A night at the Nicholas

By Meg Hill

The Nicholas Building contains its own collective oral history. It’s unverified and inconsistent, but stems from the imaginative character of the building and its tenants.

During the building’s own “open house” on June 19, one oral testament held that in the '20s “there was a pond in the building with a real crocodile and flamingos”. 

What makes those histories so endearing is finding the kernel of truth that set it off, like Chinese whispers. In this case, the story seems to originate just up the road.

Apparently, alligators were at one point held in big glass tanks in the basement café of the Manchester Unity building.

But from inside the Nicholas Building on the top floor, you could imagine the pond at the bottom of the central light well that cuts through the inside of the building to the third floor.

It stops there with a concrete roof. The bottom was originally glass, but people kept throwing stuff onto it from the roof.

Almost every tenant threw their doors open for the open house. A line stretched out of the bottom floor arcade and down Swanston St.

The popular approach was to take the lift straight to the top floor and make your way down by the stairs. The lifts were still operated by elevator workers up until a few years ago when they were retired.

A dark music studio on the third floor was showing live music in front of a perfect view of Flinders Street Station.

Tenants describe the building’s constant evolution, as people come and go. The artistic base conduces a natural reflection of artistic trends.

“I’ve been coming here since maybe the '90s,” said Rebecca Stewart, an illustrator who shares a studio on the top floor.

“It’s a place I’ve always been to for parties and stuff like that.”

She described climbing out of windows to get to party spots. The windows of her studio are cracked, and the roof is now permanently locked.

“They’re never going to get fixed. Those are our cracked windows.” 

The Nicholas, built between 1925-26, is one of the most architecturally important buildings in the CBD. Its façade is in Greek revival styling and internally the building reflects the eclectic nature of its history.

Both the National Trust and the Heritage Council of Victoria have listed the building. 

Ms Stewart said the building feels more organised now in terms of tenants.

“When I first came to parties here it felt very individual, it was pretty weird and whacky. There were a handful of people living here when they definitely shouldn’t be.”

“Now there’s Flinders Lane Gallery and Blindside, they have visibility. Everyone knows what Blindside is, whereas before it might have been a place that was tucked away.”

Although Vikkhi Hillyer – from the second floor’s Muses of Mystery – praised the building’s continued ability to “stave off corporate types”.

She then pointed to a corner of the building, where Gregory David Roberts wrote Shantaram. 

Like the central light well, there’s still plenty to find in the Nicholas that’s hidden from the outside looking in.

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