Thus, the Little Group called on the Techne Architecture + Interior Design studio in Melbourne. “Paul and his team wanted us to preserve and restore the heritage value of the building where we could,” says Nick Travers, Co-Director of Techne.
The firm researched the hotel’s history extensively to determine, with the help of conservation consultants Michael Taylor Architecture & Heritage, what could be saved and restored and what needed to be updated and modernized.
“We sought to give a contemporary nature to the design without the hotel losing its traditional feel and the feeling that you are in a heritage place,” says Travers. “We gave it a kind of legacy 2.0 makeover.”
One of the best examples of this – and one of the main challenges – was to restore the facade of the hotel as close to its former glory as possible. Where once there had been a pair of striking wrought iron balconies stacked above a deep veranda facing the street, at some point these were removed and replaced by a single, plain balcony on the first level.
The restoration was facilitated by the discovery of part of the original lace in a shed. But new parts also had to be cast to complete the work. At the same time, Techne decided not to restore the original wide veranda but to keep it in line with the balconies, for a cleaner street profile.
The result: magnificent water views overlooking Port Phillip and the dark granite ridges of the You Yangs mountain range.
The facade has been painted in the original grey, replacing the previous sand colour, and discussions are ongoing, according to Travers, about whether to repaint the hotel’s name on the white side wall, as captured on old photographs.
“The façade is a faithful reproduction of what originally existed,” he says.
Techne took on another challenge in finding the right balance between old and new for interiors.
Key elements from the early days of the hotel have been renovated, such as the arcades and cornices, filigree walls, etched glazing, fireplaces and stair balustrades, but new elements also had to be introduced: designer lighting by Daniel Giffin, an elevator and a skylight. , and an open bistro kitchen several times larger than the original, built with reused bricks.
But then there are the changes that feed into this idea of Legacy 2.0 – which give interiors a sense of being from an earlier period, but with a modern twist.
On the ground floor, for example, the Front Bar has replaced the old bar with an extended version with heritage-inspired rounded corners, wood paneling and stained glass referencing pharmacy bottles (a pharmacist once owned the ‘hotel). A new cocktail bar has been added, offering all the classics as well as the appropriate Feelin’ Comfy and Sex on the Beach venue. I opt for an Amaretto Sour.
In place of the men’s toilets, new bench seats were placed behind newly shaped arched openings; and a TAB outlet was transformed into a hotel reception, again with wooden signs and arches. Standing in the space, you feel a little straddling the old world and the new – a comfortable and cozy in-between.
Melbourne Scanlan Specialist Painters & Fabricators have been called in to give the walls a textured trowel finish, and a botanically patterned rug recalls the work of 19th-century textile designer William Morris, a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement.
Upstairs is a similar story.
Typical of pubs built in the 1800s, the bedrooms on the upper two floors resembled dog boxes and the bathrooms were shared. Techne therefore knocked down walls and reconfigured the space – losing four rooms in the process – to give all 18 bedrooms an en-suite bathroom.
In furnishing the rooms, Techne chose contemporary finishes and furnishings that exude a sense of old-world sophistication. Upholstered headboards, tables, robes and drawers by Australian furniture maker Zuster use curves that reinforce the hotel’s arched motif.
But aside from the tiling in the bathrooms, the style feels closer to 1920s Art Deco than 1800s Victorian, evoking vintage, rather than vintage copycat.
“It’s brand new, but there’s a legacy – dare I say – a vibe,” confirms Travers. There’s a traditional sensibility to the whole interior, but it’s not a reproduction style.
Despite the mix of styles, it works a treat. Rooms are intimate, refined, and just a little chic, without being opulent. More importantly, they are a far cry from the basic Victorian accommodation once offered, even though it was considered grand.
There’s something else at work in Techne’s design approach.
Little chose the firm because of its refurbishment of the iconic Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, which was sensitive to pub history but also market realities. In other words, the place still needed a quid.
“[The Little Group] wanted to not only retain the heritage, but also bring our intelligence by creating a pub that catered to the market on different levels,” says Travers.
The new accommodation achieves this, as does the refurbished bar and bistro, which retains a friendly pub atmosphere for locals and visitors alike. The Bistro, in particular, softens the tone with archetypal pub grub: parmigiana, salt-and-pepper calamari, fish and chips, burgers and steaks. Of course, you can’t miss Portarlington’s famous mussels.
But Techne also designed the Atrium, a separate, contemporary and weatherproof beer garden next door – providing a bright and lively counterpoint to the main building.
The space – under a translucent steel-framed roof – is bright and airy, with colorful striped blinds and umbrellas, plants, a pizzeria and a central reclaimed wood bar, creating a relaxed vibe
which carries outside onto the lawn, a picnic-style food and drink area at the rear.
Even so, the Atrium defers to its surroundings. “It has elements of seaside design, but also picks up on the scale and vernacular of Portarlington’s streetscape and seafront,” says Travers.
- Rates from $235 for an accessible mural room to $410 for the grand baie room during the week, and from $290 to $465 for a Saturday evening.
- Room service is available but the hotel does not offer breakfast.
- For more information, visit portarlingtongrandhotel.com.au.
The writer stayed as a guest of the hotel.