The soaring Manchester Unity Building graces the spot in the city where Collins Street turns posh.
Beyond the Swanston Street corner, chain stores give way to Dior, Gucci and Hermes boutiques – the so-called “Paris-end” of the CBD.
It is fitting that, at the gateway to all this glamour, sits the elegant Manchester Unity, where well-heeled Melburnians would socialise decades ago.
The rooftop terrace of the art deco masterpiece, built in 1932, hosted the city’s first tea rooms.
The 12-storey Manchester Unity building was completed in 1932. Photo: NLA
Dentist Kia Pajouhesh is one of the custodians of the building. He owns the majority and, floor by floor, has embarked on a detailed restoration.
“The commercial spaces including the boardroom, the executive offices, and the Grand Secretary’s office, were on level 11 of the building, and above them sat the rooftop terrace,” Dr Pajouhesh said.
“That rooftop terrace was a truly beautiful space with an exotic rooftop garden, an aviary, tea rooms and cafe. The rooftop was visited by many Melburnians, who enjoyed the expansive views form the tallest building in Melbourne, with a cup of tea and scones.”
Former premier Ted Baillieu has called the Manchester Unity Building a tribute to aspiration; and with its turreted tower, gilded foyer, carved marble and intricate friezes of muscular workers, it was a symbol of Melbourne’s recovery from the Great Depression.
Its penthouse – now a dignified level 11 boardroom – speaks to that ambition, making a showpiece of an imposing marble fireplace and glossy walls of French polished veneer.
Detail including marble fireplaces and glossy French polished veneer walls have been retained and restored.
Using old photos as references, Dr Pajouhesh has returned his portions of the building to an authentic state, right down to door handles, cornices and the silver “MU” embossing on the boardroom leather chairs.
“It was a crucial tool to be able to look back at the original intentions of the architect Marcus Barlow,” he said.
“With over 80 years of little or no love and attention, the spaces including the historic fixtures and fittings, required much restoration.
“For example, one major task was French polishing all the Queensland maple timber veneer walls. But also, the space had been carved up for apartments. The boardroom was a pseudo-lounge and dining room, with the boardroom table shoved in the corner, right up against the back wall.
“And right through the floor, all of the executive offices had been converted into small, two bedroom apartments. So effectively dismantling those apartments and reinstating the original grandeur of the executive offices was both challenging and quite rewarding.”
Dr Kia Pajouhesh’s love affair with the building started in 2003 when he bought dilapidated shops on level one. Photo: Anu Kumar
Dr Pajouhesh, who runs his Smile Solutions dentistry practice from the Manchester Unity, has worked on Collins Street for over 25 years.
His love affair with the building started in 2003, when he bought dilapidated shop fronts on level one, restored them – from flourished lamp shades to the carved marble walls and richly detailed friezes – and installed dental surgeries.
“Back in 1932, the building was constructed on behalf of the Manchester Unity insurance company as a commercial hub for their business,” he said.
“They leased out their ground floor and mezzanine floor to the most fashionable retailers of the time and leased the other lower floors as commercial offices, but retained the upper floors between levels 10 and the tower for their own use.
“It’s a privilege and a delight to work in these beautiful surrounds enshrined with Melbourne history – you never get tired of it.
“Although she is almost 85 years old, technologically the grand old dame provides us with all the facilities we need in the modern era.”
The building started as a commercial hub for the Manchester Unity insurance company. Photo: Anu Kumar
Dr Pajouhesh purchased a level 10 residential apartment in November last year and has plans afoot, with a dozen sparkling chandeliers in storage, ready for hanging in the restored space.
A great pleasure of owning one of Melbourne’s most beautiful buildings is opening it up for all, he said.
“It’s quite inspirational that by restoring them back to their original commercial use, we have allowed thousands of Melburnians to utilise and enjoy the spaces.”
Dr Pajouhesh’s patients aren’t the only people invited to appreciate the Manchester Unity Building.
Through the ground-floor 1932 Cafe & Restaurant, architecture aficionados can join a monthly guided tour. The cafe takes bookings via its Facebook page.
“That enables Melburnians to view these amazing private spaces – that are really quite special,” he said.
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