Cable trams, Rolls Royces and a luxury hotel

Cable trams, Rolls Royces and a luxury hotel
Robin Grow

Heading south from Southbank along St Kilda Rd takes you past the Royce Hotel, a distinctive boutique hotel – and one with a fascinating history.

By the 1920s, Melbourne had an extensive (perhaps the world’s largest?) cable tram network. Its operation required massive engine-houses for storing the cable cars and the cables, located in prominent places in inner suburbs such as Fitzroy, South Melbourne, and South Yarra.

When the cable tram network was replaced with an electrified system in the 1920s, the engine houses became redundant. Some were converted for other purposes, including a showroom for luxury cars in St Kilda Rd.

The client was Charles Kellow (one of Australia’s first motorists) and the architect was Harry Norris.

He was one of Melbourne’s most prominent Art Deco/Moderne designers but, for this conversion, he had a flirtation with the Spanish Mission style, which he had seen in California – a glamourous style, often seen in the houses of Hollywood stars.

He used the style to great effect on the conversion in St Kilda Rd, where the remodelling included a series of deeply recessed windows divided by spiral columns and surmounted by a richly ornamental frieze.

One prominent (and high-quality) feature was the use of copper and bronze in the showroom window surrounds and the doors, and much of the building was faced with glazed terracotta, produced by the local firm of Wunderlich and soon to be seen on numerous buildings throughout Melbourne.

The interior was highly elaborate with walls finished to imitate Italian marble and decorated with wall scrolls and large urns, while the curved ceiling was decorated with gold paint and multi-coloured plaster cornices.

Giant chandeliers illuminated the new cars and the opulent showrooms reflected the elite standing of the Rolls Royce marque.

After World War Two the building housed a number of government departments but by 1997 was vacant and becoming derelict. The owner decided to convert it to a hotel and it opened as the appropriately named Royce Hotel in 2000.

The character of the original showrooms was incorporated in the new design, with the original main showroom serving as the main entrance, lobby and function room space. The conversion included the addition of a basement car park, 71 hotel rooms and suites, and added restaurants and bars.

Since then, it has undergone further upgrading, including at present. It remains a wonderful example of the combination of architecture and the development of motoring in Victoria •

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