A mid-century modern guide to Hobart

By Tess Crellin

Photo credit: Julien Scheffer

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Think you have to travel to Palm Springs or Beaumaris to be surrounded by MCM design? Think again. Modernist buildings, bars, murals and landmarks are everywhere in Hobart. Spend a day exploring the city using this self-guided itinerary and you’ll know where to find them.  

10:00am

Start things off with breakfast at Mona. Grab a coffee and croissant from the Museum Café and take a seat by the fireplace in the adjoining room (the one with all the curved stainless steel Arco lamps). This is the Courtyard House (1957), a classic mid-century modern home designed by celebrated architect Sir Roy Grounds for Claudio Alcorso, the founder of the original Moorilla site. The building now functions as the entrance to Mona, and Walshie has enclosed the 1950s courtyard, extended the crazy paving and sunk a hole in the centre of the floor for patrons to descend into his underground galleries. Once you’re down there, be sure to look up and try and spot the foundations of the original home and fireplace. You should also visit the Mona Library which is contained in an extension to the modernist Round House (1958) – another Grounds’ design.


11:00am

Since you’re already in the area, stop by the old Snows Dry Cleaners (1957) at 388 Main Road, Glenorchy. Designed by Tasmanian architect Esmond Dorney, you can see why he is credited for bringing MCM to our island – check out those glass walls and the butterfly roof. While many of Dorney’s famous buildings around Hobart are private homes, this one is fair game for a peek as, at the time of writing, it sits empty and up for lease (surely a prime candidate for a themed cocktail bar). Alternatively, if you would like to see the interior of Dorney’s greatest mid-mod house, the Hobart City Council now own the home that he built for his family on Porter Hill (1978) and have made it available for public bookings such as workshops, events, performances and general public visitation. Search for Dorney House on the City of Hobart website – you will be enamoured with its sunken lounge, floor-to-ceiling windows and petal-shaped roofline.


12:00pm

Lunch is best consumed at The Salty Dog Hotel, a refurbished 1970s beachside motel in Kingston. Any purists out there might object to the pub’s inclusion in this guide, arguing that the playful kitschy feel is not technically modernist, but I point you in the direction of the mid-century timber bar in the front space, the light box in the hallway featuring a locally-owned 1968 Mk1 Ford Capri and the pastel hues throughout that reek of the post-war period. The pub redesign was completed by Danielle Brustman and Michelle Boyde (Brustman + Boyde) in collaboration with Pippa Dickson, one of the hotel’s owners.

1:00pm

On your way back to town, drive via Taroona to witness another Esmond Dorney masterpiece, the Saint Pius X Catholic Church (1958). Credited as being Australia’s first modernist church, the building’s lightweight tubular frame and corrugated iron barrel vaulted roof is trademark Dorney for its use of economical materials and curved structures. The design is simple, clean and functional.

1:30pm

We’re now moving into Dirk Bolt territory. Bolt designed many mid-20th century buildings in Hobart, including the 10 Murray Street office block that was demolished this year, but one of the finest examples of his work still stands at the University of Tasmania’s Sandy Bay campus. Christ College (1959) features breeze blocks and bare concrete walls, the latter making it a variant of post-war modernism known as brutalism. This style can also be seen in the abstract illustrations cast in to concrete panels at his Long Beach Bathing Pavilion in Sandy Bay (1962).

2:30pm

Pop in to Wrest Point (1973), another Roy Grounds design, and head straight to the Bird Cage Bar. The colourful frescos were painted in the 1970s by Charles Billich and provide the perfect backdrop for an afternoon tipple (interesting side note: the frescos were discovered behind a false wall during recent renovations to the bar which is why they can still be found in their original, untouched glory). Patterned carpet, vinyl booths, retro cocktail chairs and a view to the casino’s tropical inspired garden (complete with mini waterfall) make this bar the real deal, even if it is pushing the bounds of what some consider modernism. Before you leave, seek out the stunning 16 metre tall ceramic mural by Vladimir Tichy at the back of the hotel. Many of Tichy’s works have been destroyed around Australia but this one remains in pristine condition. And on your drive back to the city, do yourself a favour and keep an eye out for the ABC Glass Mosaic Mural (1960) on Sandy Bay Road by George Davis. It has modernism stamped all over it.

3:30pm

By now you’re probably experiencing an overwhelming urge to take a little bit of mid-century modern home with you. The solution is at Antiques to Retro (128 Bathurst Street, Hobart). They stock MCM bar carts and sideboards, a huge range of West German vases and other kinds of furniture that will appeal to your love of clean lines and organic shapes. If you can pull yourself away from all the pretty things, go for a short stroll to Construction House (1956) at 116 Bathurst Street. This office building is a modernist gem, not least because of the ceramic tile façade by Tasmanian artist Max Angus and the five-storey Ficus elastica (what your mum would call a rubber plant) growing through the terrazzo stairwell. Pure mid-century magic.

5:00pm

Next up, head to the Cat and Fiddle Arcade (1962) to see the mall's namesake play out the classic nursery rhyme, which it does every day on the hour from 8am to 11pm. To the clock’s detriment, the arcade has been updated many times over the years leaving the 60s typeface, starburst style clock and giant mechanical cat looking slightly out of place. If you’d like to see the clock in its original context, search for ‘Life in Australia: Hobart’ on YouTube and skip to 11:46. The video, from the National Film and Sound Archives, is an amazing watch from start to finish in its own right.

5:30pm

We’ve saved the best until last – one of Hobart’s most iconic 20th century landmarks, the Railway Roundabout (1962). Located at the top of Liverpool Street on the Brooker Highway, the roundabout is notable for the hyper-modern UFO fountain at its centre designed by three workers from the Hobart Cadbury Factory. The space age structure was so groundbreaking in the 1960s that it appeared on postcards and must-see lists for visitors from around Tasmania and interstate. In this way, not much has changed, as the mid-century roundabout is a must-see in our books too.