Built in 1937 as a luxury hotel, then becoming a last-resort accommodation for those in desperate need and later being featured as the site of real-estate reality television show The Block – the Gatwick Private Hotel in St Kilda has nothing if not a rich and varied history, one that in many ways parallels the evolution of its locale. When presented with the opportunity to convert the two ground-floor shells, which had not been touched during the filming of the program, into their family home, Co-Founders and Directors of Kosloff Architecture Julian Kosloff and Stephanie Bullock proceeded with reverence, ever-aware of their engagement with and contribution to the building’s story.
Long before palm trees silhouetted the St Kilda foreshore and bell-ringing trams trundled along Fitzroy Street, the Yaluk-ut Weelam clan of the Boon Wurrung called this region home. Post colonisation, the area became a favoured neighbourhood of Melbourne’s wealthy elite, which resulted in many of the grand period buildings that still grace its streets. The Gatwick Private Hotel in St Kilda first opened its doors in 1937. The Spanish Mission-style building was designed by architect Harry Raymond Johnson as a luxurious residential hotel. Stephanie and Julian describe the subsequent history of both the Gatwick and the locale at large as “one of multiple cycles of gentrification, densification, then decline.” The most notorious chapter in the building’s history is its time as a boarding house. Run by twin sisters Yvette Kelly and Rose Banks, who inherited the Gatwick from their parents, over the decades it sheltered many vulnerable people with nowhere else to turn and was subject to much lurid media reporting. Mounting pressures from an increasingly gentrifying neighbourhood prompted the sale of the Gatwick in 2017 to Channel Nine, which used the top three floors of the building as the site for The Block.
In late 2019, Julian and Stephanie happened upon the two ground-floor apartment shells of the Gatwick. The pair, whose architectural practice regularly interrogates the intersection of public and private spaces and who were living with their children just around the corner, were intrigued by the space and its potential. From the outset, the historical context of the site was incredibly influential. Stephanie describes it as an “authentic design driver,” explaining that “rather than coming up with some abstract idea, leaning very heavily on the heritage and the history of the site in its context […] just seemed like a natural thing to do.”
Thus, accepting the complexities of the building’s history was an important part of designing its future. Julian describes the Gatwick under Rose and Yvette’s management as “an incredibly generous entity.” Despite its often sensationalised reputation, he explains that the more he and Stephanie looked beyond the salacious press from that time, the clearer it became that the Gatwick “wasn’t this notorious gangland; these were people’s homes. It was important for us to understand how we might view that history, how we might feel like we weren’t obliterating it, how we might be adding to it.”
There is a sympatico between old and new materials and a delicate balance between colour and texture.
Julian and Stephanie resolved to build on this history by engaging in a dialogue with it. That is, to retain and highlight certain elements of the shell and to respond to these, materially, with new interventions. This process began with a photographic survey of the space “to identify how the remnants of the existing interior materiality could be sympathetically retained and reinterpreted.” Traces of the old layout, like brickwork that hints at the placement of a former wall, were consciously left exposed. The new plan includes four bedrooms, a communal deck, bathroom, laundry, kitchen and living spaces, as well as a separate self-contained studio and events space. Stephanie and Julian remain grounded in the awareness that life and the Gatwick are inevitably subject to change. Interested in evolving the idea of the ‘empty nester’ home, the master plan for the site includes the potential to renegotiate the private and public
areas of the home, as well as the studio and events space. Julian explains that this is all part of “how we place ourselves within this ongoing history. We’re just custodians for a short period of time really.”
Reconciling the story of the old with the new became a matter of editing. “We were really interested in how a room might feel with the least intervention on our behalf,” Julian explains. Stephanie continues, “some of the remnant paints looked like abstract paintings to us. [We thought] ‘that’s really beautiful, why would you cover that up?’ You’ve got this opportunity to retain a sense [of the original].” To this end, introduced materials were given great consideration. “The building has a real sense of solidity, so we were keen to avoid things like plasterboard,” says Stephanie. “All of the new finishes are either hard rendered and left raw, so they’ve got a really beautiful patina to them, or [are] solid timber panelling.” There is a sympatico between old and new materials and a delicate balance between colour and texture. Rooms with more ornate mouldings were painted in one colour. Existing painted walls were cleaned with the assistance of paint specialists at Mock Turtle, who also developed paint treatments for new surfaces that are both harmonious with and distinguished from the old.
As the current keepers of this place, Stephanie and Julian have made their mark – not just in their contemporary, material responses but literally inside the building too. Within newly created wall cavities, the family left a time capsule of notes and a maturing bottle of Barossa shiraz. “It’s a little bit like when you pull up that old linoleum and find articles that were in the paper in the 1940s,” says Julian. “We really like that theatre, and we think that it’s a lovely way to add more complexity to this history.” These keepsakes sit against heartfelt messages, written on the original walls by friends and residents of the Gatwick in its final days as a boarding house; a collection of histories to one day be uncovered.
Today, the light-filled home is a melange of colour and texture, though it is in no way chaotic. Rather, the palette and the overall effect are at once liveable and dreamlike, a tacit quality befitting a space where past stories converge with future possibilities.