25 September 2012

Princes Bridge and the Vaults, Melbourne

There had always been a wooden bridge over the Yarra, since the earliest days of Melbourne’s settlement. But Princes Bridge perm­anently linked Swanston Street to St Kilda Road and thence to the southern suburbs. Built in 1886-88 after an architectural competition, the 112ms bridge was designed by Jenkins, D’Ebro and Grainger on solid bluestone pillars with cast iron decorative and functional elements. Clearly the old wooden bridge could not withstand flooding and it could not handle dense 1880s traffic.

Princess Bridge

Because of its position, Princes Bridge was always an important part of Melbourne, used for large, public events. For example a triumphal arch was erected on the bridge, over the river, when the royal couple arrived in 1901 to celebrate the Federation festivities. On the other side of the bridge, the visitor can easily reach the Melb Arts Complex, a post-WW2 cluster of buildings that celebrate music, stage, dance and art.

Everyone in Melbourne has seen the bridge high above the river, but not everyone has seen The Princes Walk Vaults down at water level. The design was very clever. As Victorian Heritage have shown, construction associated with the vaults included the rail connection of the Princes Bridge and Flinders St Railway stations, and the realignment of Yarra Bank Road. The twenty barrel vaulted cells with openings facing the river were constructed of brick and were faced in rough blue stone. The ten supporting piers were capped with granite and the cast iron street lights were designed in a similar fashion to those of Princes Bridge. Even the stairway design had come from Grainger's original design for Princes Bridge.

Princes Bridge decorated with royal arch to celebrate the opening of Federal Parliament, Melbourne, May 1901. 

So just a couple of years after the current Princes Bridge was completed in 1888, Mr A W McKenzie designed vaults that were 5 metres deep, and opened onto the part of the river that had been used by pleasure cruise and ferry op­erators. As far back as the 1890s, McKenzie expected his vaults would be rented by owners of refreshment rooms, boat-builders and cruise companies. The location was perfect – next to and integrated with Melbourne’s most impor­t­ant bridge, at the entrance to the City and right on the water’s edge.

Although I have lived in Melbourne for 90% of my life, and am greatly interested in architectural history, I had never seen The Princes Walk Vaults before. Perhaps they were too sleazy for a nice girl to visit, in the 1960s. That all changed in 2003. Because fewer than half of the vaults were tenanted, they were tran­sfer­red to the State Government’s Federation Square Management and renovated. Now the visitor can find bars and café, architectural offices, a kitchen, boatsheds and bike racks. The bars flow out towards the Yarra River with tables and sun shades.

One of the vaults, now used as a design office

The vaults in 2012, with inside and outside dining at Riverland Bar

Thankfully the vaults are at last listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
The more we read about Melbourne, the more interested we become and would, ideally, wish to visit, deterred only by the prospect of such a long flight which somehow we could not face. Three hours back to the United Kingdom from here is about our limit!!

It is clearly a city of much architectural distinction of which Princes Bridge is an obvious landmark. Its archway for the 1901 celebrations does look rather fun but somewhat distorts the lines of the bridge which are very elegant.

That the Vaults have been restored and put to new use augurs well for the future.

Andrew said...

Just for once, I have learnt nothing from you. I already knew it. Nice work, all the same. Ok, I did not know the path along the river was called Princes Walk. Riverland, the sprawled out riverside bar, is wonderful on a nice day. I believe it gets quite manic at night time.

How awful was the 2001 Federation 'pick up sticks' arch in comparison to the original. In 2008 it was lying around in pieces in a Sunbury paddock.

If there is a tram delay, trams get be lined up across the bridge, along with stationary cars and trucks. The bridge must be very strong to bear the weight.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

Melbourne was the capital city of Australia, until Canberra was built. All Parliamentary and Federal government activities were based in this city until they started moving to Canberra after WW2.

And most of the gold money from the second half of the 19th century was Victorian based, and flooded into Melbourne. It truly was a beautiful city.

We need to preserve what remains.

Hels said...


where were you when I needed you? Riverland is a wonderful riverside bar - the location and the architecture impress!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The Princes Bridge is a very handsome one, elegantly proportioned, and I'm glad to see that the vaults have been so attractively restored. I know what you mean about not visiting the vaults. It is a shame how waterfront areas in many cities tend to become decayed and unsafe, because so much history and architecture is concentrated there. While I was growing up in Cleveland, I never once visited the Cuyahoga River area, with its old bridges and buildings.

