There’s nothing like the history that oozes from the walls of the Royal Exhibition Buildings, a short stroll from the Melbourne CBD. Melbourne in the 1900s was a prosperous city, basking in the wealth from the richest gold rush in the world.
How better to publicise the achievements and opportunities in the colony of Victoria than by hosting an international exhibition?
Now one of the world’s last remaining major 19th century exhibition pavilions, the Royal Exhibition Buildings were originally built to allow Melbourne to host the Great International Exhibition of 1880.
The exhibition ran for eight months and included the first showing of such revolutionary industrial advancements as lawn mowers and tinned food. The Melbourne Centennial Exhibition was also held here in 1888 to celebrate a century of European settlement in Australia.
Later this majestic old dame hosted the opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament of Australia in 1901 and served the Victorian Parliament for the next 27 years.
Designed by architect Joseph Reed, who also designed the Melbourne Town Hall and the State Library of Victoria, the eclectic design was said to be inspired by many sources.
The dome was modelled on the Florence Cathedral, while the main pavilions were influenced by an architectural style combining elements from Byzantine, Romanesque, and Italian Renaissance buildings; and several buildings from Normandy, Caen and Paris.
During the 1940s and 50s the building was a venue for regular weekly dances but fell into disrepair. Like many buildings in Melbourne of that time it was earmarked for replacement by office blocks. Fortunately, members of the Melbourne City Council put this to the vote and it was narrowly decided not to demolish the building.
During a visit to Victoria in 1984, Princess Alexandra, Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, bestowed the royal title on the building and it has been referred to as the Royal Exhibition Building ever since.
Throughout the 1990s the buildings underwent a massive facelift are now protected by World Heritage listing, the first building in Australia to receive this accolade.
When it was built, the Great Hall was the largest building in Australia, and the highest building in Melbourne. With a meticulously restored interior, expansive galleries and soaring dome, today the Great Hall is used as an impressive setting for trade shows, fairs, and cultural and community events.
For a full understanding of its significance in Melbourne’s history take a guided tour, which start at the Melbourne Museum next door.
The surrounding Carlton Gardens are also Heritage-listed as a striking example of late 19th century gardens, with dramatic tree-lined avenues, a majestic fountain, formal flowerbeds and miniature lakes.
The International Flower and Garden Show, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, is held here every autumn, resulting in an indoor and outdoor extravaganza of floral colours and design.
One of the few major nineteenth century exhibition buildings to survive worldwide, jump on a tram right to the door and you’ll soon see why this historic time capsule is an Australian icon.