In Property by Clyde Mooney

Click here to share this article with a friend

After weeks of speculation, Sand Hill Rd have finally confirmed their purchase of the iconic Esplande Hotel – The Espy – taking on the challenge of reviving one of Melbourne’s cultural institutions.

The five-level building graces The Esplanade, St Kilda, and was once a resort mecca for the wealthy and famous. Facing west over Port Phillip Bay, it famously enjoys spectacular sunsets over the water and is a legend in live music circles, sporting three stages and countless big-name acts over its century-plus of hospitality.

Since 2000 it has been owned by Vince Sofo and Paul Adamo, who closed it in 2015, securing a permit to undertake extensive renovations on the landmark building, erected in 1878, and listed on the National Trust since 1990.

Sofo and Adamo were approached directly by the directors of Sand Hill Road (SHR), when the aspirational group felt they were ready for the challenge of such an institution. Although very reticent to part with the historic building even to their old acquaintances, plans, discussions on plans and intense legal negotiations ensued.

An unauthorized leak in The Age in March nearly sank the deal, but this week the mountain of due diligence and hoop-jumping has been overcome, and SHR director Andy Mullins told PubTIC they are approaching the entire project with the utmost respect.

“It feels more like a real responsibility than an opportunity,” he stated.

“Modern understanding of The Espy is from about the mid-80s until today, and that’s what everyone talks about and remembers and wants to see back. But there’s another 110 years before that; who built it? Why? Who stayed there? Who lived there? … they’re the sort of questions that are driving us.”

Modernisation of the building, while retaining every important historical detail, will be both a challenge and a pay-off, and SHR intend to eventually open every level, including parts of the hotel not seen by the public in decades.

The elevator that will need to be installed to meet wheelchair access code will have eleven stops through the five-level structure, which was originally to be three large terraces and features a myriad of staircases and passageways.

The top level will become a cocktail bar in honour of Alfred Felton – an entrepreneur that lived in The Espy until his death in 1904, and bequeathed his enormous fortune to the National Gallery of Victoria. There is a commemorative plaque to Felton in the front garden that Mullins admits he has walked past many times without noting its significance. These artefacts speak to him now.

“When you’re up there and walking around those corridors and there’s no-one there – it does talk to you. The Espy talks to a lot of people. Everyone’s got a story, and we’ve got to try to curate all those stories into something that pleases most people when we reopen.

“As Vince said to us ‘as much as you’ve bought The Espy, you’ll never own it’. We kind of feel that already.”

After two decades of SHR with the four directors, and no help from banks, the Group has taken on a fifth, equal partner – their long-term advisor and original investor, Andrew Larke.

This has facilitated the simultaneous purchase of Melbourne’s also famous Waterside Hotel, formerly owned by a syndicate of AFL players.

SHR intend to operate the Waterside pretty much as it is for a year or so, while it’s all systems go on The Espy, with plans for a grand reopening in October next year.

The Group has seen multiple accolades for its magnificent Garden State Hotel, opened in July last year in Melbourne’s uber-hip Flinders Ln, which holds around 800 people. The Espy has capacity for 1760 pax.

“We saw Vince and Paul’s plans, they knew The Espy had to evolve. It’s ready for its new generation of appreciators, and we’ve got to listen to them, too.”

The Espy c.1955 Image: State Library of Victoria