I just took a break to read up on the Yarra River, a fascinating history, even if the gold has been replaced by less desirable 'heavy metals'. I'm sure this waterfront area would attract me like a magnet if I am lucky enough to get to Melbourne.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


What you say is correct in so many cities i.e that waterfronts typically became rather sleazy places, for wharfies, sailors and working girls. Yet once river banks and harbours were cleaned up, waterfronts became the MOST desirable and expensive properties in each city.

So the question should be "why did these cities take so long to realise what treasures they had in their waterfront architecture?" London probably more so than Melbourne or Cleveland.

Parnassus said...

Hello again, Cleveland's Cuyahoga riverfront was undergoing a renaissance for a while, but lately seems to be slipping backwards. Your mention of London calls to mind my favorite writer about the Thames (not to mention everything else he writes about), Ivor Noel-Hume. My hard-to-find copy of 'Treasure in the Thames' came from Australia!

When I checked my email just now, by great coincidence Shorpy had just posted this photo:

Hels said...


Thank you. I was going to say that Shorpy's timing was perfect, that his photo could not have been posted at a better time. But the reality is that blogging opens our eyes to new material and heightens our response to previously unknown linkages.

I LOVE the links we make in blogging.

Emm said...

Oh, those vaults are just gorgeous. We have similar vaults under Charing Cross Station. I must find out whether they too were of Victorian origin. I travelled over that bridge when I visited Melbourne and I remember the Arts Complex well! We were staying in South Yarra and, in fact, had to walk back from the bridge after I started an argument with our taxi driver on New Years Day, 2000. All I had said was that we were evenly populated in South Africa as opposed to being mainly on coastal regions like Australia. He took offense and booted us out!

Hels said...


Firstly I would like to apologise to you on behalf of all 22.5 million Australians. Bloody rude taxi driver :(

Secondly I wonder if you could share a photo of the vaults under Charing Cross Station which was opened in 1864. I love the connection because part of the Charing Cross platforms are above the Thames!

Emm in London said...

Aaah, he was probably tired! I sent you a couple of photos by email but will try take a good photo for you soon, showing the perspective and layout of the Arches.

ChrisJ said...

ignoring the waterfront and then investing in it seems to be a broad trend. Saint John, NB did the same with very good results.

Joashy2001 said...

Art is described as a procedure of organizing figurative elements in a style that has an effect on the mind, feelings, and brains of a person (Bartz, 2006, 15). It involves a variety of human actions, designs and forms of expression such as music, literature, film, photography, sculpture and paintings. The significance of art is looked at in an area of philosophy called aesthetics. Aesthetics involves appreciation of beauty. In addition subjects such as history and psychoanalysis examine its relation with human beings

Hels said...


thank you. The photo are terrific.

Hels said...


I think cities couldn't be bothered making waterfront areas look prosperous, healthy and full of entertainment because those areas were just for working class residence and employment.

Once the middle classes saw the maritime views, and wanted to be close to the excitement in the centre of town, millions of dollars poured in.

Now the Yarra River itself has been cleaned up (the water and both banks); pleasure cruisers and ferries are everywhere. The old sheds were turned into wedding venues, a casino, galleries and conference centres.

Hels said...


Are you relating aesthetics to the task of renovating Victorian architecture? If so I agree entirely, but the balance is always between 1. maintaining historical structures BECAUSE of their historical significance and 2. making the structures into safe, elegant, functional spaces.

Lord Cowell said...

I love the history of the vaults. They remind me of places like Gordon's wine bar - the oldest in Britain, which is built in the arches going down to the river near Charing Cross, in the building that was once home to Samuel Pepys, and later Rudyard Kipling.

Wish you bridge still had the royal arch over it - that looks amazing in photo.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

I know most of the wine bars in London, but must have missed Gordon's. What a shame, since you note that Pepys and Kipling both lived in the building. Normally I would go to every famous literary home in the entire nation.

For an image of the arches, see http://tinyurl.com/92w6xwk

Office Furniture Melbourne said...

It was nice visiting a historical place like these.

Hels said...


Sometimes our best discoveries are accidental :) Thank goodness for blogs, I say.