Here's why it means so much to the local creative sphere.
Photo credit: City of Melbourne
On quiet weekend afternoons, Bronwyn Kamasz likes to take her shoes off and walk through the corridors of the Nicholas Building. She likes the feel of the cool, undulating surface on the bottom of her feet. Sometimes she dances.
“I can totally just be myself there,” she said.
“It’s like a second home.”
Kamasz is an artist and dancer from Melbourne who has rented studio space at the Nicholas Building for several years. She uses it for her art practice and as a place to connect with other artists and creators. She fell in love with the space as soon as she saw it.
Kamasz, who said she is rarely impulsive, was so captivated by the place she found herself agreeing to it on the spot.
“I was looking for a studio to rent and a friend offered me this space in the Nicholas Building. I came and had a look around and I just thought ‘yes’,” she said.
“The whole place has a beautiful, warm character. There’s just something about it. It’s hard to put into words.”
The heritage-listed Nicholson Building was listed for sale in June this year for the first time in 48 years. The building sits on the corner of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street in Melbourne’s CBD and has a long history as an integral part of Melbourne’s arts community.
Completed in 1926, the building originally housed a variety of occupants including garment manufacturers, artists, doctors, and architects. According to The Heritage Council of Victoria, the architectural significance of the building can be found in its grand commercial palazzo, or 1920s 'Chicago School' style.
The building was designed by Harry Norris, one of the leading architects in Melbourne at the time, who, along with his brother George, also developed the first Australian aspirin. The domed arcade on the ground floor is thought to be the only remaining example of a lead-light roofed arcade in Melbourne. The building was home to the last manually operated lift in Melbourne until 2012.
Today the building is known as a significant creative hub and is home to artist studios, small businesses, galleries, and various retail storefronts.
The building became a mecca for artists in the 1990s when the City of Melbourne and the State Government were attempting to revive the city as a place to visit for reasons other than just work, Co-director of the Nicholas Building Association Dario Vacirca said.
It has since been home to thousands of artists and creators who have been able to “evolve their practice and turn their dreams into businesses”, according to Vacirca.
Vacirca, who also rents a studio in the building, said the unique space and its multitude of creative vendors is a stark contrast to the rest of the city.
“The CBD is a bit like a giant shopping mall,” he said.
“The Nicholas Building is such an important site of the cohabitation of different creative industries cross-pollinating, and this by osmosis affects the whole consciousness of the city.”
Vacirca said the Nicholas Building Association and residents are concerned new owners may not honour its unique cultural aesthetic. He said the current group of owners, who have owned the building since 1973, have taken a “soft philanthropic approach” and allowed it to flourish as an arts community.
“We have been very lucky with the owners. They have not increased rent much over the years and have been good in terms of waiving rent throughout the pandemic,” he said.
The Nicholas Building Association is concerned new owners may want to turn the building into a commercial venture such as a boutique hotel, according to Vicirca.
“If developers know the right people, they could get approval for anything. Or, if they were to renovate and then charge more for rent, there’s no way many artists and artisans could afford to stay,” he said.
Vicirca said the Nicholas Building Association is currently proposing amendments to the heritage status of the building to protect its social and cultural significance or its “use value”.
The building is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register which protects both the inside and outside from any significant changes, but the cultural heritage of the building is less defined.
Through its Save the Nicholas Building Campaign, Vicirca said the association has been focusing on a “full-scale retention strategy” to change conversations around the sale of the building from a commercial-buyer perspective, to it being positioned “as an extremely important community asset”.
For Kamasz, the building is more than just a place of work. She said there is a strong sense of community in the building and working in a communal space with other artists fosters productivity and creativity.
“Everyone is respectful of each other’s working spaces but we also like to socialise and come together for after-work drinks and things,” she said.
“It’s a wonderful working environment.”
According to Kamasz, she and the other people she shares her space with on the third floor like to crawl out the window and sit on a ledge where they can watch city life go by.
“It feels incredible up there in the air. The winter view is bright and bare, then in summer the plane trees are green and the view softens.”
Vicirca believes the building is unique because it is Melbourne’s only large-scale artist and creator-led cultural offering.
“The scale and intensity of the co-habitation of artists and creators is unique, and integral to the continued progress of culture in the city,” he said.
He believes it is important to secure the site to allow continued community involvement in creative industries and to encourage the next generation of artists.
“When young people come into the building for the first time they experience something mysterious and provocative. It’s special,” he said.
Vicirca said COVID-19 has led people to reassess what is valuable in life. He believes there is a desire from the community for artistic and cultural activities in Melbourne as the city comes out of extended lockdowns.
“We have to think what kind of place we want Melbourne to be in a post-lockdown world,” he said.
“We’re hopeful there’s at least one bidder for the building thinking like this too.”
Kamasz said she has sensed sadness around the city during the pandemic.
“Melbourne needs us all back; uni students, visitors, artists, everybody,” she said.
“Artists enliven cities. We need more places like the Nicholas Building, not less.”
Kamansz and Vicirca are both excited to return to the building once restrictions are lifted and be amid the vibrant community that has been such an integral part of the cultural soul of the city.