Royal Exhibition Building COVID-19 vaccine hub, Melbourne: Australia's UNESCO World Heritage-listed vaccination centre

As a global pandemic hits Australia, Melbourne's grand Royal Exhibition Building is pressed into service to help combat the virus. Opened in 1880 as a symbol of hope and progress, it's now a crucial part of the city's fight against an insidious invisible enemy.

Sound like 2021? Actually, it was February 1919. With the so-called Spanish Flu sweeping the world, a temporary field hospital was opened within its cavernous halls to help relieve crowded hospitals.

Now, more than 100 years later, the Royal Exhibition Building is again part of the response to a global health crisis. The magnificent structure in Carlton Gardens is operating as a state government-run vaccine hub.

"It's just a stunning building," said Despina, a banker who was in the area on Thursday for a meeting and decided to get vaccinated while in the neighbourhood. "I was very excited to check out the building, I've been in it only three times in my life."

"It's beautiful," added Rebecca, a mental health worker. "It's near my house, so it's convenient; but if I think if you're going to get vaccinated anywhere, it's a lovely interior to look at."

"It was very pleasant, they had a piano playing; it was like a cocktail bar," joked Ian, a music teacher. "It's very much of the Empire days, with neoclassical paintings. Makes it a very enjoyable place to get the jab."

History, as they say, repeats. And history is what the Royal Exhibition Building is all about, having been Australia's first cultural (as opposed to natural) entry on UNESCO's World Heritage list.

Its original role was to host the Melbourne International Exhibition, one of a wave of great exhibitions of industry and science which were held around the globe from the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

To create space for exhibits and visiting crowds, architect Joseph Reed employed a mish-mash of styles and references: the central dome was modelled on that of Florence's cathedral, while the exhibition pavilions owe their look to a German style called Rundbogenstil, which borrowed from Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance architecture. The result is a surprisingly harmonious civic temple.

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Twenty years after that initial exhibition the building sealed its place in history by hosting the first session of the new national Parliament, following Federation in 1901. Artist Tom Roberts' great painting of that day shows a sea of invited guests filling the vast interior as natural light filters through the windows, and the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) addresses the gathering.

Through the 20th century, the building had more dates with destiny between hosting exhibitions and high school examinations. After its role as a hospital during the 1919 pandemic, the Royal Australian Air Force used it as a training centre during the Second World War. In the 1950s it tasted fame again as a venue for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, hosting events such as weightlifting, wrestling, fencing and basketball.

When the Kennett government of the 1990s decided to build a new Melbourne Museum just north of the site, the resulting uproar led to calls for the Royal Exhibition Building's nomination for World Heritage status, which was pursued by the succeeding Bracks government and finally granted in 2004.

Nowadays the two institutions – Melbourne Museum and Royal Exhibition Building – sit neatly side-by-side in the attractive Carlton Gardens in a fascinating contrast of styles. And the Royal Exhibition Building's future is looking bright, with plans to re-create the lofty Dome Promenade from which visitors had sweeping views over a century ago.

What's forgotten in this unanimous admiration of a city icon is how close it came to being demolished. In 1948 the Melbourne City Council debated whether to retain what was then seen as a decaying white elephant. The Royal Exhibition Building survived by just one vote.

Sometimes history's flipped coin does land heads-up.

The Royal Exhibition Building is at 9 Nicholson St, Carlton, Melbourne. See museumsvictoria.com.au/reb

For details on how to get the vaccine in Victoria, see coronavirus.vic.gov.au/vaccine   

ICONIC VACCINE HUBS

The Royal Exhibition Building isn't the only tourist drawcard dispensing vaccines in 2021. Here are five other memorable vaccination sites.

American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA

People rest in the observation area, at right, after receiving COVID-19 vaccinations under the 94-foot-long, 21,000-pound model of a blue whale, in the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life, at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, Friday, April 23, 2021. Appointments are no longer necessary at any of the coronavirus vaccination sites run by New York City. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday that anyone eligible for the vaccine could walk up to any of the city's mass vaccination sites and get a shot. The change comes as supplies of the vaccine have increased. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Photo: AP

Vaccinations are taking place right under its famous model of a blue whale.

Bran Castle, Bran, Romania

FILE - In this Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 file picture, the Gothic Bran Castle, better known as Dracula Castle, is seen on a rainy day in Bran, in Romania's central Transylvania region. Romanian authorities have set up a COVID-19 vaccination center in a medieval building in Bran, not far from the castle, as a means to encourage people to vaccinate and also to boost tourism which has decreased in the area as a result of the pandemic. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

Photo: AP

Free entry to this striking Transylvanian fortification, widely referred to as Dracula's castle, is included with injections.

Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

People line up in their cars as they wait to be vaccinated at a drive-thru vaccination center at the Sambadrome, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado)

Photo: AP

An annual sea of colour as the host of the Carnival parade, this stadium is now a vaccination hub.

Stockholm City Hall, Sweden

Members of the nursing staff prepare to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine, in the Blue Hall of the Stockholm City Hall, the venue where the Nobel Prize banquet is held, in Stockholm, Sweden, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. (Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency via AP)

Photo: AP

This grand civic building has postponed its Nobel Prize banquets in favour of vaccination appointments.

Westminster Abbey, London, UK

People arrive to receive their COVID-19 vaccine, at a new vaccination site, at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, Wednesday March 10, 2021. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

Photo: AP

Vaccinations have been happening in the south transept, home to the famous Poets' Corner.

See also: Vaccinated allowed to travel overseas in July? Don't hold your breath

See also: Free Qantas flights for a year: Joyce reveals 'mega-prize' for vaccinated passengers

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