The Esplanade Hotel is as expansive as it is loved. Built in 1878, much of this St Kilda landmark fell into disrepair over the decades, with many of its zones closed to the public for 60 years… Until now!
Over the past two years, interior stylist and designer Eleisha Gray has been scouting the globe to fit out The Espy. Her days have been punctuated with eBay alerts and hard-won auctions, sourcing an ensemble of French antique chandeliers and wall scones from local antique stores, re-purposing mantles from old homesteads, reupholstering vintage chairs, and hunting through European antique markets.
Working with Matt Mullins, Director of venue-reviving hospitality group Sand Hill Road and ‘the creative visionary behind the project’, as well as Techne architecture and interior design, Eleisha’s furnishing has centred around honouring the heritage aesthetic of this historic building.
In 1877, some 25 years after Victoria gained its independence as a colony and the gold rush flooded wealth into the city, a local politician bought the site, planning to build three terrace houses. ‘His architects, God love them, had something grander in mind, and convinced him to turn his houses into an enormous, magnificent hotel,’ retells Matt. ‘When it opened it was the luxury resort hotel of St. Kilda, even Melbourne. It was grand, it was palatial, it was beautiful… and it had this extraordinary view out over the bay.’
Eleisha, who has a background in TV commercial art direction and set design, recalls initially sitting down with Matt to go through historical photographs. ‘We talked about how we wanted to bring this building back to its original feel, and that was the Victorian era (though the extension on the front is Art Deco). This all came into play, and I really wanted to recreate that feeling of British grandeur.’ she tells. Elements of original wallpaper and hand-drawn art peep out from distressed walls. Meticulously enhanced by specialist painter Meg Milton, these features reinforce the old-world ambience of the space.
The new-and-improved Espy ground floor now comprises a terrace (with retractable glass roof!) and three bars under new ceilings: the public, the main, and the studio, which is also set up for podcast recording! These areas are set alongside The Espy Kitchen and the infamous Gershwin Room, a mecca for live performances that has been the cornerstone of Melbourne’s rock and punk scenes over the last half-century. Though this ballroom was not part of the original build, having been added in the early 20th century, Matt gushes that it hasn’t lost any of its charm in the refresh either.
Moving to the first floor via the old grand staircase, what was once hotel rooms 50 years ago (and storage space ever since) has been completely reimagined! Today, this level hosts Mya Tiger Restaurant serving Cantonese cuisine, and also Mya Tiger Cocktail Bar, band rooms and an unforgettable secret powder room.
Above, on the sealed-off-for-60-years second floor, you can find The Ghost of Alfred Felton: Pharmacy Bar; ritzy Gallery Bar; and a library. So, who is this Alfred Felton, and why is he being honoured? A British immigrant, successful businessman and art lover, Mr Felton lived the last 20 years of his life at the hotel. It was here that he wrote his will, which gifted his entire life savings (the equivalent of 100 million today) to local charities and The National Gallery of Victoria. This bequest contributed to the acquisition of what is now an estimated three-billion dollars worth of NGV’s permanent collection, including one of the most valuable artworks in Australia: Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-44). An extraordinary man truly ahead of his time, he single-handedly stimulated our city’s cultural economy, making it attractive to myriad creatives for years to come (discover more about this here).
In keeping with Alfred’s legacy, art abounds throughout the hotel, just as it did in his rooms up until 1904. There are countless vintage oil paintings on display through the hotel’s six-levels, in addition to two incredible exotic murals, harking back to British Empire outposts, by Desmond Sweeney.
‘What I have loved most about this project, is that The Espy already had its own story, and Alfred Felton had his own story there… I could just run with these! I have been able to help create a real space that people can walk around in, and it’s not going to be pulled down at the end of the day,’ Eleisha tells. This comes as great comfort to the vocal community that has rallied for the venue’s preservation. After decades under threat, it’s one of the good news stories of 2018 to see The Esplanade Hotel returned to its palatial status by Sand Hill Road, Eleisha and their collaborators. Call in for a celebratory flagon!
The Esplanade Hotel
11 The Esplanade
St Kilda, Victoria
You can find some great little videos on the renovation project and the venue’s history (including former resident Pat Hart’s beautiful tour) here. And there is also a wonderful podcast, Hotel Esplanade, hosted by artistic director Janenne Willis, featuring key characters from the hotel’s past and renovation.