Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Queen Victoria Building

Things I like about Sydney No. 47: The Queen Victoria Building (or, as they must have it in hideous modern parlance, the QVB).

Slap bang in the centre of the so-called Central Business District of Sydney, taking up an entire block along the main thoroughfare George Street, from Park Street to Market Street, stands the magnificent, incomparable Queen Victoria Building.

A huge late-Victorian temple of Mammon, the Queen Victoria Building was begun in 1893 and finally opened (fortunately before her Majesty's demise) in 1898. Back then, as well as housing a Concert Hall, the first floor alone had fifty-eight shops with a variety of tenants, including tailors, mercers, boot importers, hairdressers, tobacconists, florists, chemists, and fruiterers, an enormous coffee palace, a tea room, warerooms, showrooms and offices. On the second floor were further large showrooms and a gallery. The basement boasted wine cellars, strong rooms, cooling chambers and public toilets.

The Queen Victoria Building has been restored twice in recent years and is now resplendent and immaculately coiffed once more, having narrowly escaped demolition in the 1970s. I have a love-hate relationship with it. I love it because it is one of the best late-Victorian extravagances ever built. I hate it because it's current incarnation as a 21st century temple of Mammon leaves me cold. Bring back the mercers, the taxidermists, the tobacconists, the boot importers, the cooling chambers....



The building has fantastic tiled floors, elegant balustrades and balconies, elaborate cage lifts and staircases, a magnificent ceiling, extravagant clocks and other timepieces but all this wonderful interior decoration is marred by the hordes of people buying crap. Obviously, I am glad that the building is a throbbing, magnificent success. I'd just rather it was all for me alone to do with what I would like.

Daniel and I ventured in late last week and I managed to capture some of the tiled floors without a soul in sight...

Ordinarily, you wouldn't see beyond your nose for shoppers.

So let's see....what have I actually managed to buy in the 'QVB'...

Things I have managed to buy in the Queen Victoria Building

1. Over-priced tea.

In the basement, perhaps not even in the building proper, perhaps in one of the interconnecting tunnels that lead to Town Hall station, is a branch of T2. The appallingly named T2 sells over-priced tea (and this comes from someone who, when in London, buys their tea at Fortnum and Mason and is willing to pay the price for quality). Here, at T2, I have to pay almost 40 dollars for a puny amount of Assam which isn't even TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) as it is at Fortnum's. It will last about a month and then I have to grit my teeth and go back and buy some more....

2. Over-priced prints.

At the top of the building, on the second floor, is an antique print room run by an extremely snooty husband and wife team - the sort of people who look at you in horror if you try to bargain them down. Actually, they are the sort of people who look at you in horror full-stop unless you're carrying some Vuitton luggage and have pearls (for the women) or a cravat (for the men) around your neck (if it was the other way round you wouldn't even be let in).

Unfortunately the shop has some wonderful things - specifically, 200 year old prints of Australian wildlife and birds and Daniel and I have succumbed to temptation twice (and once I did manage to get 25 dollars knocked off the price...).

Here they are, recently framed by my own expert hands,  - a possum holding a bunch of flowers out to a kangaroo - with a few foetuses scattered picturesquely about - by John Chapman (you have to remember it was very hot out here for Europeans in 1803 and so they obviously hallucinated a lot) and a female Superb Fairy Wren from The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay by Arthur Phillip (1789):

3. Over-priced shoes.

Occasionally, stumbling around the building, you do come across a shop you might want to cross the threshold of. On the ground floor, for instance, is Camper, the shoe-shop. Now Camper is hardly the modern equivalent of a Victorian boot importer - it's a jumped-up parvenu from Spain - but nevertheless I have been known to sport the odd Camper article on my feet. So imagine my horror when I looked at the price tags. $325!!!!!!! $290!!!!!!! WHAT ARE THEY THINKING????? These things cost half that price in London. What is more, the pair I did buy (in a sale) have already fallen apart less than a year later. Split down the side.


4. Over-priced soap.

This is a wholly unnecessary indulgence that is now an ingrained habit. Buying big blocks of green soap from L'Occitane De Provence (which 'concept store', I'm sure, is probably as French as I am). They smell good and last for ever (unlike Camper shoes).

And that, I believe, is it for me and shopping at the Queen Victoria Building in the 21st century. I run in and I run out, clutching either soap or tea. I think I would have fared a lot better in 1898. Those prints would have been a damn sight cheaper for a start... I would still be smoking (because it was good for you, stupid) and could have visited my tobacconist daily to try the latest blend. There, no doubt, would have been a barbers next door where I would have gone to have a quick do-over before nipping up to the taxidermist to see how my Great Bustard was coming along. Then there would just be time to ensure that my wine was being cellared properly before having a leisurely lunch in the coffee palace and a post-prandial browse round the booksellers. My tailor's appointment at 3.00 would have lasted about an hour and a half because I am particularly fussy, which only leaves an hour or so before the first gin and tonic of the day. And that hour I could easily spend at the photographer's studio having my portrait taken with Sniff.

Patently, I am living in the wrong century although knowing my luck, back in 1898 it would have been me stuffing the bloody Bustard rather than me poncing about buying it....

No comments:

Post a Comment