June 24, 2021

Hotel Hell: A History of The Gatwick

From upmarket apartments, to a low budget boarding house, and back again: this is the story of The Gatwick Hotel.

The Gatwick Hotel, Melbourne
The Gatwick Hotel

The Gatwick was built in 1937.

The architect, Harry Raymond Johnson, was a well-known local figure, whose family had helped shape the urban landscape of Melbourne. His father, George Raymond, was an architect who had emigrated to Australia from England in 1862, settling originally in Queensland.

George came to Melbourne in 1867. The economy was booming, the city was being rebuilt in grand style.

His significant contributions include the design of the Collingwood and Fitzroy Town Halls, and work on the Royal Exhibition Building. He also designed a number of local theatres, including one of the city’s most notable: The Prince of Wales Opera House (sadly, long gone).

George’s son Harry would follow him into the trade, before the family relocated to Perth.

Richmond Town Hall
Richmond Town Hall

Harry would return to Melbourne in the early 1900s.

His own son, Harry Raymond, would also follow in his footsteps, and would open an architectural office in Elwood, in 1915. He would subsequently design a number of nearby houses and commercial buildings, and is perhaps best known for remodelling Richmond Town Hall, in the 1930s.

Known as Ray, he was a popular local figure, and was elected to the St Kilda council in 1931. He even had a short stint as mayor, from 1932-33.

Among Ray Johnson’s many designs, was The Gatwick Hotel.

Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 1940s
Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 1940s

Situated on the main street of St Kilda, Fitzroy Street, The Gatwick was originally conceived as an upscale private hotel for single gentlemen.

Designed in the Spanish Mission style, popular at the time, the three storey building had a simple, but elegant, façade. The rooms were well appointed, with wall-to-wall carpets throughout, and their own telephone lines.

Bathrooms were among the shared facilities, along with a card room and lounge. Food could be delivered to the rooms, supplied by noted local chef Alex Julius. The rooms themselves had no kitchen facilities, and the building no dining area; residents often dined at the Prince of Wales Hotel, across the road.

Change would come with outbreak of World War II.

Prince of Wales Hotel, St Kilda, WWII era
Prince of Wales Hotel, circa WWII

In the aftermath of the US retreat from Southeast Asia, in 1942, Australia became a fall-back position for the American military; more than a million US troops would be stationed in Australia, before the war ended.

Thousands of these were assigned to Melbourne. Some stayed at the local military barracks, some in private accommodation, and some in a temporary tent city, erected in the open spaces of Royal Park.

The Gatwick was acquired by the State Government, and used to billet US officers from Section Four headquarters, in Port Melbourne. More were placed at the Prince of Wales, which was also used as an officer’s club.

As the war wound down, the foreign troops departed again, and the Gatwick returned to public use. In 1944, it was purchased by Louis Whyte, a wealthy land speculator from Geelong.

Louis Australia Whyte, in golf attire
Louis Australia Whyte, in golf attire

Like Ray Johnson, Whyte was from a notable local family.

His father, Louis Australia Whyte, had been a star amateur athlete. In the 1880s, Whyte senior twice won the Intercolonial Lawn Tennis Championships, one of the precursors to the Australian Open. He was also a successful golfer, winning the Victorian Golf Cup in 1894, and the Australian Amateur Championships, in 1900.

Whyte married Minna Ibbotson, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and they lived on the Ibbotson’s expansive Geelong estate, known as ‘The Heights’. But despite his success, Whyte was an unhappy man.

In retirement, he suffered from depression, insomnia, and other mental health conditions. He eventually took his own life, shooting himself with a pistol, in April 1911.

The Heights, a heritage listed property in Geelong
‘The Heights’

‘The Heights’, and a modest estate, went to Minna.

She would in turn leave it to her son, Louis Melville Whyte, who would use the family holdings as the basis to develop a sizeable real estate portfolio. After he acquired The Gatwick in 1944, Whyte refurbished and relaunched it, hoping to return it to its previous, fashionable state.

An ad from 1946 spruiked the new management of the property.

Ad for The Gatwick Hotel, 1946
Ad for The Gatwick Hotel, 1946

Whyte would own The Gatwick for thirty years.

He sold it in 1977 to Ronald and Vittoria Carbone. The Carbone’s intended to run it as a rooming house, although their target market was more modest than the property’s previous owners.

The Gatwick had slowly declined over the preceding decades, which reflected the neighbourhood it was in. St Kilda in the 1970s was a very different place to the pre-war era.

US and Australian soldiers get a drink at the MCG, during WWII
US and Australian soldiers get a drink at the MCG, during WWII

During World War II, the high number of soldiers stationed in the area had provided a cavalier atmosphere. The servicemen wanted after-hours entertainment, and a proliferation of late-night bars and dance halls had opened to accommodate them.

St Kilda acquired a reputation as a place to go out and have a good time, which it retained after the war ended.

The suburb was also high density, in comparison to the rest of Melbourne, featuring many sizable apartment buildings. Accommodation was relatively cheap, which attracted the working class, along with artists and immigrants.

Poster for upcoming gigs at the Crystal Ballroom, 1980
Upcoming gigs at the Crystal Ballroom, 1980

The shifting demographics continued into the 1970s and 80s.

St Kilda became the centre of a thriving music scene, centred around the ‘Crystal Ballroom’ at the Seaview Hotel. Punk and alternative bands played there, and other local venues, and many of the musicians began to live in the area.

