Often called the grand boulevard of Melbourne, St Kilda Road was first known as Baxter's Track after Melbourne's first postmaster, who had leased land in St Kilda and used the track as a stock route. In 1841 the Immigrants Home, which provided shelter for new arrivals, was erected alongside what was sometimes called the St Kilda Road, Brighton Road or even Arthur's Seat Road.
The volume of traffic increased when the wooden Balbirnie's Bridge was built over the Yarra River in 1845. Part of its eastern side was set aside for a botanical reserve, and other institutional buildings were planned. A new, more permanent bridge, built in 1850, opened in time for Separation. After gold was discovered, a huge canvas town arose around the southern end of the bridge, and bush-rangers were known to attack parties on the road. Building of the Victoria Barracks and the Church of England Grammar School began in 1856. The road was 'made' for the first time in 1859 and planted with street trees in the 1860s.
Despite opposition, land was sold for private housing in 1859.When St Kilda and Prahran councils accused Charles Gavan Duffy of selling allotments 'filched out of Fawkner Park', he replied that 'the Government wanted money, and the land must therefore be sold'. Divided into 100-foot (30 m) frontages, the land was to be used for gentlemen's residences only. In 1860 the Melbourne Gas & Coke Co. placed a main over Princes Bridge as far as St Kilda Junction so houses built along the road could be lit by gas. When the new Princes Bridge was built in 1888, Melbourne's cable tram system extended down St Kilda Road to feed into the south-eastern suburbs.
During the 19th century some of Melbourne's most important families lived along the road. Armadale, the residence of the Moubray family designed by Crouch & Wilson, was built in 1867 and survived until 1976. The next mansion was Offington, built by Edward Henty in 1873. The most elegant survivor, with its Grecian motifs, is The Willows, built in 1890 and now used as a restaurant. With the building of Government House in Kings Domain in the 1870s, the road became Melbourne's great ceremonial route. In the 20th century it attracted more great institutions, including the Shrine of Remembrance, the Arts Centre and the National Gallery.
Rezoning in 1956 allowed non-residential development. By the 1960s many of the mansions housed businesses, boarding houses or hostels. Despite protest, demolitions made way for office blocks. In 1976 the Historic Buildings Preservation Council commissioned a study on the remaining eleven mansions in St Kilda Road, but despite promises to preserve Melbourne's beautiful boulevards, the height limits were raised allowing for taller office buildings. A decision in 1983 by the newly elected Australian Labor Party Government to allow the demolition of Koonwarra, one of the few remaining mansions, was another blow. In 2004 only seven mansions remained. Office buildings continue to be built as well as high-rise apartment blocks. St Kilda road's tree-lined splendour remains its hallmark, and much quality public art is situated in its numerous splendid parks.