Cairo Flats express architect Best Overend’s modernist vision of functional, efficient, and comfortable modern living, pointing to the evolving modern metropolis in which the building now proudly sits. Since its completion in 1936, ‘Cairo’ has been home to a rich array of occupants and references to ‘Cairo’ appear in both formal academic studies and fictional works.
Acknowledging the longstanding interest in ‘Cairo’ amongst architects, social historians and local citizens, the Owners Corporation is seeking to capture the colour and flavour of this unique building and garden environment over the past eight decades.
We welcome your contribution – in words and images to our shared ‘story’ in the hope that we can add to the public record of this special place. We invite former Cairo residents as well as anyone else with a significant connection to the building to contribute their reflections and memories of this special place using the online guest book.
1983-1991 | Flat #34 and 35
I initially moved into flat 34 in 1983 and in 1987 moved into the two roomed 35.
In that later period myself and several other occupants organised the odd garden party for residents and that shady enclosed space provided an idyllic setting in summer. Compared to other apartment blocks Cairo residents were pretty sociable and conversations in passing were commonplace. The features of the apartments that stand out for me were the fittings. Cupboards, drawers, benches looked as if they could have been built-in by a ship's carpenter...very compact and excellent space saving designs. What surprised me was that they were made mainly of N.Z. Kauri and what sadly shocked me was to see this beautiful timber being thrown into dump bins during the 'renovations' post 1999. (Along with the custom made cast door handles) All the flats had beautiful (once opening) porthole entrance door windows and the bathroom in my first flat had a glass shower screen with a delightful deco sandblasted image of a leaping dolphin. I wonder what happened to that? The flat also still had the original wall phone/handpiece inside the entrance for contacting the dining room in the N.E. corner of the block. The rooftop, theoretically out of bounds, leaked into the upper level flats until it was Malthoid resealed at the end of the 80's...the bubbling paint and plaster stayed on though. No roof insulation meant a hot time in Summer. I guess the steam heating would have been effective in winter but apparently the boiler in the S.E. corner blew up some years earlier and the built-in electric wall fans that replaced it no longer worked. When I was an occupant the former shop was more a concept than a business. It seemed to reluctantly sell milk and bread in only limited quantities and sweets for the noisy girls in the convent school next door. I think roaring Meg was the operator.
1986-1987 | Flat #32
I lived at No.32 in Cairo flats, on the first floor, facing into the courtyard. At the time, I was studying for my PhD in architectural history at the University of Melbourne.
I loved living there - despite it being very small. It was a bedsit and I envied very much those lucky enough to have one of the single bedroom flats. Other friends lived there, including graduate architects Jenny Branton, Peter Brew and Alex Lawlor (ground floor, north side). I remember picnics in the central garden; the original D-handles of the doors and the tiny kitchen was actually quite serviceable, the shop at the time I think was no longer operating.
1987-1989 | Flat #14
In 1987 my girlfriend moved into flat 17 at Cairo Flats. The couple moving out of flat 17 had also rented flat 14. They were booksellers who had a shop in Gertrude Street and they used flat 14 as an office.
Until then, I was living in St.Kilda and was fortunate to obtain an art studio space to work out of in Gertrude Street. I was also doing freelance illustration work from home, so moving into flat 14 in Cairo was perfect, being so close to my girlfriend and the art studio in Gertrude street. I recall that, at the time Cairo housed many architects and architecture students, as well as other artists. I remember that the exterior doors to each flat and the surrounds of the flats were painted in Forrest Green. The small shop was in operation in the side street, part of the Cairo complex. It sold newspapers, milk, bread, mainly basic items. The caretakers for the whole building lived in flat 18. The first couple was a Scottish couple and then they were replaced by an English couple. The caretakers were a little bit intrusive with checking out who was coming and going from the building. The owner of the building would also come round from time to time. He was a very nice elderly man and he was very proud of the building. I think his father may have been one of the original builders of the flats. Once he showed us onto the roof, a rare occasion, as he was worried about ladies in high heels puncturing the flat asphalt roof. We moved out of Cairo in 1989. The time living there was a really special part of our lives.
March 1984 to Nov 1991 | March 1997 to 1999
I lived in 4 different flats over 10 years. I loved each of them though preferred the upstairs ones. It was a little like living on a boat, small compact spaces with lots of storage.
I liked hearing the little door that connected the outside to the kitchen (a former food deposit) when the mail was delivered. The only thing I didn't like was the carpet - always worn and awful colours but we weren't allowed to change them. We weren't supposed to go on the roof but the view from there was terrific and I managed to secure a space to store my bike in the garage and later, a car - a privilege! The garden was a great place for communal parties and no-one objected. In the early days residents included a number of single, elderly men and a mix of architects and artists, me included. I always thought of Cairo as an oasis in the city. I could walk home from the city and be in a different world in no time at all.
Writing this account was a real trip down memory lane of my time in Fitzroy in my twenties. I lived in Flat 28 for about 18 months.
Ken (from memory) was the resident caretaker at the time, and he had a strong English accent. His golden retriever would sunbake in the garden throughout the day. When returning to Cairo after work there would usually be someone painting or drawing in the gardens and it was common to hear someone playing a flute, guitar, or clarinet, which was lovely. The place felt like an artist’s sanctuary. There weren’t individual letter boxes in the 1990s, when I lived there, so Ken would collect the rent (which was $120 per week) and hand deliver your mail and leave it in the cubby hole next to your door.
I recall being drawn into the mysterious visage of Cairo when living close by the apartments as a student in 1990.
