Continental hotel’s rebirth merges art and architecture

Architecture and art come together in the rebirth of the Continental in bayside Sorrento.

The heritage-listed hotel, dating from 1875, will soon be considered one of the crown jewels of Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.

Left idle for a number of years, the hotel’s rebirth has been driven by a consortium of stakeholders, including Peter Edwards, who is a grandson of arts patrons Victor and Loti Smorgon, the Kanat Group, Trenerry Property, and leading chef Scott Pickett and publican Craig Shearer.

Given the Smorgons’ commitment to art, it’s not surprising that this development brought together Woods Bagot and Broached Commissions, headed by Lou Wise.

For lead architect Nik Karalis, CEO of Woods Bagot, who worked closely with the practice’s interior designer Sarah Alessi and their team, it’s a mammoth undertaking to get this heritage limestone pile (in consultation with heritage architect Bryce Raworth) to its world-class status.

With more cafes, bars and restaurants, together with 108 hotel guest suites (the latter available from August), forward bookings are already indicating that the Continental on the corner of Constitution Hill and Ocean Beach Road is attracting guests from Melbourne, interstate and overseas.

Originally founded by George Coppin, a British actor who successfully combined a theatre with the development, it was once the scene of great performances, including by Dame Nellie Melba.

And at one stage, it was the tallest limestone building in Victoria, allowing guests to watch the passing ferries from the slate-roofed turret in the holiday resort.

While the bustles and broad-brimmed hats have long gone, there’s a clever fusion of the past and present in the refashioned Continental.

Yes, there are black and white photos in the reception area from yesteryear, but in the same display there are more racy images taken by Rennie Ellis in the 1970s and ’80s.

Art by local luminaries such as Adam Goodrum, who collaborated with Woods Bagot and Broached Commissions, make its mark even before one reaches the reception counter (also containing a Goodrum work in collaboration with Arthur Seigneur).

Many of the works, including the tessellated white bricks framing the main point of arrival, reference the orchid, with this area once supporting a large number of orchid farms.

The fine dining venue, Audrey’s restaurant, pays homage to Scott Pickett’s grandmother – known for her love of gardening and vegetable growing.

So, many of the works displayed by artists such as Azuma Makoto, artistically combine fruit and flowers in the one image.

Photographer Erik Madigan Heck adds to this plush environment with his large and memorable work called The Milkmaid 1 and The Milkmaid 2, with the subject’s elaborately embroidered dress capturing a feel of a Vermeer painting.

For the interior, as with many others, Karalis took his design cues from a fusion of The Great Gatsby and Strictly Ballroom, including sumptuous rugs by Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby), an Australian costume designer who has been influential not only in film, but also in design.

A sense of the 1930s just felt right, given the Audrey is located in the Jazz Moderne 1930s wing, says Karalis, pointing out the tiered glass chandeliers and pastel velvet banquette seating and armchairs.

With other areas, such as the hotel rooms, Karalis and his team created a juxtaposition between heritage and contemporary.

The guest suites in the heritage section of the hotel are decked out in a contemporary manner, with sleek finishes.

In a new guest wing, including two penthouse-style apartments, the furnishings are more classic 1930s, with velvet armchairs and wicker-clad joinery.

For those wanting a complete escape from the city, there’s the Aurora wellness centre, while those looking to party the night away, will enjoy spending time in the Barlow lounge, hearing the live music for which the InterContinental was renowned.

For families, there’s the more casual offerings, including a beer garden that leads to a protected outdoor terrace on the main Sorrento strip.

We saw this place as a way to bring people together, a multi-generational experience rather than spending time away from younger family members, says Adam McDonald, general manager for the Continental Sorrento.

However, for most visiting for the first time, it’s a remarkable reimagining of one of the Peninsula’s great landmarks.

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