The Cairo apartment building on Nicholson St is one of Melbourne’s art deco treasures. In exploring the historical photo archives I found two images of the building when relatively new, and thought these would make an interesting comparison to how it looks now.

cairo3 Fitzroy history - the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

The original photos are from a Fitzroy municipal rating study, which states that the multiple unit dwelling project would transform the city. Set in extensive and well-kept lawns and gardens, the flats front to Nicholson Street. There are 37 flats and a cafe (presumably long since closed or converted to another flat). Twenty years before these photos were taken (1948) the site was occupied by a single old house of 14 rooms.

15199 Fitzroy history - the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

Courtesy of Fitzroy local history photograph collection / ID: 15199 / photographer: unknown / copyright: expired – image is in the public domain

cairo1 Fitzroy history - the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

After 60 years the gardens have grown enormously, and threaten to overwhelm the building, rather like a pyramid lost in a south American rainforrest.

cairo2 Fitzroy history - the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

Another blogger has posted a short review and some photos from within the courtyard.

15200 Fitzroy history - the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

Courtesy of Fitzroy local history photograph collection / ID: 15200 / photographer: unknown / photographer: unknown / copyright: expired – image is in the public domain

cairo4 Fitzroy history - the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

Flats in the building appear in local real estate listings from time to time (photos are available on these real estate websites of apartments 12, 19 and 27). When I have a chance I will make an inspection.

Update 22 January 2009: while browsing the photo collection of Picture Australia and the State Library of Victoria (SLV) pictures catalogue I found another image of the Cairo building focusing on the amazing staircase taken in 1951.

a40655 Fitzroy history - the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

Courtesy of the SLV / ID: a40655 / photographer: Lyle Fowler / copyright: expired – image is in the public domain

Fitzroy history – the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

11 thoughts on “Fitzroy history – the Cairo flats on Nicholson St

  • 14 January 2009 at 1:35 pm
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    I’m quite curious about the Cairo – they come up fairly often for sale, I had a look at one a few years ago. They’re all one bedroom flats now (or bedsits, one or the other, I can’t remember) but I suspect that originally they were larger and they’ve been redeveloped at some stage. In any case, all character has been ripped out of them, and they feature modern kitchens and bathrooms.

    I first saw the building about ten years ago and wanted to explore – it seemed to be a private establishment like a home for disabled people or something, in any case there weren’t any letterboxes, and it wasn’t possible to get through the locked gate.

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    • 14 January 2009 at 2:12 pm
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      It does look very private. I did not even try to go in, but will whenever the next flat is for sale and open for inspection.

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  • 15 August 2009 at 6:14 pm
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    A friend used to live there and I had the pleasure of house sitting a few times. It is a mix of bedsits and one bedroom flats.(I think its all bedsits on the ground floor and 1 br on the first floor). The bedsit was compact but had a separate kitchen, decent sized bathroom with big old bath and a good sized wardrobe, plus glass door leading off the main room to go into the garden. The green space in the centre was lovely and a great place for picnics. I think the block was designed for single men, who of course at that time couldn’t be relied on to cook for themselves therefor there was the dinning room.

    The block was redeveloped a few years ago. Not seen inside since.

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  • 28 October 2009 at 2:04 pm
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    Actually, I believe that the flats were originally intended for single, working *women*, quite a new phenomenon in the 1920s/30s. Cairo offered a mixture of independence and community, rather different to living in a boarding house or as a lodger.

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  • 24 December 2009 at 11:07 am
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    Cairo was intended to be a new style of living for Melbourne, based on the European ideal of the ‘minimum flat”, with built-in furniture and nooks. They were generally let as ‘bachelor’ flats, which can be either sex but are generally regarded as male. They were only ever the same configuration as now (single bedroom) and the block was served by a communal dining area (and each flat had a hatch for the delivery of meals. The wonderful stairs led to a rooftop garden. The designer was Best Overend, who had worked on similar projects in London. In recent years, the block has had a security fence and gates installed – good for the residents but unfortunate for lovers of the style, who used to be able to wander around. The block is featured in my recent book Melbourne Art Deco.

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  • 28 May 2011 at 5:58 pm
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    I lived in ‘Cairo’ from 1966 to 1970 and served occasionally as the caretaker for the owners Uxbridge Investments. At that time there was no communal dining area and no meal delivery. Several of the flats had separate bedroom and lounge – there were at least two of these on each floor at the front – and all flats had baths. Mail was delivered daily by the caretaker (to whom it was delivered by Australia Post) via the hatch in each flat. One of the larger flats in the back block was clearly meant to be an office but was not used as such in my time, nor was it let. There was a shop attached in the rear section on Hanover St and it could be that this had been a dining area at some stage. I cannot recall any roof garden; in fact, the roof was not accessible.

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  • 3 October 2012 at 12:01 pm
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    Yes Cairo flats are wonderful ! When I was an architecture student in the early 1980s getting a flat there was considered quite a coup since we were taught that they were an early example of European Modernism – which they are (not actually many ‘Deco’ features, much more minimalist) – and they were cheap. They derive from Bauhaus philosophy – ‘minimum flats’ comes from the German ‘Existenz Minimum’ – that is living within the minimum space necessary – a far cry from todays desire for practically the opposite. So they are mostly bedsits – but with huge (mostly) north-facing picture windows, and tiny but efficient kitchens and bathrooms, and in the 1980s many were more or less still original, and I believe some still are. I helped the National Trust get them on the Victorian Heritage Register, which was argued against by the owner partly because the (modernist) flat roof leaked, and so it was a ‘bad’ design. And in the 80s you could get to the roof, but it wasnt actually allowed.

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  • 8 October 2012 at 4:14 pm
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    I am owner occupier of a flat in the CAIRO block. It is upstairs, has one bedroom, and garage. THe interior is virtually intact and was not blitzed by the developer in 2002. Still has old cast iron bath, and most kitchen cabinetry.

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  • 3 July 2013 at 12:36 pm
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    These are opening up to the public (ballot only) in the 2013 Melbourne Open House.

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