Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

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Playgrounds That Weren’t : The Glaciarium

The Melbourne Glaciarium opened in Melbourne in June 1906, at 16-26 City Road at the rear of the present Arts Centre site and was a full-blown rink capable of  international standard skating and ice hockey. At the time of its opening. it was the first ice arena in Australia and the third-largest rink in the world with an ice surface 180 ft by 90 ft or about 1,500 square metres.

In 1917, the original "Glacci", as it was popularly known was destroyed by fire, but a more substantial version was rebuilt with an orchestra area with seating for 2,000 people, a dance floor for 150 couples and a skating rink which was said to be capable of accommodating 1,500 people.

The provisional programme for the Olympics released by the Chief Executive Office. Lieut-General William Bridgeford on 4 November, 1953 had Basketball as being played at Glaciarium from the night of Thursday. 22 November, with afternoon and night sessions until Saturday. 1 December 1, with morning matches on 24 Saturday.

The programme also had gymnastics events scheduled from 3 to 7 December, and there was little debate or conjecture over the use of the site until the first week of August, 1956 (just 15 weeks prior to the Games opening) when the Finance and General Purposes Committee announced that basketball would be played at a new addition to the Exhibition Buildings.

The Glaciarium had been selected after the Committee inspected it and St. Moritz (Upper Esplanade, St. Kilda, both ice skating rinks, but with large dance floors which could accommodate two courts), plus a site in South Melbourne.

(The latter location was not disclosed, but in all probability was the later basketball centre in Albert Road at the northern end of the Albert Park reserve, originally built as a transport depot during the Second World War and from the vaguest of memories with three courts, but no spectator facilities).

Bridgeford announced plans to build a new court in the old Aquarium annexe burnt out at the Exhibition Building in 1953, and to be constructed in a clear span roof building, with a floor area 150 feet by 203 feet and temporary seating to allow the space to revert to display space if required, although it was suggested it would become the permanent home of the Victorian Basket Ball Association.

The announcement came a week after the Glaciarium  was rejected when the management made a shock demand for £20,000 rental for the use of the skating rink for a six-week period, the late switch also perhaps influenced by the capability of the re-built West Melbourne Stadium to host gymnastics after the boxing schedule was completed.

A director of Glaciarium Ltd. claimed that the rental was reasonable, but agreed that, the complete takings for 1954 were just over £36,000 and that the profit for the year was only £387; significantly, operation of the building ceased the following year when it was advertised for sale.

It seems that the Committee’s decision was taken a few days before the announcement - the builders, Olsen, Foster Constructions Pty. Ltd. had already been selected and the price for the job was established at £36,000, a substantial part of which came from the O.O.C. and the balance from the Exhibition Building Trustees.

Both the Committee and the selected contractors expressed confidence of the job being completed in ample times for the Games as only internal reconstruction was needed, but adding the proviso “barring strikes” (which had delayed new works at the M.C.G).

Rather like fencing and again perhaps due to the influx of European migrants since the Games were announced, the crowds caught organisers by surprise and despite seating accommodation provided for 3,500, it appears several of the night sessions saw people turned away.

The late switch caught some sources by surprise - the prominent journal Sporting Life published a special edition of the eve of the Games with the Glaciarium still listed as hosting a basketball match with a possibility that two semi-finals in conjunction with the main program at the Exhibition, but the simple reality would have been that it would not have been financially feasible for the O.O.C. to erect a court for just one or even three games regardless of the rent demanded.  

Ice and Fire

Hardly compatible bed-fellows, but on the “average”, the temperature is about right …

In researching the Glaciarium, I uncovered seven or eight websites obviously plagiarised from an unknown original with masses of identical text which concludes that the Glaciarium was “demolished in 1964”.

Give or take a year, “demolished” is perhaps technically the truth … but the whole truth …???

By a freakish coincidence, the new Glaciarium met the same fate as the original, destroyed by fire on the night of 12 April, 1963, the adjoining five-story structure structure by then known as the Mobil building was threatened, but not damaged by the blaze. Reports revealed that the building had been vacant and up for sale since operations ceased in 1957, and described the blaze one of Melbourne's most spectacular for many years with the glow of the flames visible for some miles and a thick cloud of smoke drifting across the eastern suburbs.

Some current web sites (in particular a City of Port Phillip Heritage Study which really should know better) suggest the Glaciarium was on the site of today’s Arts Centre, but this was not the case.  

It was on the north side of City Road between Aikman Street to the east and Brown Street to the west - now respectively Southbank Avenue and Southbank Boulevard.

Apparently still owned by Glaciarium Limited, the remains of the building were demolished and the site used as a car park over the next decade.


Above : 1906 postcard showing the opening night of the Glaciarium (no exterior images of the building appear to have survived.

Below : rom the Harold Paynting Collection, State Library of Victoria, the image has a For Sale sign on the front which probably dates it from 1957 when the skating rink closed down.

Bottom :  The building on the right in the image above was the five-story Nicholas Ltd “Aspro Building”, the company famous for the ASPRO brand of aspirin

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