I am a lover of all things Art Deco, and have admired the gorgeous gothic Manchester Unity Building on the corner of Collins and Swanston Street ever since I arrived in Melbourne in the late 70s. I’ve always wanted to take a peek inside; to get inside the bronze coloured lifts and be transported to the rooftop, and last Sunday I finally got my wish.
Turns out that it is actually very easy to do. One way would be to get your teeth attended to by one of the army of dentists that make up Smile Solutions, the main occupier and guardian angel of the building. The other way is much more pleasant – simply book into a tour provided by the downstairs 1932 Café, which are run on two Sundays of every month. You can book in for a breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea tour, which allows you to sit in the café and enjoy a meal before heading off for a guided tour of several of the floors occupied by Smile Solutions (http://manchesterunitybuilding.com.au/tours/).
I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the meal itself – we had chosen a breakfast tour – but was pleasantly surprised. Mind you, the glass of bubbles at 10.15 on a Sunday morning helped give everything a rosy glow.
Breakfast done we assembled outside the cafe, bursting to see the glories inside. But first we admire the intricate mosaic floor and hear some of the background history of the building, which was constructed in 1932 and was the tallest building in Melbourne. It was a modern marvel of aesthetics and technology, and Melburnians would come into town just to visit the building – to travel on the city’s first moving staircase; to shop or to eat in one of the cafes or take tea in the tearoom.
Since its glory days the building has passed through several changes of ownership and her age was showing badly. Millions of dollars were needed for maintenance and restoration. In 2003 the building’s saviour appeared in the form of Dr Kia Pajouhesh, a dental practitioner with a passion for Art Deco and a flourishing dental practice. Since 2003 Dr Pajouhesh has slowly acquired floors in the building for his expanding practice, now called Smile Solutions, and has channeled his passion for Deco into restoration of the building. Who knew there was that much money in teeth! But, thank goodness there is, as this Grande Dame of a building is certainly looking pretty good now, with many of its features restored or reproduced.
After a wander through the hallways on the first floor we travel up in the lift to the roof terrace ( which was once a roof top garden restaurant, complete with trees and fountains), to admire the building’s crowning glory – the tower; ignoring the modern carbuncle adjoining it.
It is then into the Smile Solutions head office and the famous boardroom, which were described at the time by the Melbourne Herald as the finest offices in the Southern Hemisphere. Due to heritage protection, the boardroom has come through the decades relatively unscathed, and still boasts the original, massive, boardroom table.
It has been a pleasant step back into the past. Thank goodness there are people with the monetary means who care about our architectural heritage, as it would be a tragedy to lose this beautiful building. The way she is looking now is really something to smile about.