If the mention of swing jazz, the Lindy Hop, bobbed hair, cloche hats and fedoras makes you want to jump straight on the Orient Express back to the 1930s, then spending an afternoon taking in some of the Art Deco sights around the Valley and New Farm should be at the top of your dance card.
Art Deco – or the style moderne as it was known at the time – was a popular design movement that peaked in the West between the two world wars, making its mark on architecture, furniture, fashion, jewellery, advertising, transport and more. Its hallmarks included streamlined forms, geometric patterns and the incorporation of new materials such as reinforced concrete, chrome, plastics and neon tubing.
While there are charming examples of Art Deco architecture scattered right across Brisbane, the Valley and New Farm offer an impressive selection of commercial and residential buildings within easy walking or riding distance. Here are 9 Art Deco gems to get you started, spread along a pleasant three-kilometer route with plenty of options for a cuppa, gallery or film stop along the way.
McWhirters Brunswick Street
The striking corner facade of the McWhirters building is Brisbane’s most renowned Art Deco landmark, making it a fitting place to begin your tour. Originally a popular department store, McWhirters catered for the modern woman seeking the latest in fashions and household goods. It was designed in the early 1930s by leading local architects, Hall and Phillips, credited with many Art Deco buildings that still dot the Queensland landscape today. The McWhirters corner is made magnificent by its rich adornments, including glazed terracotta tiles arranged in organic and geometric motifs and glass insets framing the prominent curved awning.
As you head down the Valley mall on your way to the next stop, make a mental note of the T.C. Beirne building on your right. Once a department store that rivalled McWhirters, it is important to the story of another Art Deco building, Bulolo Flats, which we will come to shortly.
Sun Apartments, 367 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley
Now repurposed as apartments, this building was once home to the Truth, a tabloid newspaper in circulation for more than 50 years. More modest headquarters were initially built on the site in 1929, but 8 years later the company purchased adjoining properties and engaged Sydney architect O.W. Weston to extend the building from two storeys to five, with the newspaper presses housed in the basement. The exterior received an Art Deco makeover, including horizontal bands emphasising the expansiveness of the facade and a stepped vertical motif marking the main entrance and stairwell. The original exterior was painted cream, with dark green trimming highlighting the windows and down pipes.
Bulolo Flats, 9 McLachlan Street, Fortitude Valley
In 1934, prominent business leader and politician, T.C. Beirne, constructed Bulolo Flats for his single, female employees who arrived from the country to work at his nearby department store. These were equivalent to the more ubiquitous ‘bachelor flats’ and were built in response to the supposed ‘moral danger’ that ensued when single women and single men resided under the one roof in mixed boarding houses and private hotels. Designed by Hennessy, Hennessy and Co., the building’s Art Deco features include polychromatic, textured brickwork and vertical fins arranged most dramatically at the corners. You can read more about the flats on the Queensland Deco Project blog.
Merillon, 549 Brunswick Street, New Farm
If you don’t look up you could easily miss the Merillon apartment building, one of New Farm’s special treats for Art Deco lovers. Completed in 1941, the flats were originally known as Durham Court. They were designed by Eric Trewern who was a successful residential and commercial architect credited with adapting the Californian bungalow and Spanish Mission styles to Queensland. In the case of Merillon he drew directly on the Art Deco aesthetic, evident in the soaring vertical entrance with stepped parapet, the strong use of horizontal lines and the geometrically-patterned leadlight window.
New Farm Cinemas, 701 Brunswick Street, New Farm
At first glance, the Art Deco history of New Farm Cinemas is not altogether apparent. In 1937, however, prominent Brisbane architect, George Rae, remodelled what was then known as the Astor Theatre in the modern style. Traces of this heritage are still discernable – take special note of the porthole windows which were restored by the cinema’s current owners. This circular treatment was popular in the Art Deco era, inspired by the great ocean liners.
Clifton Court, 140 Moray Street, New Farm
The final 4 stops on the tour are all apartment buildings, reflecting the boom in flat development along inner-city tram routes in the 1930s and early 1940s. This was particularly evident in New Farm, with one newspaper at the time branding the suburb the “Darlinghurst of Brisbane”.
There were many factors that contributed to this upturn in apartment living: in the aftermath of the Depression many people sought to rent rather than buy, and living close to places of entertainment suited young singles and couples embracing modern life.
Clifton Court, constructed in 1941, is a pleasing example of this trend. The flats were advertised as “American style serviced apartments”, offering modern conveniences such as a central hot water system and refrigeration. Art Deco features include the stepped parapet, geometrically patterned ironwork, and the contrasting use of red and blonde brick to create vertical and horizontal accents.
Braemar, 27 Merthyr Road (corner Abbott Street), New Farm
Braemar (1938) is a mixed-use Art Deco building, housing a commercial space as well as flats. It also illustrates a mix of styles that proliferated under the Art Deco umbrella. The curved corner fronting Merthyr Road is typical of the smooth, streamline moderne style which was particularly popular in the latter part of the Art Deco period. Follow this corner around to Abbott Street and you will spot a vertical feature on the entrance to the apartment building that reaches skywards. This more angular geometry is reminiscent of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘jazz’ style of Art Deco.
Studley Royal, 10 Abbott Street, New Farm
The Camphor Laurels lining Abbott Street make it one of the most beautiful settings for engaging in some Art Deco admiration. Rest in the shade as you enjoy the lovely, simple lines of Studley Royal, named after the picturesque World Heritage park in North Yorkshire. Built in the same year as Clifton Court (1941), you will recognise similarities such as the stepped parapet and the mix of red and brown brick to emphasise horizontal and vertical lines. Notice also the curved ‘eyebrows’ above the ground floor windows and the brick insets creating a decorative effect leading into the doorway.
Coronet Court, 995 Brunswick Street, New Farm
The end of the tour brings you to one of New Farm’s most loved Art Deco landmarks, Coronet Court. Built in 1933 by German-born Max Strickland, these flats signalled the arrival of modern apartment living in Brisbane. The sharply angled walls that fan out in accordion fashion are a nod to Art Deco’s fascination with zigzag motifs. They are also a good example of how an international style was adapted for local conditions – the walls were arranged to optimise the corner position of the block, bring cool breezes to residents and provide sweeping views of New Farm Park.
Now your tour has come to an end why not find a nice spot in New Farm Park to read more about Coronet Court on the Queensland Deco Project blog? And if this little sojourn has piqued your interest in Queensland’s Art Deco history, make sure you follow Queensland Deco Project on Facebook to keep up with new stories as they are published.