For St Kilda locals, the Gatwick Private Hotel was part of the landscape for decades. Whether they loved or hated it, the hotel was an institution that housed those with nowhere else to go until its closure in 2017, when it was repurposed as the set of the television home renovation show The Block.

But for the last nine months before it closed, photojournalist Renaud Coulomb documented life inside the Gatwick. His photo series, Farewell to the Gatwick, is currently exhibiting just around the corner from the old hotel at the Alliance Française.

The story of the Gatwick is a long one. Built in the 1930s as a luxury hotel, the property evolved over 90 years, slowly transitioning from five-star accommodations into a home for some of Melbourne’s least fortunate people. From the ’70s until its closure it housed around 100 people a night – many of whom couldn’t secure housing anywhere else. But now, following its $10 million sale to Channel Nine and subsequent renovation, the hotel is a block of five luxury apartments.

“For me, the Gatwick is an archetypal example of gentrification,” Coulomb tells Broadsheet. “You have a place that was for the most vulnerable people in a fast-gentrifying neighbourhood and this place – this property – is actually bought by a TV channel for a TV show. It sounds like fiction almost.”

Coulomb’s intimate portraits of the Gatwick residents tell a very different story to the one many of us have heard in the media. Dubbed “Hotel Hell” in a 2015 SBS documentary, most coverage of the Gatwick’s closure focused on drug and alcohol abuse, stories of criminal activity and poor Trip Advisor reviews. Farewell to the Gatwick instead tells the story of the diverse community that called the hotel home.

Some of the Gatwick residents Coulomb photographed and interviewed had lived in the hotel for more than 20 years. His photographs don’t make it look pretty, but they do find an old-world beauty among the grand staircases, timeworn red carpets and enigmatic residents. Each portrait is accompanied by a short story about the subject.

“The idea was just to get their viewpoint on the Gatwick, and the interesting thing is that everybody was saying that it is a place where nobody judges you,” says Coulomb, who describes the Gatwick as a second family for people who were not accepted by their own families or by society at large.

“LGBT minorities, for instance, were overrepresented in the Gatwick population and they did feel well-accepted in the Gatwick, while it could not be the case in the rest of society,” he says.

But the real stars of the exhibition are sisters and former co-owners Rose Banks and Yvette Kelly, who began working at the Gatwick in their mid-teens and ran the hotel into their sixties, until it was sold to Channel Nine.

“The Gatwick was an institution of course, but [the sisters] were institutions themselves. It is still the case,” says Coulomb. “If you walk around St Kilda with them, people will come to say hi and thank you because they had been sheltered by the sisters for a few days or a few years.”

Holding the hotel together was no easy task, with over 100 people a night sharing facilities and, at times, sharing rooms. The sisters managed tensions by organising guests according to their needs – housing long-term residents and quiet guests on the top level, and giving rowdier guests rooms on the bottom two floors.

During the closing of the Gatwick, St Kilda Community Housing – a non-government-funded not-for-profit working to house low-income and homeless St Kilda residents – helped secure housing for roughly 50 residents with the help of the sisters. A handful of the remaining residents managed to find new homes independently, but many returned to the streets.

Coulomb is currently documenting the pathways of past residents for a project that will be finished early next year. He says the sisters are enjoying their retirement and looking after their grandchildren.

“They were working very hard until the end. I remember asking, ‘Why are you painting vacant rooms and fixing stuff?’ Rose told me, ‘It's like moving chairs on the Titanic. But I want the Gatwick to leave in the proper way’.”

Farewell to the Gatwick runs until June 13 at the Alliance Française, 51 Grey St, St Kilda.

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