ART OF THE IMPOSSIBLE
One of Australia’s most storied pubs, The Esplanade Hotel, was looking at a bleak future. Now its best days may well be ahead.
Story: Christopher Holder
The Esplanade Hotel:
11 The Esplanade, St Kilda VIC
(03) 9534 0211 or hotelesplanade.com.au
It’s not just the money. Sand Hill Road spent a reported $15m on The Esplanade Hotel’s refurb but the scale of the task — the enormity of the project — can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
Reopening The Espy came with a huge additional responsibility. The reason for that were various: It’s recent history has been vexed and emotional — local community activism helped stop an apartment complex being built on site. The Espy is a live music ‘shrine’ in Melbourne. The Espy is like a cross between a time machine and an ‘ice core’, providing a 140-year window into the history of Melbourne life and culture.
In other words, the ways to mess up any refurb by enraging one impassioned group or another were plentiful.
But even for a white knight operator, like Sand Hill Road, who a) knows pubs b) respects The Espy’s heritage c) is in it for the long haul; fixing The Espy, was no walk in the park.
“Taking a building like this and making it legal is really hard,” reflects Sand Hill Road director, Matt Mullins. “It’s just an enormous job. Even any basic work would trigger the 50% rule, which means you have to bring the entire building up to code. There were no fire services. The wiring was ancient. There was almost no air handling. The egress paths were almost nonexistent. These were just massive challenges and all those things are hard to do in a building this big. It’s really hard if you’re building from scratch and it’s almost impossible if you’ve got to go back and retrofit all that into a 140-year-old building.”
ALL OR NOTHING
All or nothing. No wonder so many pub groups sniffed around The Espy (when the previous owners asked for expressions of interest) and couldn’t make the numbers work.
To have a successful Espy business it simply wasn’t good enough to sell beer from the front bar. Any plan had to activate the whole hotel — a hotel with a 1700-cap license and three levels.
“Level One had barely been inhabited for 20 or 30 years. The top floor had not seen any human activity for 50 years or more. Both levels were, essentially, condemned,” explains Matt Mullins.
“Working out how to activate the two upper levels was a real challenge. What would bring people? What meaning and purpose could we bring?”
What’s more, a large loading dock (a quirk of a previous Esplanade Hotel refit) presented challenges. “This huge, landlocked, light-locked concrete box at the back of the hotel, represented really valuable real estate in a pub but was a hard nut to crack,” recalls Matt Mullins.
“Resolving those challenges weren’t optional. Unless we could activate those three spaces as well as everything else that had already been activated once before, the business wasn’t viable.”
BACK OF THE SERVIETTE
Those early discussions around how best to draw people in and through the pub were intense: “We always knew we would put a garden at the front of the pub The first floor would serve as a dining and cocktail bar environment. And the top floor as a specialised cocktail bar. Those were all key.
“The loading dock… we played with the idea of using it as a brewing space or distillery before we arrived at the idea of putting our kitchen in there. So the back of the serviette sketches didn’t look too different to the pub we see today.”
That said, it’s easy to doodle on the serviette, it’s another thing to pu t flesh on the bones.
MORE THAN AUTHENTIC
Determining what the new Espy would look like and feel like had to be anchored in something deeper than how people remember the pub in the last 20, 30 or even 40 years. The common theme was ‘gritty and authentic’. Great, but ‘gritty’ and ‘authentic’ wasn’t going to carry the whole interior design or, indeed, carry The Espy forward into the future.
“We dug deeper into The Espy’s history, and we found something truly amazing,” enthuses Matt Mullins.
We discovered how St Kilda was Melbourne’s playground for the rich and famous. In a city awash with gold rush money, The Espy was the grandest, most luxurious hotel in Melbourne.
“We came across the story of Alfred Felton [see Matt’s Smooth Operator column last issue], which typified the story arc of The Espy. Felton moved into the Espy in 1891. He was fabulously rich and left Melbourne an amazing financial legacy to good causes including the National Gallery of Victoria. Felton, almost single-handedly turned Melbourne from a filthy rich frontier city into a global cultural capital — with The Espy as this epicentre.
