It’s a divisive building, there’s no doubt about it.
The Colorbond and brown brick behemoth squatting at the western end of Bridge Mall fronting Sturt Street is now for sale -’invest, occupy and/or develop’, says the real estate hoarding.
Norwich Plaza has inspired debate about the future of Bridge Mall, and by extension the nature of retailing, in Ballarat for years.
For Lease signs and empty shops are scattered throughout the building, which is also showing signs of rapid ageing.
The clock with its Roman numerals on the facade hasn’t worked for years.
Lichen is growing over the faded cream paint of the awnings, while rust eats away at the undersides.
But a walk through shows there are still plenty of shoppers in the stores which are open, and real estate agent Billy Holderhead of Burgess Rawson, one of the agencies representing the vendors, says income on the property is very healthy compared to other similar regional buildings.
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Nevertheless he thinks the building will sell in a relatively short time, and it’s ripe for redevelopment.
“It’s a cracking canvas,” he says, and the Melbourne-based owners are ready to sell.
As some of Norwich Plaza covers council property, Mr Holderhead says there has been City of Ballarat involvement in the proposed sale.
“The arcade at the rear is council property, although our clients have been paying for its maintenance,” he says.
“Council are positive about the proposed sale.”
There’s a popular and sometimes passionately defended myth that circulates in Ballarat with remarkable regularity.
It’s said that beneath the Colorbond facade of Norwich Plaza there exists the magnificent Victorian facade of the Robert Nicholl and Co Drapery, also known as Nicholl and Allen, and before that WM Bean and Son.
Sadly, it’s untrue.
The three-storey furnisher’s store, richly decorated with cast iron posts, verandahs and finials, did indeed stand well into the Twentieth Century, but any remnant of it has long since been swept away.
It can be pointed out that the building standing roughly on the footprint of the Nicholl drapers is nowhere near as high, and an inspection of the interior reveals it to have been constructed of a form of brick produced in the late 20th Century and steel formwork.
In fact, the Nicholl building was to suffer several alterations over its lifespan.
A victim of the changing tastes of architecture, it was steadily stripped of its cast iron ornamentation over the years, closely followed by the cast cement balustrades.
Such Victorian effusion was regarded as rather ‘fussy’ by the 1920s.
Even in staid Ballarat the smoother lines of Modernism and Deco swept in.
However, the essential design of the building remained as one of the pillars of of the Sturt Street promenade, neatly matched by the Buck’s Head Hotel on the opposite corner.
Contemporary photographs taken from the heights of the Town Hall clock steeple reveal the elegant layout of old and new Ballarat in the 1890s.
The old gold track of Bridge Street meandering down from Bakery Hill abruptly finishes at the sweeping Hippodrome-like curves of the new Sturt Street boulevard, giving the residents of the city the opportunity to saunter and enjoy the riches of the architecture paid for by gold.
Dickins Self Service Grocery filled the building in the 1940s, then Morshead’s Department store expanded up from Bridge Street.
Advertising hoardings selling ‘Mobilco’ and ‘Plume Super Ethyl’ fuels, and ‘City and Mutual Life Insurance’ were tacked on.
In the 1960s the building was remodelled entirely by Morshead’s – around the time the London and Mutual bank was demolished.
In 1981 the Bridge Mall concept was launched, and Norwich Plaza – now perhaps doomed itself – swept away 100 years of retail.
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