416 Gore Street was originally part of the MacRobertson’s Chocolates factory complex that occupied warehouses in the area bounded by Smith, Napier, Johnston and Rose Streets. Most are still standing.
This building was constructed in the 1920s and dedicated to production of the famous Old Gold selection, considered the ultimate gift for chocolate lovers.
The building’s landmark status was established by a roof installation of 1100 electric lamps spread over 40 metres that operated in sequence to write the distinctive MacRobertson’s signature.
At six stories in height, the building was the highest in Fitzroy until the Housing Commission constructions of the 1960s.
THE FIRST OWNER
Sir Macpherson Robertson was born in Ballarat in 1859. From making chocolates in the bathroom of his mother’s house in Fitzroy, he became the largest confectioner in the southern hemisphere.
Robertson was recognisable by the white suit he wore on the daily round of his factories.
Over 700 varieties of confectionary were produced at 416 Gore Street, from luxury chocolates for export to well-known products like Cherry Ripe and Freddo Frog.
Robertson pioneered pension schemes for his workers and donated funds for the building of the Girls High School, the bridge over the Yarra and the herbarium in the Botanical Gardens that all bear his name.
In 1934, he sponsored the MacRobertson Trophy Air Race as part of the Melbourne centenary celebrations, and land in Antarctica was named in his honour by Sir Douglas Mawson.
He died in 1945.
In her book MacRobertson: The Chocolate King, Melbourne author Jill Robertson wrote:
1916 was a year Robertson always remembered, for in this year he finally began the large-scale production of superfine chocolate. His dream to produce chocolate equal to European standards meant he had to acquire a whole range of new machinery. The war made it impossible to import the machinery he needed, and an engineering company in Castlemaine, Victoria, couldn’t supply the type he wanted. His solution? To build it himself To do this he established a full-scale engineering works consisting of architects, engineers and builders.
As Taylor says in Robertson’s biography:
” It was a big risk for a man of fifty-six. Many a man of Mac. Robertson’s years, content with success such as he had attained, would have deemed it right to retire from the struggle, would have claimed that life now owed him rest and freedom as a reward for his labours and would have quailed before the thought of attempting the greatest task he had yet encountered. Throughout his life, however, Mac. had worked on the assumption that difficulties had been made merely to be encountered and overcome. He had made up his mind to produce a high-grade Australian chocolate, and so he knew for certain that he must now find £350,000.”
The money was obtained from a combination of savings, liquidation of assets, and a bank loan. It wasn’t long before a six-storey brick building, the biggest of all the MacRobertson factories, was erected on the corner of Rose and Gore streets, a block away from the other factories. By far the tallest building in the area, the factory was devoted to all the processes Involved in making chocolate. There were rooms for storing, roasting, winnowing, drying, crushing and sorting cocoa beans. All were full of machines for pressing, crushing and pulverising the cocoa butter into a fine powder. The factory was the headquarters for what was to become MacRobertson’s most famous product – Old Gold chocolate. Expensive new automatic machinery included melangeurs (to mix chocolate and sugar), refiners (to smooth the chocolate mixture) and conches (to mix and store the chocolate for the desired seventy-two hours). There were storage reservoirs, moulding rooms, enrobing (coating) machines, and a packing department. In fact, it was the most up-to-date chocolate factory of its type in the world, and all the machinery was made in the MacRobertson engineering works. Robertson was immensely proud of this achievement, and whenever he took people around the factory, would point with pride at the writing stamped on the machines: ‘Pattern made and machine built by MacRobertson, Fitzroy 1916′.
After this factory was built, Robertson instructed his men not to paint the building white like the other factories, a feature which gave the precinct its name of `White City’. But why no white paint? A benign supporter of unions for many years, Robertson was annoyed when a shortage of supplies combined with a strike to endanger his dream of creating a superfine chocolate. To keep on target, he had to continue building the new factory with different coloured bricks, supplied from another source. Halfway up the building, he believed the difference was visually obvious, hence his perverse desire to keep the exterior unpainted. All he had wanted, he said, was to build the most perfectly planned factory in the world at the time and, in doing so, employ thousands of men.
In the 1960s, MacRobertson’s Chocolates moved operations to Ringwood and 416 Gore Street became a textiles factory.
In 1967, English confectioner Cadbury’s bought MacRobertson’s, later merging in 1969 with Schweppes Australia to become Cadbury Schweppes.
Many of MacRobertson’s original products like Cherry Ripe live on under the Cadbury banner. The Old Gold name has also been revived.
New Zealand builders Fletcher Construction oversaw the slow and occasionally troubled conversion to apartments in 1998. The first tenants moved into the building in 2003.