Anna Krien on the Nicholas Building

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Like sex and drugs, when discovering the Nicholas Building, you tend to feel like you’re the first. It is a honeycomb wonder, a hive of studio nooks and little black boxes for catching rats. There are your basement rats, water rats (like in New York City, rumour is to keep an eye on the loo for the floundering swimmers) and rooftop rats, all with tails of various sizes and stumpy bodies. “The ones on the roof are more like cats,” says Dimitri Bradas, one of the building’s lift operators—a bespectacled fellow with a pruned moustache and button-on braces. An artist, he is a keen lover of UFOs, voodoo, and curios.

One of Melbourne’s last undeveloped inner-city buildings, the Nicholas Building, on the corner of Flinders Lane and the “teenagers skipping school” section of Swanston Street, has not yet gone the way of its fellow cult monoliths, many of which now spruik rooftop cinemas, bars, and bands. The original owners were the Nicholas brothers, who reinvented aspirin after the original patent was suspended post-World War I as part of Germany’s punishment for losing. The brothers, with entrepreneur Henry Woolf Smith, produced Aspro in 1917: “A Mighty Atom that shields suffering humanity from pain! Although small in material size, its power is stupendous!”, read one advertisement.

In 1926, when the Nicholas Building was completed, its lifts were considered the swiftest in Melbourne. Today they are not. In his 2008 book Violence, Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, likens Western society to the “close door” button in an elevator, a button that does nothing to hasten the door’s closing but gives the presser a false sense of effective activity. Zizek’s theory is entirely applicable to the lifts in the Nicholas building. It’s a well-kept secret that the outside buttons to summon the attendants do not work. They haven’t worked for years and it is only by chance the lift operators arrive to pick you up.

Dimitri’s partner in crime, flame-haired Joan McQueen, has a smoker’s drawl and owns a caravan site in Barwon Heads. She has been operating her lift since 1977. Prior, she drove the lifts in Big W and Buckley & Nunn. Her lift is decorated with drawings, a cleaners’ union sticker, photos of animals and grandchildren. In the corner is a small heater for her feet and an extra chair. Communications between the building’s lift operators is a silver fork. Hidden on a ledge on one of the floors, the fork is clanged on the lifts’ metal cage to signal tea break, change of guard and smoko. An automatic lift, prone to spells of sullen behavior, is expected to pick up the slack during tea break. But sometimes, it simply settles on the basement floor, its window staring into Arthur Daly’s, a cheap import shop full of koala toys and mobile phone covers, and refuses to move.

From 1926 through to 1967, the basement and ground floor were occupied by a Coles department store, making it the oldest Coles store in Melbourne. For its opening day, the retail company lured customers with promises of fancy garter elastic, asbestos mats, rosewater and glycerine, propelling pencils, and homemade coconut ice. Above Coles were nine more floors intended for offices and shops with many rooms connected by internal doors, creating a kind of rabbit warren. The building’s architect, Harry Norris, who also added the sideways extension in 1936—an art deco four-storey addition—ran his business out of the building until the mid-fifties.

Accountants, medical practitioners, insurance salesmen, a secretarial school, Jewish tailors, haberdasheries, wigmakers, gem-cutters, a speech therapist and a Christian Science marriage counselor: tenants of the Nicholas Building have evolved and devolved across the years. Joan recalls a dirty cinema, Les Girls, she-men, and cabaret operating on the first floor at one stage, in particular a stripper who performed with a snake and carried the reptile in a basket up Joan’s lift. In the arcade, a long-gone ice cream shop was a front for a nude photography studio out back. Today the Mothers’ Union, Collected Works literary bookshop, a few milliners – one of whom designed the set hats for films Pride and Prejudice and Howard’s End, and the Royal Overseas League (ROL) run their affairs in the building.

