The Old Library:

Shop 1, 15 Surf Rd Cronulla NSW
(02) 9544 5360 or www.theoldlibrary.com.au
Another chapter is opened in this South Sydney treasure.

The Old Library is housed in one of Cronulla’s oldest buildings: erected in 1908 and originally a Methodist church, it was converted into a library in the 1970s and later used as a community hall. Mario Kalpou bought the building in 2009 and, in two years, transformed it into what it is today: a spacious seaside eatery littered with literary references. The church and council connotations are gone, but people still gather under its gabled roof all year round — in summer, on comfy linen lounges with antipasto share plates; and in winter, curled up next to an open fire with a glass of vino.

Although the building isn’t heritage-listed, Kalpou made clear from the onset his intention to remain true to as much of the original design as possible. But the building’s turn-of-the-century charm was not without its challenges. “Structurally, it was a nightmare,” Kalpou says. “We had a lot of rotten timber. A hundred years ago they used a lime based concrete render, which basically turns to powder when you touch it. We spent a lot of time fixing the structure before we got to the inside of it.” The lengthy restoration process was worth it, though. “With a new building you just don’t get that same level of personality and texture,” Hamish Guthrie from Hecker Guthrie says. “At the same time, we didn’t want The Old Library to be an exercise in restoration. We’re not about recreating the old. We wanted to do something fresh and bring in a re-youth and re-purpose of the building. For us, the building became part of the beautiful backdrop for the concept we were conceiving for the space.” That concept involved referencing the building’s coastal location as well as its history as a library. The whitewashed walls, gaping windows with hanging drapes, and pale American oak (Kalpou imported four and a half tonnes of the stuff, both for the floor and furnishings) evoke a crisp, airy beach house. The final touches, finessed by Sibella Court — bookshelves painted onto walls, wall-mounted reading lights, ceramic deer heads, striped cushions and pot plants — are quirky, playful riffs on the library theme. “One of the questions we always ask as interior designers is: ‘how do you want people to feel when they’re dining in this space?’” Guthrie says. “Mario wanted to create a fine-dining experience, but he didn’t want it to be too intimidating or slick. We used natural finishes like timber, leather and linen to create something neutral and sophisticated.”


The brief also emphasised creating a sense of intimacy. “When we first got into the building it was a big, ugly, empty hall,” Kalpou says. “I said to the guys, ‘look, this is the dining area; this is the lounge area; this is the cocktail area.’ We created lots of little alcoves. There are seven fire places throughout the venue, which people congregate around in small groups.” The bar, which mirrors the slope of the ceiling, and the custom-made communal marble table by Smartstone, which runs the length of the restaurant — both stunning pieces in their own right — also serve to soak up the volume of the space. “We had a lot of height and width to work with,” Kalpou says. “It’s about breaking that huge space down into a series of experiences,” Guthrie says. “The bar is supposed to be a room within a room. It’s a different experience. It’s not one-dimensional.” Since opening last year, The Old Library’s accolades have been steadily rolling in. Critics have been singing the praises of the menu, which features introductions (entrees) and epilogues (desserts), and it’s not only a hit with locals, but also with city folk, who trek in from Sydney both for the food and relaxed atmosphere. “The thing about The Old Library is that it would be just as comfortable in Bondi or Manly or the CBD,” Kalpou says. “The fact that it’s in The Shire has raised the bar big time.” The interiors are also getting noticed — Hecker Guthrie recently took out a ‘Special Commendation’ in The Australian Interior Design Awards for its fitout. “We’re rapt with the response,” Guthrie says. “This is hopefully one of many projects we do with Mario.” – Joanna Lowry

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