Most Melburnians are very familiar with historic buildings that have been re-purposed over the years, for example, the former Customs House in Melbourne’s original port area (west end of Flinders Street) that now houses the Immigration Museum, or the original Melbourne Trunk Sewer pumping station at Spotswood which was very successfully transformed into the ScienceWorks museum.

And we also see numerous examples where the facade or shell of an old building has been propped in place while something new is built inside or behind it… or, in the case of the Melbourne Central shot tower, around it.

But many people probably aren’t aware that bits and pieces of many historic buildings and structures have been “recycled” – removed, packed up and transported to do duty in a new location or context. Indeed, in some cases, entire facades were taken down, the stones numbered and re-assembled on different buildings.

For years I drove past the large and imposing gates to the Victoria Park sporting fields in High Street, Kew East every day, unaware that these were the original gates of the Kew Lunatic Asylum, moved to their new location when Princess Street was widened. Learning this piqued my interest… what other recycled parts could I find around town?

Robyn Annear’s book A City Lost and Found tells the 100-year story of Melbourne’s first family of demolition and salvage, the Whelans, famous for their signs proclaiming “Whelan the Wrecker is here”. Being responsible for wrecking many of Melbourne’s earliest grand buildings meant the Whelans were often involved in disposing of the parts. Indeed, sometimes they relied on the sale of materials to make a profit from the demolition work.

The Colonial Bank of Australasia, built in 1880 of Malmsbury bluestone on the corner of Little Collins and Elizabeth Streets, was said to have had “the most architecturally handsome doorway in Melbourne”. Figures of Britannia and Neptune reclined above an arched lintel, supported by “a pair of muscular lackeys whose torsos dwindled to vague, leafy scrollwork”, as beautifully described by Robyn Annear. When the building faced demolition in 1932, the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects called for the doorway to be spared. But what to do with such a massive portal? The whole thing was dismantled, the pieces numbered and presented to the University of Melbourne. Somehow Britannia and Neptune missed the boat and just the lackeys and the archway became the entry to the School of Physiology that was then under construction. But when the Physiology School itself was demolished in the 1970s, the lackeys – minus the columns they used to sit atop – were relocated to the rather obscure southwest entrance to the South Lawn underground car park, just behind the Brownless Medical Library.

The 1858 Bank of NSW facade on the 1940 Old Commerce building

Next, the University took on an entire facade: the original Melbourne branch of the Bank of New South Wales built in 1858 was “stuck onto” an otherwise plain cream brick Commerce building constructed in 1940. This rather unsatisfactory approach was widely criticised and dubbed “facadism”… but it at least saved some of Melbourne’s past.

The Equitable Life insurance company building, on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets, built in 1896, was described as “the best proportioned building in the city”. But its grandiose style had become sufficiently unpopular by the 1950s (they called it “Americanised Renaissance”) that the National Trust did not object to its demolition (by this time it had become the Colonial Mutual Life building). A bronze statue of an Amazon-type woman – based on one on the Equitable building in New York – which had towered over the massive front entrance was saved and went to the University of Melbourne, first to its Mount Martha campus and later to its main Parkville campus, where it still sits in the gardens opposite the Baillieu Library.

But the “recycling” of these architectural scraps didn’t always lead to results that were incongruous or downright ugly. Beautiful Gothic stonework windows from the Royal Insurance Building at 414 Collins Street were salvaged by the Whelans when the building was knocked down in the 1930s and sold to Justus Jorgensen who was busy building the Montsalvat artists’ community at the time. Some of the huge windows and doorways now grace Montsalvat’s Great Hall, where they look right at home and contribute very appropriately to the feel of the place.

And then, of course, there’s smaller-scale recycling – no doubt hundreds of doors, windows, beams and timbers from long-lost buildings from Melbourne’s past have been re-used in new buildings or fashioned into furniture. Consequently, many of us may have “touched our history” without being aware of it.