What Happened To The Espy?

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by Alan West – www.friendsofstkilda.com.au

The Espy opened for trading in 1878 and has proudly sat on that elevated bayside corner, a St Kilda landmark, a cultural icon ever since. She has gone through many changes over the last 140 years. The most dramatic being a whole complete front ground floor addition of the big bay window, front stairs and bar to the side.

In the mid-1980s, songwriter Mike Brady’s consortium bought the block, bounded by the Esplanade, Pollington and Victoria Streets, wanting to develop an 18-storey tower behind the pub. As a result of a huge community outcry and the hard-fought campaign by Save St Kilda, steered by Kate Shaw, the council imposed a six-storey height limit on the site. This knocked Mike’s dream on the head. Next in line, Carlton and United Breweries purchased the site in 1995 from the Brady Bunch. 

Espy

Espy – photo by Kerri Pacholli – pationpics.com

On August 1997, the Becton Corporation purchased the whole block, with big plans for redevelopment including a 38-storey apartment tower. From 1997 to 2003 the Espy was in mortal danger of being demolished by Becton. The long drawn out battle with the Esplanade Alliance eventually saw a local victory and a special planning amendment passed by CoPP, that enshrined a ‘cultural use’ for the Espy and safety from the bulldozers. The 38-storey monstrosity was reduced to the current 10 story development, that awkwardly sits behind the Espy as we see it today.

In 2001 Becton put out to tender the lease for just the Espy Hotel. The Lewis/Comey/Esplanade Alliance bid was pipped by former nightclub operators Paul Adamo and Vince Sofo (previous Chevron nightclub owners). They attempted to sell the lease in early 2014, but did not receive a suitable offer. They closed the hotel suddenly on Sunday 17 May 2015 and it has remained closed since, with the Gershwin Room used occasionally for special gigs. Renovations commenced, progressing extremely slowly until coming to a complete halt.

Around mid-2017 the Espy lease was sold yet again, to (privately owned) Melbourne based hospitality group Sand Hill Road, who have extensive experience operating hotels since 2000. This time the Espy’s fortunes have changed hopefully for the better, with a new lease of life. Sand Hill Road have kept the plans close to their chest, but include building a large beer garden with lots of glass near the entrance. A circular stage in the front bar near the stairs leading to the first floor, and a host of other rumoured changes.

I visited the premises a couple of months ago. Except for the Gershwin Room, the rest of the place was totally gutted, ready for renovation. Thankfully the inane, half-completed remodelling of the front bar ceiling started by the previous owners, is to be removed. The bay window had the top third obstructed by the construction to support the planned 1st-floor terrace. It will be removed by the current operators and the front bar brought back to original ceiling height. I have confidence the current group will make good for the Espy and she has been saved just in the nick of time. That 1st-floor terrace design was totally insensitive. The new works are due to be completed on schedule, and a planned re-opening well before Xmas 2018 is on the cards.

The old saying about the Espy was that in the last 3 decades or so, the faces changed but the clothes remained the same. The old days of most patrons wearing black because they could extend clothes washing times has passed. The Espy, having gone through the old Jazz, Swing, Pub Rock and Roll eras, now looks like now coming out on the gentrified side.

Hopefully, there will be enough of the old girl’s spirit left that we can go in and order a drink. Stare out the bay window, get all nostalgic with a lump in our throat. Wash it down with a bevie and realise it is now time for us baby boomers to pass her on, like she was passed on to us by the prior crew of Espy characters.

Long may she stand, and I’ll be one of the first to hit the bar and raise a toast……… to the Espy!

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