On level seven, secretary of the ROL Coral Strahan, says the league has 750 Victorian members and 24,000 worldwide since its inception in 1910. The club’s patron is, of course, Her Majesty the Queen whose numerous portraits are tacked up in the league’s office. Coral has met the Queen three times, first in 1954, and twice in the last five years. “‘I told Her Majesty about our website and how members keep in touch over email, and she said, ‘Oh! You are up with it all!’” From her window Coral overlooks the copper dome of Flinders Street Station and until recent developments, was also able to watch the constant centipeding of trains by the Yarra. “I supervise it all from my window,” she says happily. “I saw the entire building of Southbank and Federation Square covering the railway tracks, every year I watch the changing colours of the leaves, and over there, see government house?” She points south-east to a white ornate “house” poking out of the botanical gardens. “The flag is raised, which doesn’t necessarily mean the Governor is in residence—it means the governor is in Victoria.”

Down the way is the late Vali Myers’s studio, a candy pink double-sized room fashioned with rugs, cushions and a stuffed fox. It was run as a tiny museum for several years after Myers’s death in 2003. A visual artist and dancer, Myers lived on the streets in Paris for eight years, was a former tenant of the Chelsea Hotel, and served as muse for Marianne Faithful, Tennessee Williams, Deborah Harry, and many others. Her wild red hair framed a peculiarly tattooed face and constantly tinkled with bells. Her pet fox, Foxy, who she raised as a cub when she resided in Italy, lived by her side for fourteen years. Vali’s return to Australia and holing up in the Nicholas Building in the early nineties triggered the bohemian wave in the building which is perhaps at its final ebb today.

Rent is on the rise: haphazardly it spikes, plateaus and surprises. The building’s owner has declared a wish to remain anonymous, though one tenant wagers it is the Cedel family, sellers of toothpaste and dandruff shampoo, and has left the building’s fate in the hands of real estate agents. Maintenance is meagre. On the top floor, writers, editors, graphic designers, and filmmakers work with buckets next to their desks, catching drips from the leaking roof. The men’s toilets flow into the females’, and onwards, and the sticky oily smells of Subway and KFC permeate some studios from below.

Many of the more paranoid tenants wonder if their unanswered calls to the real estate agent is part of a bigger plan to rid the building of its lowest standards and start anew. Others unfussily tinker on amid the tiles that yellow like old teeth, setting up little adaptations for doorknobs that no longer turn. All through the day and into the night, there’s the tap-tap-tapping of jewelers, the turps smell of oil painters, a raspy twang of the blues, the visitations of dogs, the cackle of a cockatoo, a singer practicing scales. Amid clothes dummies, bolts of cloth and linen, Gregory David Roberts, once Australia’s most wanted fugitive, wrote his bestselling memoir Shantaram. Peter O’Connor, a former arborist and horse rider in New Mexico, creates leather satchels here and runs a printmaking workshop.

Some tenants leave their windows open, a strand of coloured thread in view for the eternal Mister Feathers, a one-name-fits-all-sparrows, for use in the nests they build in the alleyway. On the third floor, visitors photograph the stenciled black letters reading PRIVATE DETECTIVE on a door, wondering of its origins, whilst the lift operators, the gentle but shrewd guardians of the building, shimmy people up and down, spitting them out into unknown and eerie corridors, or into street-level Cathedral Arcade, the last remaining leadlight barrel-vaulted ceiling in Melbourne.

As I wrote at the beginning, everyone who discovers the Nicholas Building thinks they’re the first. In 1999, I came to a party in Mark Ferrie’s studio. He was in the Models then; he’s now in the Mercurials, and bass player for the RockWiz orchestra. Entry was a gold coin donation towards Mark’s rent. His studio overlooks Swanston Street and I remember sitting on the sunny building ledge, thinking no one knew we were here. Since then, I’ve typed here in dark corners and run up and down the stairs catching the chirruping crickets that take over each summer. I’ve danced on the roof at night, chased gulls over the edge, sat with friends beneath the billboard that probably pays more rent than all of us put together and I’m well aware that I’m neither the Nicholas Building’s first or last—I’m just one of the many bees servicing some secret glowing queen on the inside.

Anna Krien is a writer in Melbourne.