Railway Roundabout, Hobart –
looking out over a world-class monument
Australians are quick in calling something world-class. That was one of the first things we noticed when arriving here in 1998. A friend mentioned that the food hall of a local department store was “world-class”, which we thought was in that context a rather strange adjective. However, the Railway Roundabout in Hobart really is world-class: it was named the Roundabout of the Year in 2015.
Normally I’m not that interested in roundabouts as such – we’ve got plenty of them here on the Central Coast. However, when a friend posted a link to an article[i] about a calendar featuring a different roundabout for each month, I recognised the December page from our most recent holiday.
We had decided to visit Tasmania over the recent Christmas period. Unfortunately, the holiday started with a serious hiccup. We had rented a flat via Airbnb, as we had had very good experiences with the system during our European holiday earlier in the year. However, when we arrived at the address, a neighbour informed us that the owner had left about a month before leaving behind a lot of debt and nobody knew where she was. So here we were in Tasmania with no place to stay over this very busy period (sounds nearly like the Christmas story, doesn’t it?). Obviously, we phoned Airbnb immediately, but as was to be expected at this time of the year they didn’t have ready alternatives waiting for us. Fortunately, our daughter with her more sophisticated phone managed to find us a room at the inn (i.e. the Fountainside Hotel in Hobart*) . A bit later Airbnb also offered us alternative accommodation, but we decided to stay at the hotel. We were more than impressed with the way Airbnb handled the matter. Not only did they offer us alternative accommodation, but also arranged on the same day a refund of the money we had paid upfront and gave us a Aus $ 300 voucher for the next time we would use their services.
So we stayed at the Fountainside Hotel, which was very pleasant. Our room looked out over a big roundabout with a fountain in the middle (hence the name of the hotel). And this is the roundabout the article showed as the December picture in the calendar. It is called the Railway Roundabout.
Let’s first have a look at the surroundings of the roundabout. Particularly memorable for me were – besides the Fountainside Hotel – the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Studio, Domain House and the UTAS Medical Science Precinct.
From the outside the hotel is a fairly non-descript 60s style building, but the rooms offer all the 21st century comforts. It was built at the same time as the Railway Roundabout. There is a short YouTube clip with footage of the roundabout’s construction in 1961. It also mentions the building of a “new type of motel…, the Travelodge”.[ii] This is today’s Fountainside Hotel (it has been upgraded since then!).
The name Railway Roundabout might seem a bit surprising as nowadays there is no railway in sight. However, at the time, when the roundabout was constructed, the building that now houses the ABC, was Hobart’s main railway station for the line between Launceston and Hobart.[iii] The railway station had been built on what was up to then the oval of the Hobart Town Cricket Club. In early March 1874, the site saw its last cricket game, when an All England touring team played Southern Tasmania. Two weeks later, work on the sandstone station building began.
It served for about 100 years, but in 1978 declining passenger numbers led to the discontinuation of the passenger services. The platforms became a car park and the station building was first used for administrative offices. In 1984, it had suffered an arson attack, causing substantial damage to the first floor and roof. In the same year, it was transferred into the ownership of the ABC. The building was then renovated and the site became Hobart’s ABC Studios.
On the opposite side of the roundabout is Queen’s Domain with Domain House.[iv] The neo-Gothic sandstone building was built in 1848-49 as the High School of Hobart Town. Its first students arrived in 1850 to gain an “instruction of youth in the higher branches of learning, as taught in superior classical and mathematical schools in England”.[v] The building was sold to the University of Tasmania in 1892. After the university moved to a new site, it had several other users, but in 2011 UTAS bought it back again and uses it now. Between Domain House and Railway Roundabout is the University Rose Garden, which at the time of our visit was in full bloom. The garden include a fountain dedicated to Rev. R. D. Poulett-Harris, who was headmaster of the High School from 1856 until his retirement in 1885.[vi]
Compared to the two historical buildings, the UTAS Medical Science Precinct[vii] just off the roundabout is in a completely different style. It was designed by the architectural design firm Lyons and completed in 2009. The site has a rich archaeological history dating back to the earliest days of Old Hobart Town, which was researched in a dig before construction began. Some of the artefacts and part of the original foundations are displayed in the new building.
