When it opened in the 1920s, Curtin House in Melbourne’s CBD was home to a gentleman’s club, and later became the headquarters for the Communist Party, and even later an adult cinema. These days it’s known as a creative and culinary hub. Tim Peach bought the building in 2003 and it’s now home to restaurants, bars, design firms, fashion retailers, a bookstore and Melbourne’s first rooftop cinema.
It’s been more than a decade since the Rooftop Cinema & Bar began serving drinks and screening films in the sky. Now, after 11 seasons, it’s about to have its first makeover.
“Until now we’ve just been applying … not exactly Band-Aid solutions, but temporary fix-its,” says manager Grant Gould. He laughs while reminiscing about hauling kegs upstairs over the years, and setting up a makeshift bar-on-wheels cart to cope with busy periods.
“When we initially built the bar and cinema, we weren’t exactly winging it, but we were still learning our lessons on how to build a venue such as this,” says managing director Frunch Nazzari. “At the time, there weren’t really any other rooftop cinemas in Melbourne – that’s changed since.”
As attendance increased the bar turned into what Gould affectionately calls “the little bar that could”.
“Last year, we recognised that we are going to be in this for the long-haul, and for that we need a more functional set-up, to allow us to cater to patrons more efficiently,” Nazzari says.
The cinema is now closed but the bar will remain open until the end of April. Then the overhaul begins. Although the redesign mainly involves what Gould calls a “material renovation” – upgraded SmartGrass on the ground, handmade tiles to replace the wood behind the bar, new canvas deck chairs – Techne Architecture has been tapped to make a few significant aesthetic and functional changes.
One of the main priorities is to ensure the views of the city remain the venue’s hero. “It’s really refreshing to see people’s faces when they come up,” says Gould. “It’s not the bar they’re looking at – it’s that view.”
To safeguard that aspect the bar will be moved and replaced by a glass wall that opens up to views over Swanston Street. The bar itself will be shifted by 90-degrees to the northern wall – giving it around three extra metres of space – while a glass wall behind the bar will provide views over Lonsdale Street.
The kitchen is also getting an extension. “It’s the size of a shoebox at the moment,” Gould says.
Meanwhile a permanent bar will be added to the right of the cinema screen, which will replace the bar-cart that gets wheeled out whenever it’s busy.
While the identity of the Rooftop Cinema & Bar will stay the same, Nazzari and Gould want the refurbishment to pay homage to the Art Deco drive-in cinemas of the 1950s. Neon signs and curved edges in certain architectural features – such as the bar – will be part of this vision.
One of the major changes to the venue involves weather protection. For the past decade cinema and bar patrons have been at the mercy of the elements and part of Techne’s design includes a series of rounded, metallic awnings that will cover about 40 percent of the space.
“We used to put out market umbrellas when it was raining,” says Gould. “That wasn’t exactly the best solution.”
“One of the things we often laugh about is when you see a rooftop venue that’s added a roof to their venue,” says Nazzari. “We didn’t want to do that here – we felt it would kind of defeat the purpose. What we’re trying to do is build a structure that provides comfort, but that also allows us to take full advantage of beautiful weather.”
So when Melbourne’s skies play nice, the awnings can be retracted. At night, the outside edges of the awnings will light up (with a glowing strip of white neon) creating what Gould describes as “haloes” above Curtin House, which will be visible from the street.
“There’s never really a good time to plan a renovation,” says Nazzari. “Especially in hospitality.”
“The building is [almost] a hundred years old,” adds Gould. “Which comes with its own challenges. But now that we’ve been open for more than 10 years, we kind of know the space better than anyone else.”
Rooftop Cinema (252 Swanston Street Melbourne) will be closed for renovation from ANZAC Day Eve (Monday April 24, 2017) with plans to re-open in time for summer.