“We wanted to mine that rich cultural heritage. But people don’t want to be lectured on that heritage, they want to be immersed in it. We’ve done that through the design of the refurb; by making live music central to The Espy offering but also meshing art, in all its forms, into who the pub is.”
Alfred Felton brought art to the Espy thanks to an enviable personal collection he kept in his room. Sand Hill Road would need to be a little less literal. But how? How does a pub do art?
The answer came serendipitously thanks to a chance meeting and conversation with an old friend of Matt Mullins, Janenne Willis. Janenne had run a number of arts programs over the years including the Next Wave Festival. Prior to running into Matt she’d just been on a 12-month sabbatical, travelling the world looking for inspiration as to how to bring art to people would wouldn’t normally subscribe to a conventional art program in a conventional arts venue. They got talking. And Janenne got to work, bringing art to The Espy.
There are a few early highlights, including The Espy’s Swell festival, which imagined what the future of live music might be.
The We’re All Going to Die festival examined life through the prism of anxiety and what it might look like to live a fearless life.
And among the headline festivals, the arts weaves its way through The Espy week: “I do a tour at The Espy every Monday night at 6:30pm. I take 16 ticketed guests through the pub and tell them the story of Alfred Felton,” enthuses Matt Mullins. “We have a ghost tour on Wednesday nights where a local actor and storyteller tells the ghost stories of The Espy — another ticketed event.
Not only has the arts program been popular but good for the soul. Matt Mullins explains: “It’s been amazing running a fully subscribed arts programs in a pub, where people are comfortable and at home, where they can eat and drink and enjoy the arts. It’s been terrifically gratifying.”
POTTED RECENT HISTORY
In 1995 the Esplanade was bought by Carlton & United Breweries and sold two years later to the Becton Group, which proposed the building of an apartment tower behind the venue. But after Melbourne music lovers waged a successful battle, the pub was saved and the development behind it scaled back. In 2006 the Espy was bought by former nightclub operators Paul Adamo and Vince Sofo. In May 2015 it was closed and remained shuttered for three years.
Matt Mullins: “Vince and Paul did try to sell The Espy a few times over the years. We had a look at it once. We’ve always dreamt that maybe one day we would get to take over The Espy. But we were doing The Garden State Hotel when the pub was on the market, and we just couldn’t make the numbers work. We weren’t the only ones interested. I know a lot of people who had a serious look.
“A number of years later after we had the Garden State Hotel running we thought that we might look at The Espy again. By that stage Vince and Paul determined that if they weren’t able to sell it, they’d have to fix it up. So they closed it and started pulling together a planning application that would give him a permit to do some work on the site. About a year into that process we approached them and asked if they were still open to the idea of selling the pub. They were and we negotiated a deal pretty quickly.”
The core architecture and design team, once again comprised of Justin Northrop (director of Techne Architecture) and stylist Eleisha Gray. There was plenty of agreement in those early meetings. The original fabric of the building was sacred. It was to be preserved and where possible restored where it had been butchered.
From that starting point Sand Hill Road asks the same question it has with all 12 or so pubs it has refurbished over the years: ‘What will its market respond to?’
From that basis, the team worked on an overall aesthetic.
The fitout itself was anything but prescriptive. It was, by necessity, fluid. Matt Mullins explains:
“We couldn’t simply draw something up for the builders. Someone had to find all the items that would determine the nature of the final fitout.
“At its heart was a huge schedule of around 1000 items we needed to slot into the pub. Everything from a sideboard, to light fittings, chairs, to whole bars. Over a year we had to find those pieces and get them on site for installation.”
Matt’s slightly coy about the process because he knows it sounds like many people’s idea of nirvana: “It fell to me to go to Europe to go treasure hunting.”
