A steely eye to the distant past

The refurbishment of an inner-city hotel pays tribute to its impressive history, writes Stephen Crafti. Mac's Hotel, in Franklin Street, Melbourne, has not only been renamed Captain Melville, but has also been transformed.

The refurbishment of an inner-city hotel pays tribute to its impressive history, writes Stephen Crafti.

Mac's Hotel, in Franklin Street, Melbourne, has not only been renamed Captain Melville, but has also been transformed.

Previously used as a nightclub, the heritage-listed bluestone facade concealed a black interior, with layers of black paint applied to walls and floors. As the oldest hotel in the city, dating to 1853, the interior had turned its back on its illustrious history.

"In the 1850s Melbourne would have been a tent city. This place would have been popular with those heading off to the goldfields," says architect Jeremy McLeod, director of Breathe Architecture.

McLeod worked closely with project architect Linda Valentic transforming the nightclub into a restaurant, cafe and bar.

The hotel was named after a roguish "gentleman" bushranger, Captain Melville.

The architects stripped away the building's more recent past, including the DJ's booth and light system that detracted from the original features. "We wanted to express the history of the hotel without resorting to obvious cliches," says Valentic.

While the original bluestone facade, with its timber balustrade, was intact, the front bar "swallowed" the area. Breathe reduced the footprint of the wraparound bar, creating an elegant steel form. Along with the usual bottle display are movable steel planter boxes over the bar.

"Bars can be quite static. This way, you can continually change the feel of the space," Valentic says. As considered in this design are the fine steel bar ledges and enclosed dining spaces framed by a steel mesh wall.

"The idea was to create nooks that feel private, but don't make you feel enclosed," she says.

Although the front bar area is impressive, it's the "mess-style" hall at the rear of the building that shows a masterful touch.

Nine-metre-long trestle-style tables, designed by Valentic, sit under a "tent-like" structure made of steel.

Like the many tents that would have surrounded the pub in the 1850s, each steel structure is slightly different, some including timber screens, while all are open to the sky. But these steel forms

are fully enclosed by a steel and glass roof.

The present is also finely interwoven with the past. The back wall, for example, separating the dining area from the kitchen, is made from steel shelves encased in steel mesh.

"We took our cue from the iconic Coolgardie safes, used to store food," McLeod says. A feature wall, made from hundreds of individually stacked timber blocks, also adds a rich layer to the building.

"If you think of how the miners worked in that time, everything was stacked up next to them, be it materials or equipment," she says.

The clients for this project were also mindful of the heritage building.

"We were keen to explore some of the building's history. But we certainly didn't want the hotel to feel as though you were entering a museum," says Alan Sam, one of three owners.

While the past has been restored where possible, a fresh and contemporary layer has also been added. A side ramp, designed for the disabled, has been handled, with the architects opening up the side laneway, unique to Melbourne.

"When you're working with heritage buildings of this calibre, there are always challenges. But it was important to create something that hopefully will put a contemporary perspective on the past," says Valentic.

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