In 1993, the cast and crew of a low-budget feature rolled into the Imperial Hotel Erskineville in Sydney, Australia. The structure, originally built in 1940 and conceived by architect Virgil D. Cizzio, stood as an example of art deco-meets-inter-war-functionalist style. Its existing character was finessed with some movie magic and plenty of glitter, and the filmmakers got to work shooting the opening and closing scenes of the film in the hotel’s Front Bar. They then packed up and left to continue shooting in Alice Springs, no one quite anticipating the hit that the shoestring-budget Australian film would become.
Today the Imperial’s restaurant, formerly known as The Ladies Lounge, is named Priscillas in that film’s honour — that film being, of course, the worldwide sensation The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The Imperial Hotel Erskineville has long been a fixture of Sydney’s LGBTQI community. Don’t let the name fool you; this isn’t a place to sleep. Rather, it’s a place to do anything but. This restaurant, event space, and drag bar is a three-floor cultural landmark lovingly referred to as a “palace of pleasure.” It has recently been renovated by Alexander & Co., a multidisciplinary design practice based in New South Wales. The project marks the relaunch of one of the country’s most historically significant safe havens.
The ground floor restaurant, Priscillas, is a 250-seat venue described by a press release from Alexander & Co. as “a lost palace” and “a cabaret dreamscape.” The stone tiles of the floor have been haphazardly replaced, offset by detailed timberwork, broken brickwork, hand-laid masonry arches, and bespoke tile patterns throughout. All of this is enhanced by the light and shadows created by skylights and hand-forged, steel-framed glass houses.
The colours throughout are vibrant, dancing between bright jewel tones and a palette of faded glamour. The rich blues, jades, and merlots of the furniture are offset by varying shades of rose on the ceiling and walls. It’s a colour scheme that pays homage to the bright world of drag attire.
The natural light from above is complemented by carefully curated fixtures: mismatched and repurposed lamp shades, brass wall sconces, fringed pendants, and broke-down chandeliers, the latter of which hang dramatically in the main entry.
A private dining area features a large paper sculpture and an open vantage point of the kitchen.
The main bar features plenty of artwork, namely a bespoke fresco ceiling mural that lends a cathedral-like feel to the space. The adjoining cocktail bar opens onto a glazed enclosure, which leads to an inner courtyard and beautiful winter garden.
Upstairs, a pizzeria and bar called Imperial UP is home to an outdoor golden pizza oven and bar, as well as an indoor cocktail bar, private dining room, and lounge. On the lowest level is a nightclub, and still in the works is Australia’s first same-sex marriage cathedral, scheduled to open on the rooftop sometime in 2019.
While the project feels immediately decorative, the design team shares via press release with V2com that the space looks to its robust building materials to infuse plenty of character: think brickwork, concrete, and steel. “Something in the metaphor of Priscillas restaurant is the ability for this rawness to never feel like a construction site, but instead a theatre of colour, a visual outrage.”
A key element of the project vision, of course, was respectfully acknowledging its LGBTQI custodians. “It is outrageous, inclusive, and fantastic, but not light,” the press release continues. “Amongst its array of colour and shape is the gravity of its legacy, the shadow of history cast upon its many surfaces. This is a place to celebrate and rediscover, but also a place with significant legacy, grit, sometimes even heaviness.”