Notorious and often nefarious, The Gatwick Hotel in St Kilda was a very different place before The Block moved in.
Known as the ‘house of horrors’, the hotel was a base for some of Melbourne’s most downtrodden for many years, and drugs and alcohol were rife.
But before the building started to crumble – as well as the admirable philanthropic concept behind it – the Gatwick Hotel’s primary function was to offer accommodation to those living on the periphery of society and on the streets.
The saints of St Kilda
The owners of the Gatwick Hotel, twin sisters Yvette Kelly and Rose Banks, had been working on making the hotel a safe haven for all-comers since their teens.
However, after years of struggling to manage some of the hotel’s more challenging visitors – as well as the building’s maintenance and upkeep – they put the decrepit building on the market in December 2015 for around $15 million.
Channel Nine paid around $10 million for the rundown block.
The sisters never condoned the dodgy antics going on behind closed doors and they admitted in the 2015 SBS documentary The Saints of St Kilda that the Gatwick could be a nightmare when people skipped paying rent and spent their welfare payments on gambling or drugs instead.
Although the hotel’s drop-in culture was widely known, there were also several long-term residents living in the Gatwick, many of whom were there for 15-20 years. One couple originally from Poland lived there for 30.
So where are these long-term residents now, and how did they feel about having to move?
St Kilda Community Housing (SCH) was tasked with leading and coordinating the relocation of the Gatwick Hotel residents once the announcement had been made that the property was to be sold.
“SCH has had a long working history with the owners of the Gatwick Hotel and are experienced in rooming house management and relocating residents when rooming houses are closed,” says Joanne Holl, a senior manager at SCH.
“For those Gatwick residents that consented and wanted assistance to find alternative accommodation, SCH – in partnership with local support services – assisted over 60 residents in finding new homes. The majority of these residents were relocated to appropriate long-term and affordable accommodation.
“Some residents were relocated to public housing, to SCH rooming houses, other community housing accommodation and private rentals.”
The Block’s executive producer Julian Cress said the renovations would not begin until every Gatwick resident had found new accommodation, and thanks to the efforts of St Kilda Community Housing, all the residents who agreed to move are now settled in new homes.
Word on the street
Back in its heyday Fitzroy Street was a bustling strip, buzzing with lively cafes and busy restaurants. It was the main thoroughfare down to the seafront and popular venues such as the Palais Theatre and The Espy.
The Gatwick, with its historic architecture, high ceilings and grand sweeping staircase, was purpose-built 80 years ago as a swanky hotel.
Kelly and Banks’ mother, Maltese-born Vittoria Carbone, known locally as ‘Queen Vicky’, bought the hotel in the 1950s and turned it into a long-term boarding house for Melbourne’s disadvantaged. The rest is history.
There’s no doubt the Gatwick’s deterioration contributed to Fitzroy Street’s waning popularity as a destination. Although the *owner of an Italian restaurant on Fitzroy Street, says the strip’s decline can’t all be put down to that.
“I’ve been here 47 years, so I’ve seen a lot of change,” he says. “The tram track renewal in 2017 put a stranglehold on the street, and most of the available parking on the strip isn’t properly signposted, so a lot of people don’t know they can easily park here.
“Add to this rising rents and other key establishments closing down, and it all has a knock-on effect. For a place to flourish there needs to be a number of places doing well and attracting patrons.”
He says it’s changing for the better, though.
“During the week it’s still pretty quiet but things are picking up at the weekends now – people are trickling back.”
One local business that’s definitely seen a change for the better since the Gatwick Hotel closed down is a convenience store on the strip, which had been a sitting duck for shoplifting and verbal abuse.
“We’re very happy about the change as we had people coming over from the Gatwick at all hours,” says a *member of staff. “Sometimes they stole and were abusive.
“The street feels much safer now. Some of the same people who visited the hotel still hang around but not as much as before.”
The Gatwick Hotel shut its doors for the last time in July last year, and the building was boarded up in order to prevent vandalism and squatters.
Since then, The Block has aired and shown the interior of the building totally transformed. The exterior is currently undergoing a paint job.