Often referred to simply as Emily Mac, this spreading, low-level, 1920s building was originally home to the College of Domestic Economy. It now houses our Graduate School of Business.
The building is named after the wife of businessman and former Victorian premier Sir William McPherson, who provided £25,000 to build it. It was designed in the neoclassical style and features an impressive neo-Greek portico.
Building 13 is on the Government Buildings Register of the Heritage Council of Victoria and the Register of the National Estate. It is classified by the National Trust and is designated a ’notable building’ in the Melbourne City Council planning scheme.
The original building fronting Russell Street was officially opened by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York on 27 April 1927. Architect: Evan Smith, Government Architect. In 1930 the building was awarded the second only RVIA Street Architecture Medal. The Ethel Margaret McPherson wing (fronting Franklin Street) was opened on 16 August 1950. Architect: Percy E Everett, Chief Architect of Public Works Department of Victoria.
The Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy collection has been digitised and you can find it here.
Transport and access
Located in Russell Street on the Victoria Street corner, catch a City Loop train to Melbourne Central train station or to Flinders Street. From Flinders Street, you can take a connecting City Loop train or Yarra Tram along nearby Swanston Street.
Trams running along Swanston Street include routes 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 16, 64, 67 and 72. You’ll find tram routes 24, 30 and 35 along nearby La Trobe Street.
Visit the Public Transport Victoria website for more information and connecting services in your area.
No on-campus parking is available for visitors, but you’ll find many commercial car parks a short walk away. Metered street parking is also available nearby, but note the time limits and clearway restrictions.
What to see
Teaching kitchen, ground floor
Recently renovated, this area is a state-of-the-art food tasting facility. The original ceramic tiled wall and other period features have been retained.
Ethel Osborne Hall, ground floor
The Ethel Osborne Hall is a gracious venue for meetings, lectures, award ceremonies and other gatherings. The stained glass ceiling over the staircase is visible from the ground floor, and the two feature panels have been recently uncovered and restored to their original condition.
The Emily McPherson College is a testament to the public philanthropy of businessman and politician Sir William McPherson, who donated £25,000 towards its cost. The college gave a broad education to women, and later men were enrolled. (Today, of course, RMIT's programs are open to everyone regardless of gender, and annual total enrolments of women and men are usually balanced.)
The Emily McPherson College is historically significant as a symbol of the influence of the domestic economy movement in Victoria in the early twentieth century. Though the influence of the movement was seen in the syllabus of Victorian Education Department schools from the 1920s, and in the establishment of other private schools for the domestic arts, the Emily McPherson College was the principal centre of domestic science teaching in Victoria. It is also significant as the first institution in Victoria specifically established for training teachers and others in domestic economy.
The Emily McPherson building, constructed in 1927, is architecturally significant for its simplified neo-Greek external treatment. It is an outstanding example of the pervasive influence of American architecture in Australia in the early twentieth century. The stripped Beaux Arts style of contemporary American official architecture is evidenced in the symmetrical front elevation with Doric portico, the simplified treatment of the walls and the vestigial pediment, and decorative details such as the saltire crosses on the windows and balcony and Greek fretwork on the portico floor. While other public and commercial buildings in the 1920s adopted elements of the style, generally within a variety of other stylistic contexts ranging from an academic Beaux Arts to a neo-colonial Georgian style, the Emily Mac parallels official stripped neo-Greek style more closely than other buildings of the period.
The original internal finishes are substantially intact in most spaces, notably in the circulation areas and the Ethel Osborne Hall. The interiors are representative of institutional and commercial buildings of the period. The original benches in the surviving kitchens are significant as demonstrating the relatively advanced notions of built-in kitchen fittings that were being advocated at the time for domestic and commercial kitchens.
On 30 June 1979 the college amalgamated with RMIT and from that date the Emily McPherson Department continued to operate from Building 11 and Building 13. After a few years the department merged with the Department of Fashion and Textiles and the Department of Food Science.
The Royal Connection
Members of the royal family were present at the opening of the Emily McPherson College building in 1927.
