Back in the 1970s, Melbourne enjoyed a thoroughly expansive live music scene, with pubs around Melbourne’s inner city such as the Station in Prahran, Martinis in Carlton and the Espy in St Kilda (the Esplanade) being flagship venues for a myriad of popular bands – every week.
Add to this the International Touring Groups – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and many others commencing back in 1964 and continuing right through until the 1980s and 1990s. Where did you go to see them? Mostly Festival Hall in Dudley St West Melbourne, a grungy old ‘House of Stoush’ built for boxing matches many years ago.
Previous blogs on Festival Hall
The Heritage Council of Victoria has now ruled that the building be listed as a place of ‘cultural heritage significance’ to Victoria.
This really is an intriguing battle. To be blunt, externally the building is not attractive. Internally it requires substantial upgrades to match the acoustics and staging available at more modern venues such as the former Hisense Arena, now known as Melbourne Arena, Marvel Stadium and others.
From an architectural perspective both the existing building and the proposed replacement apartment complex leave a lot to be desired. There is a lot of water to pass under this bridge yet. Here is a report from the ABC today.
Melbourne’s Festival Hall granted permanent heritage protection, despite development plans
Melbourne’s Festival Hall has received Victorian heritage listing, putting a major obstacle in the path of efforts by its owners to have the 63-year-old building partially demolished.
The owners of the iconic venue — which hosted The Beatles’ Melbourne concert in 1964 — revealed in January they were planning to sell the site to developers due to concerns over its ongoing financial viability.
A planning application was lodged by the owners with the City of Melbourne to demolish most of the original building, and build two 16-storey apartment buildings on the site.
But in May, Heritage Victoria recommended the building be added to the heritage register in recognition of its social and cultural significance to Melbourne.
In a decision last week, Heritage Council Victoria ruled that the building should be listed on the register as a place of “cultural heritage significance” to Victoria.
“Festival Hall was a principal live music venue in Victoria from the 1950s until the 1980s and hosted some of the most important national and international musicians of that era,” the background to the decision said.
Six key features of the interior of the building were identified as “intrinsic to its cultural heritage values”, including the timber floor, its tiered seating and “highly intact original amenity areas”.
The site was originally home to the West Melbourne Stadium, constructed in 1913, but after a fire in 1955, the building was reconstructed and renamed Festival Hall.
The venue hosted boxing and gymnastic events during the 1956 Olympics, as well as world-class bouts featuring the likes of Lionel Rose.
Since then, it has hosted international music acts such as Frank Sinatra and Fleetwood Mac, and more recently the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ed Sheeran and Lorde.
Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the heritage listing did not stop redevelopment, but did restrict it.
“Important elements of Festival Hall will have to be retained, including the facade, the box offices, the tiered seating, and the developer will need to work with the Heritage Council to ensure that any future development of the site respects the rich heritage of Festival Hall,” Mr Wynne said.
“It means that it can be redeveloped, but it has to respect the heritage of what is one of the most iconic buildings in Melbourne.”
Co-owner warns venue cannot continue
One of the owners of Festival Hall, planning barrister Chris Wren QC, said the venue will no longer be able to host concerts.
“It’s not going to be able to continue to operate, it’s probably going to become a warehouse or something like that in due course,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne.
He said the Victorian Government has poured money into upgrading other inner-city venues.
“It’s difficult because of the fact that the State Government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars building competition for us — and then to expect us to continue to operate as a private enterprise is unrealistic,” Mr Wren said.
“If they want it to continue then perhaps they should buy it at the highest, best price, and we’d be happy to sell it to them.”
He said his existing proposal to develop the Festival Hall site had tried to recognise its historical significance.
“The proposal we’ve put together is obviously a proposal that [takes] into account … what our view of the heritage value of the building is, and we’ve kept elements of it in there that we think appropriately recognise people’s memories,” he said.
“Whether the Heritage Council ultimately agrees with that will be a matter that will have to be adjudicated on, I suppose, if we can’t resolve it amicably.”
Moving along, it’s simply fantastic that the famous Esplanade Hotel has been fully renovated and restored and is opening for business this Friday.
The ‘Espy’ as it was known for over 50 years was the place to go to enjoy live music. Back in 2015 there were real concerns that the pub would simply disappear and along with it, the many memories. But fortunately the new owners had other ideas. This wasn’t to be another Greyhound Hotel or London Hotel fiasco. This team really meant to restore the grand old seaside venue to its former glory.
Rooms like the Gershwin Room remain untouched other than simply being restored to its original pristine condition.
Reborn Espy rejuvenates St Kilda’s image as home of city’s nightlife
“Southside is back,” enthused Doug Maskiell, one of the Espy’s new owners, days out from its reopening.
St Kilda has long been dogged with claims that some of its charm has faded, including that it’s lost its title as the home of Melbourne’s live music scene to the city’s north.
The closing of its iconic Esplanade Hotel three years ago, although always only temporary, seemed to seal its fate.
But it appears the long wait has been more than worth it, with its extensive restoration – including three live music stages, 12 bars and two restaurants – sure to help revive St Kilda’s status as a top nightlife destination.
“The Gerswhin Room is the MCG of music for a lot of people, it’s really hallowed turf,” Mr Maskiell said.
“To not have one of the best band rooms and best music and arts hotels in Melbourne operating has been a real shame.
“To have new life in it, to have it up and about and up on its toes, I think it is symbolic of a really bright future in the area.”
Mr Maskiell is one of five partners at hospitality group Sand Hill Road, which bought the Espy 18 months ago.
The attention to detail the team have brought to the beloved hotel is breathtaking.
Built to hold 1700 people, their vision was for it to house a diverse range of entertainment venues – from the “wear what you like” old public bar to a new lift-serviced high-end cocktail bar – while remaining interconnected.
Lined with 1980s Espy band posters, the public bar has retained its grungy feel and is aimed to provide a place for up-and-coming bands to cut their teeth.
A glass retractable ceiling in the main bar’s foyer shows off the hotel’s original 1878 building, which sits behind a facade built in the 1920s.
Mr Maskiell said the group retained the historic parts of the hotel, while replicating any that weren’t so that it kept the same old-world feel.
“Anything that was original we kept or restored and we’re really showing off and celebrating,” he said.
Not to be stuck in the past, the hotel features a podcast studio open to the public to book and a brand new kitchen and casual restaurant where the car park once stood.
But it’s when you make your way up the main bar’s grand stairs that the hotel really enters new territory.
The previously derelict levels now include Cantonese restaurant Mya Tiger, headed by former Longrain head chef Sarah Chan, and three cocktail bars.
You’ll need to get past a concierge on the ground floor to score a key that gets you to the more exclusive of the cocktail bars.
Bar The Ghost of Alfred Felton, on the top floor, is inspired by a resident from the turn of the last century who is credited with kick-starting Melbourne’s art scene when he bequeathed his fortune to the National Gallery.
It features a 100-year-old bar and is adorned with art and antiques scoured from around the world to make it look like his old rooms.
The hotel’s former owners, nightclub operators Paul Adamo and Vince Sofo, passed on this message as they celebrated the sale: “As much as you’ve bought the Esplanade Hotel, you’ll never own it.”
“And not a truer word has ever been spoken,” Mr Maskiell said on Monday.
“This venue has meant so much to so many people, who have a true connection with it, I’m just lucky to be part of it.”
The Espy reopens on Friday.
So the Espy opens just in time for a long hot summer. Cool beers overlooking Port Phillip Bay, a light meal and the very best in musical entertainment.
Melbourne – It just gets better.
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