Historic Hotel Guide

Vibe Savoy Hotel Melbourne is steeped in the history of this city. Read about Vibe’s dynamic history since the building was first opened in 1866 to the present day

A Brief History

The site occupied by Vibe Savoy Hotel Melbourne, on the corner of Spencer Street and Little Collins Street has been continuously occupied by a hotel building since 1866, when Charles Alexander built a three storey brick structure known as Alexander’s Family Hotel.

The Alexander family remained associated with the hotel for some thirty years until it changed hands in the early years of last century. In 1923, Alexander’s Family Hotel became the Sunshine Hotel, and so it remained until 1926 when a Mr James Richardson purchased the site and constructed a larger hotel, the Hotel Alexander.

James Richardson

James Richardson immigrated to Australia from Scotland in 1886. Born in 1865 in the Ayreshire Village of Hurlford, the youngest of eleven children, he began his life in Australia as a barman in Sydney. He enjoyed the work, so when he moved to Melbourne four years later, he found another barman’s job at the White Hart Hotel on the corner of Bourke Street and Spring Street (now part of the Windsor Hotel).

By 1892 he had enough money to buy the leasehold of Morell’s Hotel on the corner of Bourke and Russell Streets. Eventually he bought the free-hold and renamed it Richardson’s Hotel. Over the next few years, he purchased a number of hotels, financed by the same pattern of using the leasehold profits to buy the free-hold. By 1932 Richardson had the biggest hotel business in Australia. He owned and personally directed a chain of nine hotels, as well as several wine and spirit stores and a large import company.

The Hotel Alexander

The otherwise thrifty James, was unwilling to spend money liberally, but the Hotel Alexander was the only hotel he personally built, and he was determined that it should be the finest and most modern in the Commonwealth. By the early 1920’s, with years of hotel management now behind him, Richardson became convinced that what Melbourne needed was a new style of hotel that incorporated the innovations in amenities that were then being developed in American hotels. So he visited the United States, taking with him the architect Leslie M. Perrott, who was to design the new hotel. On his return, Richardson selected the site directly opposite the main interstate railway station in Spencer Street on which to construct his hotel. Construction began in 1926, and in two years the building was finished. On the night of 31 January 1928, the new Hotel Alexander was officially opened at a formal dinner by the Premier, Mr Hogan.

The site occupied by Vibe Savoy Hotel Melbourne, on the corner of Spencer Street and Little Collins Street has been continuously occupied by a hotel building since 1866, when Charles Alexander built a three storey brick structure known as Alexander’s Family Hotel.

The Alexander family remained associated with the hotel for some thirty years until it changed hands in the early years of last century. In 1923, Alexander’s Family Hotel became the Sunshine Hotel, and so it remained until 1926 when a Mr James Richardson purchased the site and constructed a larger hotel, the Hotel Alexander. The Herald correspondent commented the next day that he’d seen so many State Government ministers and members at a huge function that he “thought for a moment that the Premier had convened a hurried session of Parliament”. The construction alone cost £300,000 which the Premier observed was 50% more than the State was prepared to spend on the Spencer Street Bridge. Another £50,000 was spent on the furnishings and £10,000 on the carpet. They were exorbitant sums of money for the time.

Exterior Description

The Hotel Alexander was designed in the style of a large corner palazzo, similar to the 15th or 16th century Italian townhouse. The ground floor was originally separated from the rest of the building, as it was reserved for plant machinery and retail space. The first and second floors form a distinctive base with large rectangular windows, renaissance balustrade balconies and a base-relief decoration. This section is separated from the upper floors by a heavy cornice. The middle six floors are treated neutrally with repetitive smaller rectangular windows. The upper two floors are divided from the rest by another set of renaissance balconies, and a row of key-stone arched windows.
The hotel was constructed of reinforced concrete with steel framing, on a hundred foot square site, by the master builder T. Shillito. When it was completed, the external façade was painted with an ivory coloured cement and preservative paint. Despite the American influence on its design, the hotel was advertised as being entirely Australian made. On the rare occasion when Australian parts could not be obtained, the moulds were imported and manufacturing carried out in Australia.

Interior Description

The Hotel Alexander was also advertised as “the first strictly modern hotel” in Australia – it had an en-suite bathroom with hot and cold running water for each of its two hundred rooms. Hotel guests entered the Alexander from Spencer Street, up a flight of marble stairs. The white-pillared main lobby with its reception area and saloon bars was on the first floor. Above that was a mezzanine with a luxurious lounge and counters of polished walnut, over which the guests could purchase their cigars and magazines for the day.
The main dining room and grill room could each accommodate over two hundred people. The guest rooms, decorated with art-deco style plaster mouldings, were not large by any modern standards, but were generous for their time. The air temperature in the building was controlled by a ventilating plant in the basement.

Recent History

From 1954 to 1974, the Hotel Alexander was owned by Federal Hotels, who renamed it the Savoy Park Plaza Hotel. During this time, it became the centre of fashionable entertainment in Melbourne. It was the firm favourite of celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Many Melbournians have fond memories of jazz and cocktails at the Alexander.

In 1974, the State Government bought the hotel and converted it into a Police Cadet Training School. The original designs of the main lower floors were destroyed, but most of the guest rooms remained in good condition, with the decoration intact. In 1987 the building was sold again, this time to the Nauru Royalties Trust, which administers the Republic of Nauru’s interest’s world wide. The Trust spent almost $46 million restoring the Savoy Park Plaza to its former glory.

In 2004, the hotel was bought by Tobar Holdings Pty Limited and is now managed as Vibe Savoy Hotel Melbourne by Toga Hospitality. Undergoing several refurbishments, but still maintaining its prestigious art-deco feel, Vibe Savoy Hotel Melbourne is still one of the great landmarks in Melbourne.