It’s an understatement to say the Premier Mill Hotel in Katanning has reset the bar for small-town hotels. This place – all plush white linen, smart-wired access and elegant furniture – would be a standout in the city. Here in regional Western Australia, 300 kilometres from Perth in the heart of wheat and sheep country, the 22-room boutique hotel hewn from a crumbling flour mill is as impressive as it is improbable.
No boxy rooms with shared bathrooms down the hall here. No whiff of beer and smoke from the bar below. No hideous bedspreads. The Premier Mill Hotel is a bespoke offering: stylish lodgings and a soulful basement wine bar inhabiting a carefully reimagined historic building, the 19th century Premier Roller Flour Mill.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Nigel Oakey, CEO of Dome Group and the visionary behind the ambitious project. He’s smiling when he says it, because he knows he nailed it. But it took a lot of tenacity, patience, money and engineering nous (the brickwork was so badly waterlogged you could put your hand through it) to achieve the dual goals at play: save one of the state’s most important industrial buildings, and create a classy accommodation experience in a town not known for its tourism offering.
For Oakey, it felt like a natural progression, an extension of Dome’s remit to provide a place of welcome and comfort. Having converted 19 heritage buildings in Western Australia into cafes, taking on the mill made sense.
“We’re place-makers and storytellers,” says the affable entrepreneur, who has become a champion of the mill and the “phenomenal” stories that come with it. Those stories were central to the restoration project, deftly achieved by a team of architects, builders and stylists led by architect Michael Patroni of Fremantle’s Space Agency (the firm is responsible for the look of Perth venues including Strange Company, Propeller and Petition Wine Bar).
Alongside the zippy glass lift, the king beds and the Bang & Olufsen speakers, the old brass boiler and timber-packing chute remain intact. Original raw timber silo walls grace four of the hotel rooms. A treadle sewing machine that once stitched flour bags is among the charming industrial showpieces in the shared spaces. A fossilised cat discovered in the wall of the building now has a permanent place in the bar.
There are nods to the entrepreneurial exploits of Frederick Piesse, the mill’s founder. Piesse dabbled in soft-drink production, hence the Cordial Bar’s name. Piesse also saw to it that Katanning had electric light before the capital, and in some of the hotel rooms (each is different), electrical insulators double as coat hooks and old conduit provides decorative folly. (Ironically, the hotel favours a low-lit mood. If you want to actually see anything in the black-tiled bathrooms, best keep your phone torch handy.)
Speaking of bathrooms, Aesop body products are standard in all rooms. That’s a feat: Aesop is pernickety about who it aligns with, and the application process is rigorous. The Premier Mill is one of just 11 hotels in Australia and New Zealand to make the grade. But exclusivity is not the agenda here.
“It’s essentially just old-fashioned inn keeping,” says Oakey, conceding more flair and sophistication than that suggests. Oakey seeks to create community in all that he touches, and this, the first of Dome Group’s hotel ventures (projects in Northam and Narrogin are to follow) is no exception.
The Dome cafe that graces the ground floor has become a gathering place for locals and visitors. Its exterior branding is unobtrusive, allowing the restored hotel to shine. But Oakey makes no apology for it being there, saying that it’s the success of the cafe franchise that makes more adventurous projects such as this possible. (Dome Group has also become Katanning’s second largest employer after the abattoir, Wammco).
Now that the hotel is open, Oakey’s focus is on activating the wider region. He has produced daytrip guides encouraging people to visit nearby attractions – the silo public art trail, the Stirling Range, the Rabbit-Proof Fence – and says the hotel is already enjoying repeat custom since it opened on 30 April: 127 years to the day since the mill opened for business.
“We see ourselves as a kind of Base Camp, with a responsibility to concierge guests to Dumbleyung, to Pingrup, and elsewhere,” he says. “This isn’t just a Katanning project, it’s very much a regional development project.”
And he walks the walk. “One weekend my son and I stayed at the hotel. We got up late, had breakfast at Dome, left for the Stirling Range at 11.30, climbed Bluff Knoll, and were back in the wine bar for dinner at 6.45.”
The Premier Mill Hotel, Corner Clive Street and Austral Terrace, Katanning – (08) 6500 3950. Tariffs start from $265.