Hilton’s new Melbourne hotel could help revive CBD in COVID’s wake

The new Hilton is located in the heritage-listed Equity Chambers building on the corner of Bourke and Little Queen Streets. Picture: Bates Smart/Peter Clarke
The new Hilton is located in the heritage-listed Equity Chambers building on the corner of Bourke and Little Queen Streets. Picture: Bates Smart/Peter Clarke

Set in the heritage-listed Equity Chambers site, Melbourne’s new Hilton isn’t just breathing life into the 1931 digs, it’s also an example of a venue using hospitality to attract people into the city.

Designed and refurbished by architects Bates Smart, Hilton’s first Melbourne offering in five years is being praised by the City of Melbourne for not only helping retain the city’s culture, but propelling it forward.

In a city where luxury hotels are popping up like mushrooms in the midst of a never-ending pandemic, the hotel on the corner of Bourke and Little Queen streets is capitalising on ways to attract guests who aren’t staying at the hotel.

The hotel combines the Bourke Street heritage facade with its Art Deco lettering spelling ‘Equity Trustees Company’; a new 16-level tower with 239 rooms and five suites; rooftop terrace; fine-dining restaurant; and publicly-accessible bar.

“We’re excited to see new developments, which pay respect to Melbourne’s heritage,” said Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece.

“The new Hilton development on Little Queen Street has been done so well, the heritage restoration and modern adaptation of the main foyer is exquisite, and they have created a really classy must-visit location in Melbourne.”

A hive of hotel activity could help generate foot traffic

Hilton Little Queen Street joins a bevy of other luxury city hotels built during the pandemic, including W Melbourne, Mövenpick, Marriott Docklands and the upcoming arrival of Ritz Carlton.

Luci, the modern Australian diner, sits on the ground floor. Picture: Bates Smart/Peter Clarke

It is hoped Melbourne’s new hotels will help revive the city, which is recovering from repeated lockdowns.

Before the city’s fifth lockdown in July, workers had finally returned to vacant offices and the buzz was returning, according to Lord Mayor Sally Capp.

Foot traffic was 105.7% higher at the start of July than the previous three-week average, according to the City of Melbourne’s statistics and this was in part due to a number of initiatives to entice people back into the CBD including cheaper car parking, city stay rebates plus winter markets.

The council, in partnership with the state government, will in the next year spend $9 million on infrastructure across the city.  This includes $1 million on upgrading the Lonsdale Street Greek precinct; $2.5 million to install catenary lighting on two Little Streets; and $2 million in infrastructure for outdoor dining.

Public accessibility is key

One way to help inject money into the economy and create more city culture, was to make sure the new Hilton’s hospitality was ‘accessible to the people’, said Julian Anderson, architect and director at Bates Smart.

It was paramount that the hotel design allowed the Art Deco cocktail bar, The Douglas Club, and modern Australian all-day diner, Luci, to provide direct access to Bourke St pedestrians Mr Anderson said.

Mr Anderson said Melbourne didn’t have “a great track record” of delivering very successful bars that were “deeply embedded” in the hotel, and wanted to avoid patrons feeling like intruders.

So, they designed the bar under the Bourke Street portico, with two separate entrances, each with a distinct fit out. One for intimate pull-up-a-stool-at-the-bar drinks, the other for dimly-lit lounging with couches.

In doing this, the Hilton development set a benchmark, Mr Reece said.

“Not just because of its intact retention of the 1930s Equity Chambers, but due to its use of the main Bourke Street heritage address as the public hospitality face,” he added.

“City activation should always upstage private access.”

A gap in the market for heritage hotel conversions

Mr Anderson said the Hilton group loved the Equity Chambers site because of its central location and because of a gap in the market for hotels in heritage buildings.

“There are so many high-quality heritage buildings, but actually not that many really good hotels in these heritage buildings,” Mr Anderson said.

The site has a rich history as it was the home of Melbourne’s first synagogue back in 1844.

Equity Chambers was built for the Equity Trustees Company, established in 1888 by an Act of the Victorian Parliament to provide trustee and executor services, and later evolved into a financial services provider, according to Heritage Victoria documents.

In 1931, the legal chambers were set up by Sir Eugene Gorman, with the third floor housing a number of judges and barristers who have been prominent in Victoria’s legal history.

The building’s design is a mix of classic features and newer elements including two artworks by Melbourne artist David Lee Pereira Picture: Bates Smart/Peter Clarke

Bates Smart worked closely with Heritage Victoria to retain the building’s complicated design heritage.

“The existing building was finished in 1931, a combination of Art-Deco, Gothic-Revival and Neoclassical, which is a mouthful,” Mr Anderson said.

Aiming to create a harmonious relationship between old and new, on the tower they used a relatively newish material called glass reinforced concrete, or GRC, which is lighter than concrete and easier to mould, to create ‘deep veiling and curvature’ mimicking the original Bourke St design.

Heritage Victoria said the building was both architecturally, and historically important.

“[The Bourke Street frontage is] significant as an outstanding example of Exotic Revival architectural styles adopted in Victoria during the inter-war period,” a Heritage Victoria spokesperson said.

“It was one of the few large buildings constructed in Melbourne during the Great Depression, when the economy, as well as appearance, was a prime concern.

“Equity Chambers is historically significant as the oldest continuously occupied barristers’ chambers in Victoria since 1931.”

The new Hilton has several hospitality areas at the front that are open to the public and designed to attract people who aren’t guests staying at the venue. Picture: Bates Smart/Peter Clarke

Mr Anderson said some of his favourite details include the names of former employees and prominent barristers on original office doors, plus the ornamental post box and fire alarm.

He added the ornate plaster work; Corinthian detail on the columns; restored heritage lifts; timber panelling from original offices; and carved banisters and balustrades are also highlights that make the hotel unique.

Outside, architects wanted to open up an under-utilised area on Little Queen Street to make another entrance, a blend of old and new.

They were able to create new matching columns for the porte cochere sourcing Sydney sandstone from the same place it was found 90 years earlier for the Bourke Street portico.

This ‘secret’ laneway lobby entry dazzles with a golden screen made of bronzed metal and gold glass, and reflects one of two commissioned artworks by Melbourne artist David Lee Pereira in a nod to the city’s laneway culture.

Blending the old with the new to rebrand Australian cities

Heritage buildings have often in the past been used as art galleries, hospitality venues and become offices and homes.

The heritage-listed Herald and Weekly Times building on the corner of Flinders and Exhibition streets, housed George Calombaris’ Gazi and Press Club restaurants for many years. Part of the property was redeveloped into the 40-storey Ernst & Young office tower.

The new Hilton in Little Queen Street is set in a recently refurbished 1931 building that now has a laneway entrance. Picture: Bates Smart/Peter Clarke

Another heritage-listed property, a former house built in 1877, at 17 Casselden Place, is now a gin bar and distillery, Little Lon Distilling Co.

And soon, an 1840s pre-gold rush commercial building Jobs Warehouse on Bourke Street, derelict since 2012, will become an almost 1000-patron late-night restaurant and bar venue.

It remains to be seen what will become of heritage-listed Nicolas Building on the corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Lane, which is up for sale.

Mr Anderson said more developments that celebrate and restore Melbourne’s laneways, a part of the city’s fabric that came about in the 1980s, post-recession, will continue to set the city apart from others.

“We might want to think of our city as less of a central business district but more of a central entertainment district,” said Mr Anderson.

“This building [Hilton Little Queen Street] is one contributing to delivering that, but there needs to be more.”