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Bluestone

24 May 2016
By Neil Gardiner

Bluestone is to Melbourne what Sandstone is to Sydney. This is a reflection of the materials available prior to the industrialisation of these cities. Builders would use materials that were close to hand and easily available. Many of Melbourne’s earliest buildings in the CBD are constructed of bluestone and their legacy remains due to the solid foundations laid with this material.

Stonemason’s were one of the most in demand trades in the 19th century busily turning basalt into builder’s blocks, window sills, steps, kerbstones and pavers.

Pentridge Prison Coburg

One of Melbourne’s early buildings, Pentridge Prison is pictured. It was constructed in bluestone quarried on site by prisoners on day release from the Old Melbourne Gaol in Russell St, Melbourne.

The Coburg area was originally called Pentridge but the stigma of the prison brought about a name change in 1870 referencing the royal family (Saxe-Coburg) of the time. What is now Sydney Road was originally called Pentridge Road. Apart from the perimeter fence as shown there are some notable buildings within the complex also made of bluestone. 

The site where the prisoners quarried that bluestone has since been turned into the Coburg Lakes, where bucolic scenes of restful Sunday afternoon picnics are witnessed. There is also a reference to the quarrying history of the area on the opposite side of Gaffney St to the Coburg Lakes with Quarry Circuit is named. In all there were over 40 bluestone quarries in the Coburg area during the mid-1850’s.

Early Melbourne architecture has many fine examples of bluestone construction, and it is also a feature of many laneways throughout the CBD and suburbs. You can find kerbs, fences and retaining walls all built from this material.

Bluestone originates from the ancient basalt lava flows characteristic of the Western Districts of Victoria through to Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Indeed there is a definitive point in Melbourne around the Merri Creek at Northcote and Fairfield where these lava flows ended.

There were bluestone quarries all around Northcote. All Nations Park and the Darebin Enterprise Centre in Alphington are examples of these quarries that subsequently became municipal tips.

Driving along the Eastern Freeway you can see the large cutting through Yarra Bend Park between Hoddle Street just before the freeway crosses the Yarra River. West of the river there is a large cutting where tonnes of bluestone has been removed to make the freeway level. On the eastern side of the river there is mudstone where the road has been cut into the hillside. Two entirely different geological features hidden underground within a few hundred metres of each other.

Many of Melbourne’s early Victorian Buildings were laid on foundations of bluestone – dig deep enough on most brick homes built prior to 1900 and you may well find large blocks of bluestone that the brick walls have been laid on.

Market Lane Carlton

Market Lane Coffee in Faraday St, Carlton – an old shopfront with upstairs residence, now the home of the smoothest coffee in the area. Note the painted lintel and foundations made of bluestone. This building would be approximately 130 years old and there are no signs of wear. 

If you look around, bluestone features heavily in the streetscapes of Melbourne.

Queens Parade Clifton Hill

Queens Parade, Clifton Hill. Not quite the equivalent of the Avebury Stone Circle however the placement of these bluestone rocks forms a natural barrier against car parking on the nature strip.

Bluestone Kerb Detail

The thermal qualities of bluestone do not lend it to good energy efficiency, so these days it is not a favoured building material. Its heavy looks also lack appeal for more modern tastes. There is also the association attached to bluestone with prisons that creates a question in people’s minds. Having said this – there are many Melbourne churches constructed out of bluestone.

Northcote Church

The Wesleyan Church in High St, Northcote - constructed from Bluestone in 1870 and still in use today as a place of worship for the Uniting Church.

St Patricks Melbourne

In July 1847 the Colonial Secretary granted the Catholic Church two acres of land to the north of the Melbourne CBD. In 1858 construction commenced on a bluestone Cathedral known as St Patricks but the building was not consecrated until 1897.

Bluestone can, however, add character to the streetscape. If you look at some of the early examples of these buildings they have a charm that is worthy of admiration.

 Brunswick Bluestone

This bluestone cottage (a maisonette) in Brunswick has a wonderful sense of proportion and has undergone a fantastic renovation along with a ground floor extension to the rear. The driveway on the right has been forgone for the benefit of a garden. The greenery is nicely set off against the dark blockwork.

Bluestone is also common in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Henderson House on the banks of the Maribyrnong River, now part of the Footscray Community Arts Centre is an example of a larger home, made of bluestone and constructed in 1872. It was originally part of a large quadrangular complex that was a bacon and ham curing facility. For the lovers of pork products this would have been the dream home office. This home has spectacular views looking east over Appleton Dock towards the Melbourne CBD.

Henderson House Footscray

Bluestone was a common building material in the Footscray and Yarraville areas. The bluestone in the footings of the Old Treasury Building in Spring St Melbourne came from Footscray quarries. Indeed there is a manmade island in Port Phillip Bay made entirely from bluestone shipped from Footscray known as the South Channel Fort. It is located near the shipping channel and in a direct line between Queenscliff and Dromana, 3 miles from Portsea. This was constructed as a “rubble annulus” in 1880 and ultimately had guns placed to protect Melbourne from the feisty French and Russians.

South Channel Fort 1880

South Channel Fort sketched in 1880 showing bluestone shipped from Footscray. There’s also a dainty elevated dwelling pictured reminiscent of the small gatekeepers buildings you see along the Upfield Railway line, or the railway station at Clifton Hill. It must have been cold in the winter so tot’s of rum would have been the order of the day.

South Channel Fort

South Channel Fort today with concrete bunkers and jetty to make arrival much safer. Same old bluestone but the dainty dwelling of 1880 has long disappeared into the bay.

Clifton Hill

This bluestone dwelling in Clifton Hill has been rendered while leaving highlights around the windows and doors.

Bluestone weathers well and is a reliable and solid building material. While it may not feature so much in the modern building pallette it still retains its prominence across the western and northern suburbs of Melbourne.

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