Matt had ambitious timetable, where he would scour antiques bazaars, auctions, and farm sheds looking for suitable items to populate The Espy, all the while cross checking his progress with a long Fixtures & Fittings spreadsheet. “I’d potentially be buying hundreds of items a day. And no, there’s no point complaining about how demanding a task it was, because no one would listen!”
The purchases would then wend their way back to Australia in containers. Hopefully ready for when the builder would turn around and ask “Where the hell are the light fittings for the first floor restaurant?”
BIG PUB COMPLEXITIES
Once complete, there was no time to catch breath, for Sand Hill Road there was a big pub to run.
“We have a license for 1700 people. Mostly a big pub simply scales up from a pub of 500 capacity — commensurately more of everything. It’s all largely manageable in that regard. When the pub’s full-ish you have a sense of how well you’re doing. But it’s the staffing that has probably been the most startling aspect for me. We inducted 350 staff when we opened. That’s 80 chefs, 50 full-time managers, assistant managers, duty managers and casual bar and floor staff. The cost of onboarding staff was, in and of itself, way more than the entire budget of our first pub!
THE PAY OFF
“There’s something magic about The Espy.”
Matt Mullins isn’t in marketing mode when he says this to me, he’s just marvelling at a spirit the hotel has that transcends the ‘offering’ or the fitout. There’s also something about seeing The Espy enjoying a new chapter. And, again, it’s Matt the punter rather than Matt the operator who just ‘loves spending time here’.
“This hotel was nearly knocked down on several occasions. On one occasion it survived a stay of execution at the 11th hour. When we took The Espy on it had already been closed for two y ears.
“If you leave a place like this to decay for five years, then chances are the next planning permit will be for apartments or mixed retail, it won’t be for a pub and the resolve of the locals — which has been tested time and time again — is worn down to the point where they’re too exhausted to fight the inevitable. The pub closes.
“We love the fact we’ve been able to guarantee The Espy’s future for another season of time. Hopefully another 30 or 40 years.”
LONG LIVE, LIVE MUSIC
The Espy is back hosting live music. There are 10 or more gigs staged on one of the three music stages every week. Sand Hill Road hasn’t skimped on the Gershwin Room refit, it’s a revival of the old room, but a completely up to date revival. For those who have fond memories of live music in the main bar, there’s bad news:
“Philosophically we spent a lot of time working out what things were sacred about The Espy, and what things were not,” explains Matt Mullins. “Music is sacred — music was always going to have a home at The Espy. That said, we had to decide on exactly what that meant week to week.
“For starters we knew the Gershwin Room was sacred. But music at the old Main Bar wasn’t. It wasn’t sustainable to maintain the Gershwin room, the basement bar, and then a third, large, music venue in the heart of the hotel.
“We were aware that many would disagree with that choice, but after considerable deliberation, there was no choice.”
Sand Hill Road entrusted the task of fitting out the performance audio to Bruce Johnston. Bruce mixed more bands in the Gershwin Room than he cares to remember (or perhaps can remember), dating back to the early ’80s. His company Johnston Audio keeps most of the live music venues in Melbourne rocking. Bruce opted for a L-Acoustics sy stems based on ARCS loudspeakers at front of house, another three aside half way up the room and further delays courtesy of L-Acoustics X12 coaxial loudspeakers. A Digico SD9 console takes care of mixing duties. Each ARCS passive box is driven from a channel of an L-Acoustics LA-8 amplifier. “The ARCS in passive mode sound amazing. They’re good bang for the buck,” says Bruce Johnston.
Johnston Audio Services: (03) 9362 0011 or
Jands (L-Acoustics): (02) 9582 0909 or jands.com.au
Group Technologies (Digico): gtaust.com
Eventcraft (Install): eventcraft.net.au
WELCOME TO THE ESPY
Check out the hotel’s very own podcast (called Welcome to The Espy) available for download from iTunes, Spotify etc.
“It’s part of the storytelling and that podcast studio is getting busier and busier,” notes Matt Mullins. “Chatting with people who’ve lived at The Espy or worked here or played here or helped build the place or helped save the place… it’s a joy.”