Good and old – the hotel that dares to be different

The Melbourne Age, May 6 1995

The future is not what it used to be. Fifty years ago, people could imagine a world that simply became better and better in every way. It was progress. It was bound to happen. Of course, it didn’t. This is true not only on the grand scale of poverty and pollution and the commercialisation of everything, but also in the details of life – the leather coat that turns out to be plastic, the fresh food that turns out to be chemical, the national sport that becomes subject to international avarice.

It is an interesting reflection of this reversal of progress that one of the best-loved, best-run, best-used and generally best hotels in Melbourne happens to contradict just about everything that modern hotels stand for. The Tilba, on Toorak Road, has no air-conditioning and no licence to sell alcohol. The rooms have no trouser presses, no fridges full of vodka and peanuts at prices to make your eyes water, no in-house video with X-rated option automatically billed to your account. Some of them have no showers.

None of them has a spy hole in the door or a safety chain or any of those little cards that you find on the back of your room door in American hotels – the ones that give you discreet warnings about your personal safety and leave you nothing very much that you can do about it except never to open the door. The Tilba has no grown men dressed up like tin soldiers trying to grovel their way into your pocket. There is no muzak – anywhere. Especially not in the lifts. In fact, there are no lifts. There are no gigantic plate-glass doors that suddenly snap open if you accidentally stray too close to them. There’s no suit at a piano playing that song from Casablanca in the lobby and no pine-scented air-freshener that smells like sheep wee in the wardrobe.

The whole place is still living somewhere in a bygone age, before hotels succumbed to the dictatorship of the bland. It is a big old house with 17 rooms and each one of them is different: some grandiose, some cosy; one with a converted loft; another a converted stable; some with baths, some with showers. Every bed has its story – the early Australian four-poster, the walnut-and-mahogany monster that once lived in a Queensland cattle station, the French one, the English one, the American one.

Most of the Tilba is 19th century – the dark wooden staircase that curls its way around the lobby walls, the stained glass in the restaurant windows, the prints of butterflies on the sitting-room walls, the wooden bird cage, the old colonial ceiling fans slapping the air on the hot days. The waitress at breakfast wears a 19th-century uniform. Even one of the guests at breakfast was 19th century – an upstanding old chap with a blue blazer and a white toothbrush moustache, probably a late 1880s model, judging by his military bearing. He seemed quite at home with his marmalade and toast on china from the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent.

This is not antiquity for its own sake. The house belongs to the era which it reflects. It was built for the turn of the century as a grand country residence for one Felix O’Connor. Although it first became a hotel in 1920, when it is said to have been rather grand, the building was occupied during the war by Ladies for the Armed Services and lost its way thereafter, falling on hard times until its present owners renovated it in 1985. They added plumbing and heating and all kinds of luxurious touches, but they deliberately avoided the air-conditioned nightmare of the modern hotel, so that the place has the mood of an extraordinarily comfortable private house.

The result is that, instead of feeling lonely and paranoid – as anyone could be forgiven for feeling in one of those plate-glass prisons that now crowd our city centres – you feel relaxed and civilised. The proof is in the popularity. The Tilba has never advertised anywhere and yet it is consistently full – with businessmen, tourists and visiting politicians and writers and musicians and singers and honey-mooners and a whole cast of other refugees from modernity.

Tatler magazine nominated it one of the 50 best hotels in the world. The only thing is that it is so rare and, furthermore, it will remain that way unless somehow we can persuade the entrepreneurs of this world that the future is a thing of the past.

The Tilba Hotel, 30 Toorak Road West, South Yarra, Melbourne 3141. Tel: 03 867 8894. Fax: 867 6567, rooms with breakfast from $128 (small) to $178 (grand).