Perth's Treasury Is Reborn as a Slick Boutique
Perth's CBD undoes its top button as the COMO The Treasury hotel knocks the dust off of three heritage buildings and ushers in a new era of glitz, glamour and creativity. Story and photos by MONSICHA HOONSUWAN.
Published on Apr 4, 2016
I NUDGE MY COCKTAIL to the middle of Table Zero. There, now it's in the very geographic center of Perth. My drink sits at the crossroads of history, balanced on the crest of a new wave of culture and innovation that's about to wash over the Central Business District of Western Australia's capital city.
When I arrived, the tension between old and new hit me straightaway. I came to explore the COMO The Treasury hotel, a central piece of a project to revive the CBD, and the Singapore-based hospitality group's first Australian property. Based on the COMO brand's new builds, I was picturing something ultra-modern, but after 10 minutes, the driver pulled up to a façade of faded brick. Oh right, this is a refit of 1800s heritage buildings, once government offices.
Old Treasury's Victorian façade.
And it's a genteel understated beauty, a reflection of Perth's golden age. The CBD was once a thrumming city center. Men in suits and boater hats picked up newspapers on their way to work. Women in long dresses milled through the laneways, chitchatting while their children followed in tow. Music spilled out of jazz bars after work came to a close each day, as friends talked into the wee hours. But when iron ore was discovered in the 1960s, a mining boom attracted international investors who set up headquarters in the CBD. Many of the iconic structures, like the American Romanesque Moir's Chambers and the beloved Adelphi Hotel, were bulldozed to make way for offices. The Old Treasury complex, once one of Perth's most important sites—the group of three buildings had served variously as a cabinet office, post office, the land titles office and the treasury—survived but were abandoned, and time's heavy hand pulled the block to crumble. Families moved to the suburbs and the city became eerily quiet outside of work hours, and all but deserted on Sundays.
For the past 50 years, the 283-hectare area has been all work and no play, with creative types congregating in hipper 'burbs like gritty Northbridge to the north and bohemian Fremantle to the south. "The city doesn't have much to offer," a local friend had warned. "Even Perthians themselves complain." And as the mines run out of ore and the boom slowly dims, it is more important than ever to turn the page on a new chapter for the city.
The Postal Hall public arcade.
Enter developer Adrian Fini. Fini knew it was time for a fresh start. "The objective of this development was to restore the buildings back to their 1800s character and architecture," Fini says, "and in doing so reignite a level of pride within Perth." Fini grew up here, in a family of real estate developers, and became very passionate about art, urban design and city planning. "The majority of the community would have visited the buildings through their previous lives and uses," Fini says, "so the opportunity to open them to the community was a significant one." He proposed a restoration plan—at A$110 million, the most expensive among all bidders—to return public access to the Old Treasury. These three buildings would be completely restored and transformed into a contemporary multipurpose space, offering dining, shopping, nightlife and five-star accommodation. The top two floors would be luxury-hotel guest rooms, while at street level would be the hotel's lobby and a variety of restaurants, bars and independent retailers. Keeping offerings local would be a dominant concern, which explains the labels at Petition Wine Bar & Merchant, the produce at Post bistro, the stems at the florist and the beans roasted in the coffee bar. The basement would be converted into late-night hangout Halford bar and David Thompson's Thai restaurant Long Chim, as well as house a vegan-soap store, Fremantle's famous Honeycake outlet, a cupcake bakery, and a chocolate boutique. That's a lot to pack into three heritage buildings, but Fini's never been short on ambition. The Old Treasury complex, now renamed the State Buildings, would act as a showcase and a magnet for creative locals.
Torched ocean trout at Petition.
Fini tapped Perth-born, renowned architect Kerry Hill for the project. "It was daunting," says Simon Cundy, an architect with the firm, who took a leading role in the Old Treasury restoration. "I got lost among the rooms. We didn't even know where the front door was."
Layers of paint were scraped off. The terracotta roofs were replaced with 60,000 blue slates from a quarry in northern Wales. "'Terracotta' was being nice," Cundy says. "They were just ugly red tiles." But challenges and all, the team managed to preserve 95 percent of the original structure. The balconies off the Title's building rooms went from rusted cages to regal lookouts. The Shambhala spa was built in what was once a government security vault, so the treatment rooms are all quiet and dark thanks to the thick metal doors. A minute's walk from the spa is the very spot a casuarina tree was felled to commemorate the founding of the colonial city. As historic significance and modern polish elegantly mixed, the only missing piece was which hotel could complete the puzzle. When Fini met COMO founder Christina Ong, they both agreed it was the perfect match.
Architect Simon Cundy. Andrew Smith.
While Fini and Kerry Hill have mastered the restoration, COMO knows all about highend hospitality. My room is peaceful, with natural sunlight flooding in through wide oval dormer windows, and a bed so fluffy I want to live in it forever. The heated tile mosaic in the enormous bathroom feels like a Turkish bath. So why not go for a complete bathing ritual? I enlisted the help of Rubie Jucutan at COMO Shambhala, who has treated an A-list roster (Gwyneth Paltrow! Miranda Kerr!), to gently rub my skin silky during a divine body scrub then give me a jet-lag-relieving massage. It was inside-and-out pampering, with healthy lunches like pumpkin-chickpea curry served with quinoa at Post and dinner at the Miesian-glass-box rooftop restaurant Wildflower. Here, executive chef Jed Gerrard takes full advantage of the local climate and agricultural abundance, creating contemporary European dishes that revolve around the indigenous Noongar's calendar of six seasons, which is dictated by life cycles of plants and animals instead of dates.
The winning marriage between the COMO brand and refurbished heritage site is already drumming up excitement. "This is game-changing for the city," says Georgia Moore, PR manager of the State Buildings. "Now people can see the culture of Perth that's emerging, the creativity that's exploding."
Guest rooms glow in natural light.
She's not being hyperbolic. I see it happening all around me. It's Sunday, and the streets are humming once again. Kids are running circles, all hopped up on artisanal cupcakes. A group of young Perthians samples handcrafted truffles. An elderly couple enters the Postal Hall, reminiscing about how they used to drop off their parcels here. But they don't seem sad that the post office is gone, in fact, they seem appreciative. Their heritage is still alive, perhaps more alive than ever.