A History of Melbourne's Iconic Block Arcade in 1 Minute

Photo of Monique La Terra
9 February 2017

Modeled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, Melbourne’s Block Arcade is a ‘place to shop and be seen.’ Connecting Collins Street and Elizabeth Street with Little Collins Street, the L-shaped shopping arcade was completed in 1893. Previously called Carpenters Lane, the name ‘Block Arcade’ evolved through the popular saying ‘doing the block,’ a tradition where men and women would circle the block prior to VFL games. The phrase was also mentioned by Fergus Hume in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, published in 1886.

The Block Arcade signage | © jwbenwell/Wikimedia Commons

In 1837 the site was auctioned and purchased by Henry Batman, brother of Melbourne’s founder John Batman, for eighteen pounds and in 1856 was acquired by Briscoes Bulk Grain Store. After a series of owners The Block Arcade now belongs to the Cohen family who have a strong Victorian ancestry. On Friday the 13th of September 1889, a fire started at the Georges store in the Block Arcade and as fire brigades at the time were owned by various companies, it took a long time before the blaze could be extinguished. This led to a revision of fire response units and subsequently the Metropolitan Fire Brigades was created. The damage bill was two hundred thousand pounds.

Architect David C. Askew of Twentyman & Askew was asked to design a shopping arcade inspired by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. The Collins Street wing opened in February 1892, and the Elizabeth Street wing opened in October 1893 — with the two wings joined by an octagonal-shaped junction. The Victorian-era arcade features detailed mosaic-tiled floors, stained glass windows, a glass canopy and skylights, wrought iron fixtures and carved stone finishes.

Royal Arcade, Melbourne, Australia – April 2004 | © Diliff/WikimediaCommons

The Block Arcade opened with 15 milliners, three lace shops, a photographer and Hopetoun Tea Rooms which was bought for 18 pounds and remains open for business today. Former stores include department store George & Georges Drapers, the Singer Sewing Machine Company and the original Kodak store. Today, the arcade is home to over twenty retailers including Haigh’s Chocolates, Dafel Dolls & Bears, Alpaca Collection, Gewurzhaus, Basements Discs and many others as well as a number of commercial spaces.

Tea rooms store front in Collins Street, Melbourne | © Patrick M/WikimediaCommons

Considered to be one of ‘Australia’s top 10 landmarks’, The Block Arcade is one of Melbourne’s most iconic destinations, where you can stroll through 19th century Melbourne, snap Instagram-worthy pictures and find one-of-a-kind gifts.