High Rise Housing in Melbourne: Atherton Gardens Estate, Fitzroy

High Rise Housing in Melbourne

Melbourne embarked on an ambitious program of public housing following World War Two, led by the Housing Commission of Victoria. The Housing Commission had been established in 1938, following a campaign by social reformer Oswald Barnett that highlighted the poverty and living conditions in parts of the inner suburbs.

After the war, the Housing Commission built estates for low-income families on the suburban fringes of Melbourne, many using innovative construction techniques with precast concrete. It also instituted many slum reclamation projects in the inner city in the 1960s and early 1970s, demolishing ‘slum’ areas across Melbourne’s inner suburbs.

These run-down areas were replaced with 21 high-rise housing estates dotted around suburbs such as Fitzroy, Richmond, South Melbourne and Carlton. Critics argued that ‘suburbs in the sky’ were hardly an improvement on the neighbourhoods they replaced. Local community resistance to further clearances in the 1970s brought an end to the high-rise program.

The 45 high rise towers on Melbourne’s Housing Commission estates are familiar to many, yet their history is little known. A model of the Atherton Gardens estate in Fitzroy and a short video about the impact of high rise estates feature in The Melbourne Story exhibition at Melbourne Museum, and  offer new understandings of Melbourne’s ‘suburbs in the sky’. They explore how high rise housing has radically transformed Melbourne’s inner city skyline and how local communities have been affected.

Atherton Street Fitzroy: A vanished neighbourhood

The Atherton Gardens high-rise estate in Fitzroy was built between the mid 1960s and 1971, and replaced an entire neighbourhood made up of over 250 buildings, spread across eight streets. This neighbourhood was located between Brunswick, Gertrude, Napier, King William and Condell Streets in Fitzroy. About 180 homes lined the streets, most inhabited since the 19th century. The locals were mainly struggling families, including European migrants and Aboriginal people. Although many of their homes were in poor repair, not all were the ‘slums’ that the authorities claimed. Some migrants became home-owners and renovated their houses, putting in plumbing and other improvements. When the bulldozers moved through, many residents left the area, never to return.

Atherton Street looking south towards Gertrude Street, late 1950s

Atherton Street looking south towards Gertrude Street, from Webb Street, Fitzroy, late 1950s.
Source: JL O'Brien Collection, University of Melbourne Archives

Atherton Gardens Estate: A Suburb in the Sky

The Atherton Gardens estate in Fitzroy was built by the Housing Commission of Victoria between the mid 1960s and 1971. It consists of 800 flats in four high rise towers, each 20 storeys high, surrounded by landscaped gardens, playgrounds and carparks, spread over eight hectares of land. The towers were assembled from pre-fabricated concrete panels made by the Housing Commission’s concrete factory in Holmesglen. The flats are designed mainly for families, and are made up of two and three bedroom configurations. Two lifts are included in each tower, and communal laundry facilities are available on each floor.

Atherton Gardens, like many other public housing estates, has experienced some of the problems that the social planners had hoped to eradicate. Many who live there still suffer social disadvantages: poverty, unemployment, illness.

Despite this, Atherton Gardens has become a cherished home for many.

Atherton Gardens Estate Model

The Atherton Gardens estate model shows a section of the original neighbourhood demolished in the 1960s, and part of the new Atherton Gardens estate after construction was completed in 1971. It illustrates the impact of ‘slum clearance’ and high-rise public housing in Fitzroy. The model replicates the neighbourhood as accurately as possible, but records are incomplete. The Museum welcomes further information about the area and the people who lived there. 

Model showing the Atherton Street neighbourhood as it would have appeared in 1960

Model showing the Atherton Street neighbourhood as it would have appeared in 1960, and Atherton Gardens Estate as it would have appeared in 1971.
Photographer: Rodney Start, Source: Museum Victoria   

About fifty shops were clustered along Brunswick, Gertrude, Webb and Condell Streets. People could buy fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, and groceries. They could also do their banking,banking and drycleandry-clean and repair their clothes. A Methodist Church provided a place of worship. A range of industries could be found too, squeezed in alongside houses and businesses. They ranged from clothing and furniture manufacturers to mechanics, electroplaters and a large timber yard.

There was a thriving, albeit notorious, social culture in the local hotels, cafes and clubs, some of which also illicitly operated as sly-grog shops and gambling dens. These were located on Gertrude, Condell, Brunswick and Napier Streets. Some cafes and clubs became important community hubs for recently arrived European migrants.

Visitor Information

The Atherton Gardens Estate is short walk from Melbourne Museum. Privacy of residents should be respected at all times.

Further Reading

New houses for old : fifty years of public housing in Victoria 1938-1988,  edited by Renate Howe, Ministry of Housing and Construction, Melbourne. 1988.

Fitzroy: Melbourne’s First Suburb, cutten History Committee of the Fitzroy History Society, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1991.

 

Comments (8)

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Maurie Turner 11 July, 2009 09:16
Researching L. Arthur Transport Pty Ltd, Cartage Contractors who transported the concrete panels from Homesglen to the Housing Commission sites around Melbourne. Information or process for getting information appreciated. Best Regards Maurie Turner
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Discovery Centre 30 July, 2009 14:57

Hi, Marie. One research strategy might be to contact the organisation itself via their website - they're still going strong after all these decades! Otherwise, try the "Further Reading" suggestions mentioned above.

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Georgie Stokes 31 July, 2009 15:09
A group of Master of Architecture students, of which I am one, are researching the Flemington Racecourse Rd commission flats - including looking for plans, etc. Any leads would be very valuable! Regards, Georgie
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Discovery Centre 1 August, 2009 11:36

The best place to start is the Public Records Office of Victoria, which should hold building approvals, including plans, for any developments in Melbourne during this period. 

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Colin M 2 November, 2010 12:29
My dad was the REO (resident Estate Officer) at Atherton Gardens Housing Commission flatsfrom 1973 to 1975. A very interesting lifestyle living on the job amoungst people for,m all nations.
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L Milwain 30 September, 2011 20:56
my child hood was full of good times in the flats, we were only allowed to go to the boxes, and paint and feed the animals. we would take potatoes to cook on the fire and had to be home by 6.00pm I lived in 100/napier st and their would always be a man named harrold sitting on the seat at the front with his radio. they were good times lyn
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Kris 28 December, 2011 12:27
Three generations of my family have lived in Fitzroy since the 40-50's after fleeing Macedonia. Unfortunately my grandfather had 4 pieces of land demolished along both Gertrude & Brunswick Street (3 of which were housing, & one cafe/burger shop near the corner of Brunswick & Gertrude). Apparently there is archival footage of people being interviewed as the demolition is in full swing, as well as photo's of some residents blocking the bulldozer; one of them being my father with a brick in his hand. Have you heard of or seen anything of this description? If so could possibly direct me as to where I could find/see these long lost family artifact's? To find some record of this would fill an enormous void in a family history, whose lives were irrevocably changed by these events. Any lead would be of much appreciation, Kris
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Discovery Centre 3 January, 2012 11:02
Hi Kris, we have checked with one of the History & Technology Curators, and she has suggested you try the State Library of Victoria for images of the area you are interested in, and the National Film and Sound Archive for moving footage.
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