Layers of history are revealed at The Espy St Kilda. A venue that is close to my heart being a St Kilda boy at heart, this was my stomping ground as a young alternative, punk, gender bender and party boy!
An ambitious design by Techne Architecture + Interior Design brings to light the history and story behind the St Kilda venue the Hotel Esplanade, AKA “The Espy”.
The Espy represents Techne’s largest and most complex hospitality project to date, which has been a Victorian-era seaside resort and the hotel home to notable personalities such as entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist Alfred Felton. It’s been a jazz-era ballroom and a rock and roll mainstay from the 1990s until 2015 when it closed for renovation. The Techne design aligns with the new owners Sand Hill Road’s vision by highlighting the different eras across 12 bars, two restaurants and numerous discrete spaces. The reinvigorated venue has a total area of 3,000 square metres and can accommodate 1,780 patrons. “Working with a building with such an interesting history has extended our entire working process,” says Techne director Justin Northrop. “The design is unique because it focuses entirely on historical layering. Different eras and styles call to each other across the spaces – making for an eclectic customer exploration – and this is united throughout by exposing the good bones of the original building.” Across the venue, the Techne design emphasises music and performance spaces, as loyal patrons of the old Espy would expect. Three different spaces can accommodate performances that range in scale from intimate jazz or stand-up comedy to rock bands drawing big crowds in the hallowed Gershwin Room, a space where Techne has opted for minimal intervention. “People have a real connection to the Gershwin Room. We’ve refreshed the bar but wanted to make sure the whole space still feels recognisable,” Techne director Nick Travers says.
On the ground floor, the foyer’s arch windows offer views into the Main Bar and through to a cellar door-inspired dining area with wine barrels filling the walls, and kitchen beyond, while the former Espy kitchen becomes a public bar with traditional curved oak detailing. The first floor is dedicated to a Cantonese restaurant Mya Tiger taking inspiration from the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. This space affords views of Port Phillip Bay as well as the buzz on the terrace below. On the second floor, Felton’s spirit of art collecting (his bequest is a cornerstone of the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection) and as a host of salons for the creative community of his time informs the Techne design response. “Alfred Felton’s ghost benevolently haunts the rooms on the second level. His story is more clearly explained than it has ever been and the renovation opens up spaces to the public that have not been seen since the early 20th century when they became boarding rooms,” Northrop says. “We imagined this level as a Victorian parlour with small rooms, small bars filled with curios and little art works. There is a library and a salon – one of the spaces is called The Pharmacy because Alfred Felton made his money in part as a manufacturing chemist.” Other areas include a small mezzanine-level function room and the 1950s inspired Studio Bar on the ground floor, a space that patrons can book to record podcasts.
This has what Northrop calls “a slightly more modern character” than some of the venue’s other restored spaces, with diner-style booths and ’50s-style wood panelling. Accentuating the design is a series of hand-painted, period-style murals by Perth artist Desmond Sweeney (8 Foot Walls), including one filling an eight-metre wall in the the Green Room. Techne worked closely with Sand Hill Road stylist Eleisha Gray to curate a selection of imported furniture and decorative objects that would further enrich the textural narrative. Paying homage to The Espy’s earlier days, the timeless design revives the iconic building, now reborn for another 100 years of present and future patrons.
FYI I recently explored the Espy on a night out with friends and its even better in the flesh! The iconic Espy lives on!