This was a lively time, with a dark edge. Heroin, and other drug use, proliferated, several brothels opened, and prostitutes became a regular sight on street corners.

A room at The Gatwick
A room at The Gatwick

In the middle of this, The Gatwick offered rooms for $20 a week, cheap even by the standards of the suburb. Bathrooms were still shared, but each room came with its own wash basin. Linen and blankets were provided.

The new owners were known to accept anyone who could afford the tariff. People who often had a difficult time finding a place to live – ex convicts, Indigenous Australians, recipients of government benefits – could get a room at The Gatwick.

Everyone was welcome.

Rose Banks and Yvette Kelly: Gat wick co-owners
Rose Banks and Yvette Kelly: Gatwick co-owners

Ronald Carbone died in 1983.

His twin daughters, Rose and Yvette, now helped their mother run the property. It continued much as before: cheap, basic accommodation, often home to people below the poverty line.

Vittoria Carbone, known by some as ‘Queen Vicky’, was a compassionate person, who believed ‘everyone deserves to be treated with respect.’ Rose said she ran the place, ‘more like a home than a hotel.’

Vittoria died in 1998, leaving The Gatwick to her daughters.

The Gatwick exterior, final years
The Gatwick exterior, final years

As the years passed, the hotel acquired a seedier reputation.

It was crowded, people often sharing a room to stretch their resources. Homeless people took shelter in the lobby. Prostitutes used the rooms for their clients. A crowd could usually be found hanging around outside the entrance, sharing a cask of wine or a joint.

‘I walk inside the front door. The first thing I notice is a musty, dank smell: imagine your grandparents’ house if nobody cleaned or opened a window for six months.

 

I feel the sticky, dirty carpet underfoot.

 

In the lobby, a man wearing make-up, football shorts, a poncho and long lady fingernails on one hand says hello to me. He also has two plastic bags tied to his left arm.

 

“I’m here gathering information for the government,” he explains.’

 

– Visiting journalist Luke Williams, ‘Sydney Morning Herald’

Locals began to refer to the place as ‘Hotel Hell’, or ‘The House of Horrors’.

Corridor inside The Gatwick
Corridor inside The Gatwick
Shared bathroom at The Gatwick
Shared bathroom

Alongside the permanent residents who had nowhere else to go, backpackers and adventurous tourists marked a night at The Gatwick as something to check off their bucket list.

It was cheap and close to the beach, and some temporary visitors embraced the atmosphere:

‘I love the joint. gets a bit rowdy inside on hot days due to no aircon … and they always put on a good feed around 8ish out the front in a van.

 

Highly recommend for backpackers! No shortage of goon bags getting thrown around the joint if that’s your thing! Make sure you wear thongs in the bathroom.’

 

– Cory, review on ‘Trip Advisor’

Other reviews mentioned all night parties, loud music, drugs of all kinds readily available for purchase.

In a documentary about the property, Rose Banks stated that The Gatwick’s reputation was exaggerated, and many of the problems were caused by outsiders, not permanent residents. She also admitted that managing the property could be very difficult.

Police attend The Gatwick
Police attend The Gatwick

In 2005, a Russian tenant, Simon Gurfinkel, was found dead in his room.

He had been beaten and then strangled, and left in the corridor. The night manager had found him there and, believing him drunk, had put him to bed.

In 2006, Arthur Karatasiosis was stabbed to death in the lobby by Michael Paul Smith. The two had gotten into a fight, and Smith had drawn a knife. He was later convicted of ‘defensive homicide’.

There were four additional murders in the last decade of The Gatwick’s public operation.

Many other, more minor offenses, were committed. In one year, 2012-13, the police made 74 arrests at the property. Theft was the most common crime reported.

There were also numerous drug overdoses. Ambulances attended on average, 5 times a week.

The Gatwick, boarded up after being sold
The Gatwick, boarded up after being sold

The pressure of running such a difficult venture finally told on Rose and Yvette.

Both in their 60s, they decided to sell The Gatwick in 2015. It was bought by TV network Channel 9 for $10 million, who intended to use it in their popular renovation show, ‘The Block’.

New long-term residents were barred. The existing permanent residents, a handful of whom had been at the property for 40 years, now had to find somewhere else to live.

One of these, Aunty Coco, was quoted in the press saying, ‘Where’s everyone going to go?’ The same story indicated that many of the evictees simply started living rough, on the surrounding streets.

The Gatwick was closed and boarded up in 2018.

The legacy of its time as a rooming house is complicated. Disliked by residents and businesses situated near it, the hotel undoubtedly provided an essential service for many vulnerable people.

The rear of The Gatwick, post renovation
The rear of The Gatwick, post renovation

‘The Block’ renovation took place, and the old hotel was converted into luxury apartments which were then sold off. Among the purchasers: Rose Banks and Yvette Kelly.

In some ways, The Gatwick has gone full circle.

I live in the building next door, and there are no longer loud, all night parties, or crowds of people hanging around out front. It is interesting how a place’s reputation can linger though.

When I moved in, I hired a removalist off Air Tasker. This was a middle aged bloke from the outer suburbs, originally from Jamaica, who had lived in Melbourne for twenty years.

Describing where I was moving to, I mentioned that my building was next door to The Gatwick.

‘The Gatwick?’ he said. ‘You better watch yourself, some bad characters in there.’

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