Railway Roundabout was built in the early 1960s in conjunction with the Brooker Highway. It was finished in 1963. The above-mentioned footage seems to think that roundabouts were something very modern in the early 60s calling it “this new type of intersection”.[viii] However, they have been around for quite some time. The first “modern” roundabout was Columbus Circle in New York, which opened in 1905. The first British roundabout was in Letchworth, Herts, the first Garden City, in 1909.[ix]
In the middle of the roundabout is a park with the fountain at its centre. [x] Four pedestrian underpasses lead to this garden: one from each side of Liverpool Street to the south, one from the ABC (i.e. the former station) in the northeast and one from the Domain and the University Rose Garden in the northwest. The fountain was
Erected by the citizens of Hobart as a tribute to the Mayors and Lord Mayors of Hobart since 1853
Inspired and planned by the City Development Association
Opened on the 4th February 1963 by Sir Stanley Burbury K.B.E. Chief Justice of Tasmania [xi]
After a design competition, the fountain was originally designed by Geoff Parr (concept designer), Rod Cuthbert (draftsman) and Vere Cooper (engineer) in the so-called Googie architectural style.[xii] This futuristic themed style was very popular in the 1950s and 60s. It started in California, but as we see it also made its way to Tasmania on the other end of the world. Novak says “It draws inspiration from Space Age ideals and rocketship dreams”. No wonder that the fountain reminded me of a flying saucer.
In the 1990s the fountain was out of service. It was refurbished in 2012-2013 for $370,000 and now incorporates a new mosaic by Tom Samek. The water spray is automatically adjusted according to wind conditions, so as to not drench pedestrians. This might be positive in the generally cooler Tasmanian weather conditions. However, on the hot day when we had a close look at the fountain a little spray would have been very welcome. At night the fountain is illuminated in different colours.
Its renovation was what made the Roundabout Appreciation Society decide to name it its Roundabout of 2015.[xiii] As their president, Kevin Beresford, explained:
“Our committee was bowled over by the effort, inventiveness and enthusiasm of Hobart’s renovation of its favourite roundabout. … The citizens of Hobart should feel very proud for their city achieving such a high one-way gyratory accolade.”
The well-maintained gardens were also mentioned. A view shared by the inhabitants of the city. As Hobart Lord Mayor Sue Hickey said, “it’s really quite a spectacular fountain and it’s much-loved by Hobartians”.
While the Railway Roundabout might not have been the first thing that came to my mind when thinking of Hobart’s many attractions, a little research made me look at it with fresh eyes and I realised I had really been looking out over a world-class monument.
[i] Mills, J., ‘Self-confessed ‘dull’ man creates 2016 calendar of his favourite roundabouts’, Metro (2 Jan. 2016). URL: http://metro.co.uk/2016/01/02/self-confessed-dull-man-creates-2016-calendar-of-his-favourite-roundabouts-5596704 [last accessed 3 Jan. 2016]
[iii] NBRS + Partners, Heritage Management Plan: ABC Studios, 1-7 Liverpool Street, Hobart, Tasmania 7000 (23 July 2012). URL: http://about.abc.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/HobartHeritageMtPlanJuly2012.pdf [last accessed 4 Jan. 2016] (A very interesting report, it contains many pictures illustrating the life of the station building.)
[iv] Ritchie, G., ‘Domain House (High School Of Hobart Town)’, On the Convict Trail (28 March 2013). URL: http://ontheconvicttrail.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/domain-house-high-school-of-hobart-town.html [last accessed 4 Jan. 2016]
[v] Quoted in Ritchie (no source supplied)
[vi] ‘Reverend R. D. Poulett-Harris’, Monument Australia. URL: http://monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/people/religion/display/99462-reverend-r.-d.-poulett-harris [last accessed 5 Jan. 2016]
[ix] Turnbull, G., ‘Roundabout magic’, BBC (2 Nov. 2004). URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3972979.stm [last accessed 5 Jan. 2016
[x] Information on Railway Roundabout: ‘Memorials and Fountains – Railway Roundabout Fountain’, Australia for Everyone Hobart. URL: http://www.visithobartaustralia.com.au/memorials.html [last accessed 4 Jan. 2106]; Larkins, D., ‘Hobart roundabout fountain makeover begins’, ABC Hobart (22 Nov. 2012). URL: http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2012/11/22/3638282.htm [last accessed 3 Jan. 2016]
[xi] Text on plaque on the fountain
[xii] Novak, M., ‘Googie: Architecture of the Space Age’, Smithsonian.com (15 June 2012). URL: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/googie-architecture-of-the-space-age-122837470/ [Last accessed: 4 Jan. 2016]
[xiii] Gramenz, E., ‘World’s best roundabout: Hobart’s Railway Roundabout given ‘one-way gyratory accolade’’, ABC (5 Aug. 2015). URL: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-04/best-roundabout-in-the-world-hobarts-railway-roundabout/6671348 [last accessed 3 Jan. 2016] (the quotes below are from this article)
* The Fountainside Hotel was sold in late 2018 to the University of Tasmania to be used as student accommodation.