I was taken aback when my friend, the photographer Martin Kantor described his favourite block of apartments in Melbourne to me, as I recognised his description to be Cairo. He described in detail the architecture and history of the building and how he wanted to photograph me there for a project he was creating. From memory, the gardens were easily accessible with no locked gate or fence preventing the public from wandering in. On a freezing winter's night in 1992 we traipsed through the gardens and staircases of Cairo. The gardens were dark and quiet and still. Martin shot with his hasselblad camera using tri-x black and white film. The only light source was the outdoor lights of Cairo. Cloaked in my grandmother's heavy wartime overcoat, I stepped into the frame. The photographs from that night are unsettling, classical and noir. From that night on, the relationship between Martin and myself grew and we eventually had a son. Was it the photographs? Was it the night? Somehow I think the magic of Cairo drew us into its spell...
Arni Rey Paras
I absolutely loved living at the Cairo flats. All those bachelor years were full of good memories.
I remember thinking how for a small bed sitters there was a generous sized bathroom with a bath! I loved the individual mailboxes. Flat 14's kitchen was fitted with the world's smallest stovetop oven. I always loved the view of the garden in the U shape complex. I enjoyed looking out from where I'd set up my jewellery workbench. Can't remember the flat number for the front top one facing Nicholson Street. That was much bigger and suited when I had a girlfriend. It was carpeted unlike flats 13 & 14 that had floor boards. I remember a friend coming over and we would have guitar jams on the balcony. I had a motorbike and would turn off the motor and wheel it alongside the flats to the back little shed. I never really used the spiral staircase much because of my flat numbers. I remember thinking how despite the fact that it was situated right on a main road being Nicholson Street the noise seem to get absorbed by all the beautiful plants that densely surrounded the place. I also quite enjoyed hearing the school kids next door. It was always good energy. All in all, I consider living at the Cairo flats for 5 years of my life having been very special.
I lived there on my own during part of the period when I was CEO of Australian Red Cross and so walked to work in Pelham Street every working day through the gardens.
I lived very simply and the unit I lived in was not in particularly good condition. To be frank it had terrible rising damp for much of the time. That being said, I loved my time there very much and loved the history of the place, the architecture and gardens. There always seemed to be many interesting people living there but sadly I did not get to know many of them well as I worked very long hours and had to undertake a lot of travel for my work. I am honoured to be counted as a former resident and am very glad that the friends of Cairo apartments are rallying around to support this delightful little place in the heart of Melbourne.
Best to all Robert Tickner
2018-2020 | Flat
As French citizens, we arrived two years ago from Wellington, New Zealand with
absolutely no idea what Melbourne was going to offer us.
We found this unit advertised on Gumtree on our first day and the rest is history. Inspired by our years of travels and by the campervan we built in NZ, we designed, and self-built a singular piece of joinery so we could call this place home. And what a home it has been! After flourishing personally and professionally and after meeting so many inspiring people, it is with heavy hearts that we are leaving Australia. We feel at peace with leaving Australia but, even though it is a hell of a chapter we are closing today, and the hardest thing is to leave behind these 24 square meters. How ironic is that? Thanks to everyone who made this journey so special and unique. Our time here will remain unforgettable. Thanks to all the beautiful moments shared with this community such as the endless chuckles on these iconic steps and on the walkway and the open-air cinema sessions in the summer. Cairo, you have been amazing to us. We will be eternally grateful.
Merci, Merci, Merci
Rosemary (& Booboo)
2018-2020 | Flat #21
Spending time living at Cairo has given me an even greater appreciation of beauty and
simplicity.The simple but pleasing and
elegant lines of the building mean that every outlook, sightline and view are a
delight to the eye.
I have loved spending time on the balcony and in the garden every day. I could marvel at the cantilevered staircase every time I see it. Cairo is a unique take on apartment living and I am so aware of the privilege and joy of living in such a gorgeous setting for a time. My lasting pleasure is found in the friendships made with neighbours.
It is a good thing I didn’t move too far away so I can still visit often.
With fond memories
1992-2001 | Flat #06
It was hardly a foregone conclusion that I should reside in flat six at Cairo – But I needed a place to live and when I entered the small room that was to be my home for the next nine years, I knew that this was the
beginning of something unexpected.
I wondered about the history of the place. The story that I heard went that the flats were predominantly occupied by medical students from the nearby St Vincent’s Hospital. I noticed the exquisite details of architecture and design of the place – the care that the builders and craftsman had taken with the rendering, plastering and the intricate detail of the door handles, railing, glazing and brickwork. Then I saw the magnificent, cantilevered courtyard staircase. God how could I have missed it when I first walked in.
Ah but that was its majesty, its mystery!
The flat was small, utilitarian but not without immediate charm. The redundant “squawk box” and nineteen twenties – style earpiece on the wall whetted my curiosity; what had been its function previously I wondered? After settling the details, I decided to take the room. I had burnt my bridges in Brisbane and Sydney months earlier and Fitzroy look like the right kind of place for a dissolute sole as I. Music, lust, and profligacy awaited.
One of my first memories of living in the place was when I walked out and “Oh hello. I didn’t see you there…” I had seen alarming beehive hairdo’s before, but this woman’s horrifying hair took the cake. Even King’s Cross drag queens wouldn’t blush. She was the Cairo flats superintendent. Bless her! Well needless to say we got on fine.
Ok., It was somewhat tepid at first – but soon enough I would get myself into some kind of suitable trouble. It didn’t take long – “Christ are they killing someone?” “Nah love that’s just the plumbing” – you’ll get used to it I was told.
I know that I miss the place – screech! Ding Ding!