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Keith Conlon presents: look up in Rundle Mall

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Do a slow 360 at the King William Street end of Rundle Mall and you get the picture … Adelaide’s main thoroughfare is all about big statements, while the Mall is about the big spend – it’s our retail alley.

While everyone is familiar with Rundle Mall’s ground level, there’s a whole lot more to discover if you turn your gaze upwards.

First, one of our best-known city locations to this day, the Beehive Corner building, must be a candidate for our most exotic architecture.

It is enthusiastically neo-Gothic revival in style.

It could pass as a Cardinal’s palace, complete with its own tourelle! That’s the turret that projects off the top corner, brandishing a golden bee atop.

It has always been a commercial building, however – no ecclesiastical inhabitants here.

Then again, its form may just explain my almost religious fervour for the chocolates from its long-time tenant, Haigh’s.

Immediately opposite, the Waterhouse Building may be more modest in its subtle Regency style (note the curved windows on the corner), but it has the stronger heritage pedigree by a mile.

It was built way back in the late 1840s with profits from the ‘Monster Mine’, the massive and fabulously productive copper mine at Burra.

TG Waterhouse was a grocer in the area when he took a punt and joined a syndicate for a mining lease in the Mid-North.

It turned out that the ‘snobs’ – that is, the ‘shopkeepers who were nobodies’ – scored the right section and were rewarded beyond their wildest dreams.

Indeed, Mr Waterhouse became a director of the South Australian Mining Association, the owners of the mine, which had its office upstairs.

Stepping down the Mall towards the hills, cast an eye upwards and the 19th-century feel continues.

The detailed 1880s facade next door to the Beehive Corner was big on scaling and detailing of its upper two floors. Big expanses of newly imported plate glass, too.

If we stroll along the Myer Centre side of the Mall, we can completely avoid having to look at its ‘white-shoe brigade’ crassness.

Opposite, on the corner of James Place, is the six-storey building that heralded a rush of structures to head skywards in the 1920s.

Alfred Drake built it in 1916 and his name is still emblazoned there across the top.

His Mayfair Theatre, which showed silent movies fresh from Hollywood to Adelaide, is long gone.

Even its successor, the Sturt Theatre, disappeared half a century ago. It closed in 1976, another victim of the cinema-strangling disease called television.

Across the lane and above anonymous shop facades, you’ll see two attractively ornate Victorian buildings. One of these two-storey, elaborately decorated structures once boasted a fancy cast-iron fenced balcony, too.

Approach Gawler Place and, on the same southern side of Rundle Mall, you’ll come across a threesome born of the 1920s upward thrust.

The building with the more recent curved glass addition was originally Allan’s Music Store. The addition was probably one of those good ideas at the time, as it tried to match the Georgian-style bay windows of the building next door.

For those who do look up, the old Young’s Shoes store is another standout. Glazed bricks – ultra-modern in the 1920s – are still unusual in Adelaide. And it has the unusual claim of being built from the top down!

To ensure continuing shoe fittings on the ground floor, the constructors drove girders into the tall buildings on either side and simply worked their way down to terra firma.

Helping to hold them up was the new 1925 Birk’s Chemist building on the corner of Gawler Place.

Across the way, look up to what was, in the 1960s, the ‘department store of the future’.

David Jones knocked down a 19th-century three-storey department store to build this marble-clad, international-style, windowless wonder.

That was before another seemingly timeless department store closed down further along the shopping enclave.

David Jones then moved to the site of the legendary John Martin’s store.

Once ownership changed, windows were cut into upper levels.

And, of late, tawdry signs have popped up just above ground level.

The visual polluter is always lurking.

Just above the Gawler Place corner, the welded copper sculpture commissioned for the 1959 DJs building and designed by Lyndon Dadswell remains a strong statement.

It shows the figure of a man stretching upwards toward a bird-filled sky. Dadswell called it the ‘Spirit of Progress’.

As a former war artist, perhaps he was deliberately echoing the name of his teacher’s work, just a block away on North Terrace. The Rayner Hoff sculpture of three civilians on our War Memorial was part of the architects’ design titled the ‘Spirit of Sacrifice’.

A sculptural flourish to end our short above-eye-level Mall wander.

–   Standby! Keith ventures beyond Gawler Place for part two of his ‘look up’ tour of Rundle Mall, soon. 

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