Spectres, dinosaurs and rock’n’roll: Memories of the caretaker of Younghusband Wool Store

For more than twenty years, Vern “Hollywood” Anagnostou, nicknamed for his flamboyant style and rock’n’roll sensibility, has been the custodian of the Younghusband Wool Store in Kensington – an adaptive reuse project Woods Bagot is redesigning into flexible commercial tenancies.

 

The rich history of the stores can be traced back to 1901 when the first wool store building was commissioned by wool seller R. Goldsborough Row and Co. The site was later acquired by broker Younghusband and Co, which operated the facility until 1970. Today, the Younghusband ghost signage is still plastered across the face of the redbrick building, the decommissioned bale lifts and pastoral paraphernalia documenting a life of uses long eclipsed.

In recent years, the former store has been adapted for a range of uses including a home to small creative companies and a costume store for the Australian Ballet. For decades, the wool store provided affordable studio spaces that gave grassroots artistic enterprises a toehold in a characterful inner-city location.

As caretaker, Anagnostou was responsible for ensuring the upkeep of the building and its grounds, as well as tending to its various tenants. On a more intangible level, he serves as an important repository for memory, witnessing and preserving the stories of various iterations of uses and inhabitants over his 20-odd years.

From the mid-1980s, Anagnostou had been working in the travel industry before Ansett airlines went into liquidation in 2001. For a brief episode that followed, he found himself in a post at Fawkner Cemetery. “The crematorium used the same computer software as the airline,” he says, “only in this case there were no return trips.”

It was in 2002 that Anagnostou first took on some casual handiwork in the Younghusband Wool Store, during which time building had four tenants, including theatrical backdrop designers Scenic Studios and the Australian Ballet. In that period, the wool store hosted debauched parties for Melbourne’s bohemia, dripping with lavish theatrical set design, one night transforming into a Montmartre cabaret house and the next a fantastical winter wonderland.

“Imagine that place when it was brand new – the floor was painted black with gold flecks. It’s faded now, but when it was new, it glistened.”

Anagnostou was first employed by William ‘Billy’ May, theatre producer and dinosaur creator, who died in 2010. May was a showman who trained at the New York High School of Performing Arts, who with his partner Malcolm Cooke worked on more than 40 productions in Australia, London and New York. At the time Anagnostou was brought onboard, the company was working on the Art Centre’s 2002 production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  

“I ended up as operations manager and I worked with Billy for seven or eight years,” he says.  

May’s creation Walking with Dinosaurs – The Live Experience has been called one of the largest and most acclaimed shows to come out of Australia.

“Billy was a very charismatic guy,” says Anagnostou. “He could sell snow to an Eskimo.” One year, at May’s behest, Anagnoustou helped to stage a thanksgiving dinner in Younghusband for The Eagles while they were out on their 2005 Farewell 1 Tour.

William “Billy” May, artistic director, theatre producer and composer.

Around 2007, Anagnostou moved into the caretaker’s flat onsite, becoming Younghusband’s sole (living) resident. “They told me I’d be responsible for security and checking the electricity for cheap rent,” he says.  

Over the decade that followed, the wool store hosted several segments of The Block; it was a performance space for the live experience of Walking with Dinosaurs; a film location for several episodes of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries; and the location for Temper Trap’s Sweet Disposition music video.

Living in a 1.57-hectare, 100-year-old warehouse mightn’t be everyone’s idea of a homely abode. But, for Anagnostou, it served him just fine.

“It was originally the office and the cleanup room for the workers. It had urinals and toilets and long troughs for the workers to wash their hands, but it worked out fine as a flat – nice wooden floors, high ceilings,” he says.  

“There is a presence there,” Anagnostou continues. “In those early days, I’d end up at three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning sitting at the bar, having a couple of drinks with some of the girls. They’d want to go out the back and see all the costumes. They come running out, screaming, ‘There’s something down there! There’s something down there!’, and the hairs on their arms would be standing up.

“I never had that feeling; it never affected me at all.”

In 2011, plans to partially demolish the building were opposed by the National Trust and subsequently rejected by Melbourne City Council. Local residents said they were “appalled” by the proposal to rezone one of Victoria’s few surviving wool store complexes, and council unanimously found in favour of preserving the rich heritage details and material memory harboured in the built form.  

Around that time, Anagnostou was working in pubs and discotheques to supplement his small wage as part-time caretaker. It wasn’t until 2016 and the building was purchased by the first developer Impact Investments that Anagnostou was employed to care for the building full time.   

Impact had plans to transform the wool store into a mixed-use industrial village; this was when Woods Bagot was first engaged to design the redevelopment using a “light touch” approach to restore the original features of the building, including cobbled bluestone laneways, exposed girders, and wooden floorboards.

Vern Anagnostou, Younghusband caretaker. Image: Paul Jeffers.

Anagnostou lived on the premises until June 2019, when the wool store became an active constructive site. Despite his relocation, he remained actively employed and involved in the maintenance of the site for the following few years.

After the development changed hands, Anagnostou was kept on as a critical pillar to the design process, showing the architects and designers around the site and enlightening them to its charms and curiosities. 2019 was also the year Anagnostou hosted public tours of the store as part of the National Trust’s Australian Heritage Festival.

“One of those tours was attended by a descendant of Isaac Younghusband,” says Anagnostou, leafing through family trees and a photograph of Younghusband’s gravestone in St Kilda Cemetery.

In 2021, Anagnostou suffered a stroke while working in the building. “We had plumbers coming the next morning at nine o’clock, and at around about 7:30 in the evening I felt myself go,” he recalls. “I needed to give the keys to the property management in the morning. So, I rang my mate up and said, ‘Pick me up at nine o’clock tomorrow,’ as soon as I’d be finished with them.

“That’s what I’m like,” he says. “Duty first.”

Timeline of the history of Younghusband Ltd, wool, grain and produce brokers.

Letter given to Anagnostou from a descendant of the widow Cockburne, who remarried Younghusband after the death of her husband in 1871.

Isaac Younghusband tombstone in St Kilda Cemetery (1833-1892)

For many years, the building was packed with stores of wool, hide and tallow (wool fat for making soap and candles), and the faint redolence of lanolin could still be detected within the building walls and timber floorboards during Anagnostou’s early career.

“You could smell the lanolin when we first took over the building,” he says. “But I don’t smell that anymore.”

As the notes of Younghusband’s bucolic past life dissipate, Anagnostou’s chapter in the development draws to a close. It begs the question, what is the future of the residential “caretaker” in this next phase of public developments?

“Caretaker” as we once understood it is losing its foothold in the collective imagination as building services are increasingly outsourced, streamlined, automated and anonymised. But perhaps we had not factored the loss we would incur in shelving this figure of equal parts watchman, fixer, custodian and historian. Our caretakers are the guardians of the memories of people and place, documenting a time when a human touch meant the utmost level of care. 

Woods Bagot is sympathetically adapting the Younghusband Wool Store into a net zero commercial space, with stage one of the project slated for completion in 2024.

Anagnostou showing Woods Bagot project team around the wool store.

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