The secret life of Melbourne’s boarding houses

By Dana Foenander, Melbourne Heritage Action

You’ve probably driven past them a million times and wondered what occurs behind the doors of Melbourne’s ghostly mansions. 

They are giant, and often dilapidated, heritage buildings that never seem to change over time and stand mysteriously in various inner city locations.

Well you may be surprised to know that many of these buildings are run as rooming houses, transient accommodation for Melbourne’s most vulnerable. These buildings provide accommodation for people who are either down-and-out or trying to get back on their feet to re-enter the community.

But with lack of government funding to maintain safety and security in these building as well as general structural maintenance and, of course, growing gentrification, boarding houses seem to be closing at an alarming rate.

Obviously, this is a huge social problem for Melbourne’s disadvantaged and homeless community, but what does this mean for the heritage buildings that seem to be the epicentre of inner-city boarding accommodation.

With St Kilda’s Gatwick Hotel being bought by Channel 9 earlier this year for the next season of The Block, the 1937 building will be a shell of its former self and will continue the trend of ludicrously expensive housing that threatens the future of surrounding heritage buildings, whilst completely changing the character of the area.

Last year, Fawkner Mansions on Punt Rd, built in 1910 and previously a nurse’s quarters for the Alfred Hospital, attracted attention for its closure due to lack of funding and dilapidated conditions that were so advanced that fixing it up seemed out of reach for its owner, who had been spending his own money up-keeping the building.

Now it sits empty with an uncertain future. In 2015, Nicholson St’s majestic Grantown House was forced to close its door to residents due to unsanitary conditions and continuing violence between boarders. The building has heritage overlay but sits unused and generally unkempt.

Boarding houses in Melbourne often occur in old heritage buildings due to their size.

The Charles Hotham Hotel, which currently serves at cheap hostel accommodation is an example of gentrification in the CBD. The Art Nouveau former hotel built in 1913 was sold back in 2012 and currently has a lease for hostel accommodation until 2018, but after that it’s future remains unknown and could possibly fall victim to yet another case of residential tower facadism.

Buildings like the Sir Charles Hotham constructed for other types of accommodation over the years and transitioned into rooming houses are often run-down, but also full of character and cheap. But lack of government funding and rapid gentrification mean that these buildings and their tenants are becoming more and more vulnerable and, as per the Gatwick Hotel, risk complete transformation or demolition if not protected.

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