Henry J. Cowan
Until the mid-19th century few buildings in Australia were higher than two storeys. This changed after the Gold Rush of 1851. By 1880 the population of Melbourne had increased from 20000 to more than half a million. It had become the third largest city of the British Empire, and the headquarters of most Australian banks and important commercial enterprises. But even with this increase in population density few buildings exceeded four stories, because it was considered that people would not climb more stairs.
In 1884 Wilhelm Prell proposed to erect another 4-storey building at 15 Queen Street when he received a visit from a Vice-President of Otis who had been sent to Australia to get business for the American company. He convinced Prell that if he put up a six-storey building with an elevator, the upper two storeys would yield as much rent as the ground floor. The success of this building caused Prell to erect three nine-storey elevator buildings, and several more followed.
Melbourne was then not far behind Chicago, where a newspaper editorial writer coined the term skyscraper for buildings ten storeys or more in height. In 1891 Chicago had nine skyscrapers.
The demand for efficient elevators was met by the installation of a system of high-pressure water pipes under the city street surfaces. In 1887 Melbourne became the world's fourth city to build a public hydraulic power system, used for hoists and wool presses, as well as elevators. Since this power was available at the turn of a tap, there was a rapid increase in the number of elevator buildings.
At the turn of the century Sydney again became Australia's leading city. As its building heights increased, it also installed a hydraulic power system. Culwalla Chambers was built in 1912 to a height of 170 feet, and this led to a demand for a limitation on the height of buildings. The fire brigade's turntables could only reach 150 feet, so that the top floors were out of their reach. The growing environmental movement argued that tall buildings ruined the city as a place to live in; but the main problem was that the building, as constructed in 1912, was very ugly. The City Council passed a resolution limiting building heights to 150 feet, which remained law for 43 years, and was soon adopted in Melbourne. This limitation was not as restrictive as it might now seem, because the short era of post-World-War I prosperity was followed by the Great Depression, and then by World-War II, and there was really no pressing demand for taller buildings.