As Melburnians gulped and guzzled during the 2001 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, those interested in the history of Australian cuisine were drawn to an exhibition in the RMIT University library. The Department of Food Science exhibition, Australian Food and Society 1901 – 2001, depicted changes in eating and the cultural influences on Australian society.
Among the items exhibited were sample menus from 1901, the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1970s and 2001. Also on show were food items from a 1950s pantry and five table settings representing changes in eating and culture through the twentieth century.
Other memorabilia included a visitors’ book signed in 1927 by Elizabeth, Duchess of York (later Her Majesty the Queen Mother), and photographs and important works from the Emily McPherson College book collection.
The Duchess of York opened the Emily McPherson College in 1927 and later became the college’s patron, a relationship described in the extracts, below, from James Docherty’s 1981 book, The Emily Mac: the story of the Emily McPherson College 1906 – 1979.
In 1927 the Duke of York (later George VI) and the Duchess paid a royal visit to Australia with the particular purpose of opening the first commonwealth Parliament to be held in Canberra; and it was typical of Dr Osborne that she should conceive the idea of approaching Her Royal Highness to ask her to take part in the official opening ceremony. Perhaps to the astonishment of those aware of the move the Duchess graciously agreed to fit this unscheduled commitment into an already busy program and Council was able to release a statement only a week before the event. On that day, 27 April, the Duke was scheduled to visit the University of Melbourne for the conferral of the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.
The Age on the following day estimated that a crowd of 5,000 people had gathered in Eight Hours Place, mainly women, with many organisations represented and with a guard of honor formed by students from schools as far afield as Ballarat and Bendigo. Dr [Ethel] Osborne had written to the Melbourne Rotary Club and in response to her suggestion many employers released their female employees, some of whom attended in their working uniforms. It was an overcast day and many of the spectators were drenched in the drizzling rain that began to fall about an hour before the Duchess was due to arrive. The Duchess was cheered through the city and given a very enthusiastic welcome by the crowd outside the College in Russell Street. Among the official party grouped outside the locked entrance grill were Lady Somers, wife of the Governor of Victoria, the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Sir Stephen and Lady Morell, Sir Alexander Peacock, Mr Frank Tate, Sir William and Lady McPherson, Dr Osborne, Miss [Royena Strathy] Chisholm [Principal] and various Parliamentarians and officials. The Duchess was attended by Lady Cavan.
The first part of the ceremony was performed by Lady McPherson who, with a gold key handed to her by Mr Evan Smith, the Chief Architect, opened the outer grill amid great applause. The Duchess then untied the royal blue ribbon that secured the glass entrance doors and, escorted by Dr Osborne, took her place on a dais beneath the tablet she was to unveil. Before asking the Duchess to perform this task Sir Alexander Peacock acknowledged the generosity of Sir William and Lady McPherson.
The Duchess then unveiled the bronze tablet, the prominent feature of which was a bas relief of the head of Lady McPherson beneath which was the inscription:
"The erection of this college is due to the public spirited and generous benefaction of the Hon. Sir William and Lady McPherson, 1927"
As Patron of the College, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother had been advised by Mrs McPherson of the impending changes and kept informed of the progression towards amalgamation [with RMIT]. When Her Majesty heard that the last rite had been performed she sent a message that aptly conveyed both the regret and the hope of these [sic] who had loved the College, and by which her gracious permission we record:
"The Queen Mother is sad to think that the Emily McPherson College has come to the end of its long independent life, but Her Majesty is confident that the work will continue to flourish under the new arrangement." [Docherty chapter 10, p 295]
Andrew Yee and James Griffiths, 'Exhibition traces a century of food and society', Openline volume 9 number 4 (May 2001), page2. RMIT University, Melbourne. ISSN1039-3463. Also available on-line.
James Docherty (1981) The Emily Mac: the story of the Emily McPherson College 1906-1979. Ormond Book and Educational Supplies Pty Ltd, Melbourne. ISBN 0 9599684 3 1 (hardcover).