it bought and renovated a factory across from the High Court in Little Bourke Street, diagonally behind 470 Bourke Street.

While the Little Bourke Street building was described in an LIJ news story as having a “sumptuous elegance”, former County Court judge Gordon Lewis who was CEO at the LIV for 10 years from 1976, says that beyond the magnificent library and a less salubrious council room, the building was cramped and “pretty crummy”.

Even an expansion to the building next door did not keep up with the growing number of staff, which by the mid 1960s had increased to 20.

Then, in 1978, the Little Bourke Street building was destroyed by a dramatic fire – a group of LIV councillors were lucky to escape with their lives.

Former Supreme Court Justice Bernie Teague, then LIV president, recalls chairing a council meeting at the time. “Someone called out: ‘where is that smoke coming from?’ When we opened the door there was smoke billowing across the library towards us.” The councillors managed to escape through the back entrance and then went around to the front to watch fire engulf the whole building.

The fire, allegedly ignited by a disgruntled struck-off solicitor, destroyed 200 years worth of law reports and historical records. Fortuitously, the insurance coverage of the building had been boosted the previous year, so with the insurance plus the sale of the land, the LIV had enough funds to consider its options.

Gordon Lewis says the LIV looked at a number of possible sites, among them a building on Williams Street near Flinders Street, one across the river where Docklands is today, and another across from Flagstaff Gardens.

“But we knew we had to stay central to give the profession easy access to the building in the legal district.”

The original London Assurance building and its distinctive lobby was built in 1959. 

The building at 470 Bourke Street, then known as London Assurance House, fitted the bill. Mr Teague and Mr Lewis were both familiar with the building as having housed the County Court some time in the mid 1960s and 1970s. Mr Teague remembers going in and out of the back entrance for trials being conducted in the building “It was very much part of the legal precinct,” he says.

As the-then Victorian premier Dick Hamer explained at the opening of the LIV’s new home in 1979, it was also a significant site in Victorian legislative history.

St Patrick's Hall: Built in 1847 on the site of 470 Bourke Street, the building was the first home of the Victorian Parliament from 1851 to 1856. 

Exactly 128 years previously, in 1851, the first Parliament of Victoria met on the site, then occupied by St Patrick’s Hall. Designed by architect Samuel Jackson in 1847, who also designed St Francis Church in Lonsdale Street, St Patrick’s Hall was a large, Egyptian-style hall set up the slope from Bourke Street.

The hall had been built by the St Patrick’s Society of Australia Felix as a place for meetings and a school for Irish children, and was for many years the mustering point for the St Patrick’s Day procession. As one of the more substantial buildings in the city at the time, it was one of the few places in the CBD big enough for the Victorian parliament to meet.

After parliament got its own home at the top of Bourke Street, the St Patrick’s Society extended the building to the street-line with a new façade designed by Joseph Reed, who also designed Melbourne Town Hall, the State Library and the Royal Exhibition Buildings.

This rather grand stone three-storey Italianate stone facade was decorated with Corinthian columns and topped with an arched pediment framing a statue of Britannia. But its grandeur had faded by the early twentieth century when it was being used as a dance hall.

In 1959 the building became the victim, like so many other grand old CBD buildings at the time, of the wrecking ball. Despite The Herald newspaper bemoaning the loss of “another Melbourne landmark” to the “wrecker’s axe”, the building was knocked down in a matter of weeks, with the demolition starting from the rear of the building so it was too late to do anything by the time it was obvious what was happening.

What replaced it was considered to be something of a showcase of modern architecture and was listed in a 1965 guide as one of the earliest examples of International Modernism in the CBD.

Originally called London Assurance House, the new building was designed by commercial architect Sir Bernard Evans, who later became lord mayor of Melbourne.

The building was a simple curtain-walled office block, a type typical in Melbourne’s CBD in the mid to late 1950s. Curtain walling was a relatively new construction technology at the time, where the walls of glass and, in this case, aluminium are not part of the structural fabric of the building, but are instead suspended from the cantilevered floors.

Heritage consultant Rohan Storey, who assessed the building for heritage listing by the National Trust, says the building was architecturally significant in Melbourne because instead of the more regular grid patterns of other such buildings, its irregularly placed inward opening hopper windows give the front a rhythmic pattern that made it “charming and distinctive”.

The building was also distinctive for its “finely and unusually detailed” travertine lined lobby that was given extra height by the “half up-half down” stairs, made necessary because of the slope of the site.

In 1978, though, when the LIV decided to make it its new home, the building was in a rather shabby condition. With the money from the insurance payout and the proceeds of selling the old site, the LIV set about renovating the nine storey building to become its new home.

To Mr Lewis it was a huge step up from the Little Bourke Street “monstrosity”. The new building was “paradise” by comparison, he says. “It was so nice to have an office (in the new building) that had an ensuite with a shower and toilet.”

At the time though the building was criticised for being too large, Mr Lewis says. “But by the time I left the Institute in 1986, it was bursting at the seams.”

Mr Teague says the new building fixed the LIV’s place as a major player in the legal scene.

Those were the years of phenomenal growth in the profession, says legal historian Professor Simon Smith. “The law schools were amping up, women were coming into the profession, and the Institute was at its peak as a regulatory power.”

There were changes over the years. In 2003 a major renovation altered the façade and changed the lobby. The half and half staircase became a three quarter main staircase past the new bookshop to the lecture theatre that replaced the Snail and Bottle restaurant, while the narrower stairs on the left led down to a refurbished library. Each of the seven office floors was modernised and remodelled.

But by 2017, it was clear that the infrastructure of the nearly 60 year old building was creaking, and would either require another multimillion dollar refurbishment or for the LIV to find a new home.

LIV president Belinda Wilson says that while the building has served the Victorian legal community well for the past 40 years, it was time to move on. “We need better facilities for our members and our people and this will allow us to deliver greater benefits for the legal profession and the community.”

In early 2018, the building was put on the market for sale by expression of interest by Colliers International. It sold for more than $30 million, exceeding the LIV’s expectations.

The LIV will continue as a tenant of the building until it moves to new rental accommodation in the legal precinct.

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