The Prince Hotel has been a proud mainstay of St Kilda’s landscape since the mid 1800s when the property was a humble guest house boasting beautiful bayside views. After a decadent Art Deco rebuild in 1936, led by the prolific hotel architect Robert H McIntyre, The Prince Hotel became known as one of Melbourne’s grandest hotels – a mecca for locals and tourists, artists and musos, barflies and brides, and everyone in between, all inspired by the famous St Kilda spirit.
During World War II, The Prince played headquarters to the United States military forces, housing their officers’ club. The presence of strapping American soldiers attracted many curious Australian women to the area, eager to play and mingle with the foreigners. As a result of the increased frivolity, the area became the red light district of Melbourne, complimented by the fact that a red light literally sat atop the flagpole on the rooftop, acting as an unofficial beacon of St Kilda.
The Prince was the first venue in Melbourne to truly embrace the gay and lesbian scene, and was patronised by the gay community from its opening in 1937. In the 1970s The Prince held the drag show Pokeys, an offshoot of the Les Girls shows at the Ritz, every Sunday night. Over time the night became a meeting place for Melbourne’s gay population, and the gay scene gradually spread to nightclubs and hotels across the city.
The property underwent major alterations in the 1970s including the addition of a large function room on the first floor. This room, known as Prince Bandroom, became a Melbourne music hot spot and has maintained this legendary status to this day. Continuing its musical patronage, in 1980 Prince Bandroom became home to radio station 3PBS for six years, hosting jazz bands for live sessions and recordings – namely Mike Murphy and the Tony Gould Trio.
In 1996, the hotel’s freehold was sold to John and Frank Van Haandel, proprietors of Stokehouse Restaurant on St Kilda’s Jacka Boulevard. The Van Haandels appointed acclaimed architect Alan Powell to revitalise the complex and his reimagining of the hotel paid clever homage to the building’s art deco heritage. Robert McIntyre’s original streamlined exterior was largely recovered, including the elegant black tiled piers, which still feature prominently in the building today.
The new complex boasted a boutique hotel, basement cocktail bar and fine dining restaurant on the first floor. That restaurant, Circa, quickly became a Melbourne institution and launched the careers of some of the city’s best-known chefs including Andrew McConnell, Ben Shewry, Michael Lambie, Phillippa Sibley and David Moyle.
In 2018, Circa closed its doors for the last time to make way for a new offering, Prince Dining Room. In a bold move the venue has turned it back on fine dining, embracing a more relaxed menu and decor and in this way The Prince Hotel returns to play its original role as a meeting place for St Kilda natives, their friends, families and guests.
The Prince continues to be a jack of all trades, evolving and reincarnating itself to satisfy the ever changing hospitality landscape. A refined Art Deco hotel. Home to award-winning restaurants. An iconic bandroom. Melbourne’s longest standing LGBTQIA-friendly bar. A function/party/wedding space; great eats; the list goes on.
Consistency lies in The Prince Hotel’s commitment to the community. Sure, there have been awards won, but more importantly The Prince Hotel has been a steadfast place for the people. Today, with open doors and open arms, The Prince remains a cornerstone of St Kilda. A destination for all who appreciate a place of local character; we are The People’s Prince.
Sources: With thanks to the St Kilda Historical Society