“I’m really into unloved buildings in unloved neighborhoods,” says hotelier Loh Lik Peng. “It might be an unusual strategy for hotels and restaurants, but I like being in areas with an adventurous edge and local flavor.”
Unusual or not, “it’s a strategy that’s served him well: his Unlisted Collection portfolio spans Singapore, London, Shanghai, and now Sydney, with properties occupying a neglected red-light district home, former army headquarters, and an erstwhile town hall, among other structures with unexpected provenances. For his first foray into Sydney, he transformed two historic but derelict edifices in the Chippendale district—the 19th century Carlton & United Breweries administration building and the 1930s Country Clare pub—into the slick new Old Clare Hotel.
When Peng first fell in love with the heritage buildings in 2011, Chippendale was a run-down inner-city neighborhood that Sydneysiders preferred to pass through quickly, if at all; by the time the hotel opened this fall, the area was teeming with avant-garde art galleries and a clutch of top restaurants. Peng might just be the hotel industry’s Midas, turning every project he touches to real-estate gold.
“My vision was not to over-restore it, but to maintain the grittiness and the industrial, urban feeling of the building while respecting its history,” Peng says. And so he set Tim Greer, design director of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, to work. “It was a pretty unspecific brief; he said to make something that Sydney doesn’t have,” Greer recalls. “We spent quite a bit of time undressing the structure we inherited—it’s as much about rebuilding as creating.” The result is a protean space, raw and rugged, but also sublimely sophisticated.
The 62 rooms are clad in timber and steel, an accessorized with custom-made desk lamps by U.K.’s Rag and Bone Man that were fashioned from chunks of machinery. Some rooms are duplexes, some have antique bars salvaged from the brewery, and all come with upholstered vintage chairs collected by Peng; there may be seven categories, but no two rooms are exactly alike. The pièce de résistence is the C.U.B. suite, which occupies the former boardroom—porcelain urinals from the executive men’s restroom have even been restored.
The laneway between the two buildings was transformed into the hotel’s lobby: “There’s actually a third building, to stitch the two buildings together with curtain wall glazing,” Greer says. “To the one side we literally cut a slice out of the building—from top to bottom, through brickwork and timber and steel, and as you look out from the stairs you see the backside of the original façade.”
The buzziest new restaurant openings in Sydney these days all seem to share the same postal code, so it’s no surprised that Old Clare adds three high-profile spots to boost Chippendale’s burgeoning culinary cred even further. Chef Clayton Weels—formerly of Momofuku Seiobo in Pyrmont—is at the helm at Automata, whose moody ambience and industrial design came courtesy of Matt “Machine” Darwon (the centerpiece of the dining room is a Rag & Bone Man chandelier crafted out of a World War II aircraft engine). On the opposite end of the spectrum is the light and airy Silvereye by chef Sam Miller, all blond oak and Scandinavian minimalism, likely inspired by his time as Rene Redzepi’s right-hand man at Copenhagen’s Noma. Kensignton Street Social, from prolific British chef Jason Atherton of London’s Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social, is scheduled to open in early 2016.
In the end, Greer and his team executed Peng’s vision, however unspecific, in a way that’s anointed the Old Clare as Sydney’s most novel hotel. “It’s not all sophisticated or all raw, but it moves between these two states,” Greer says. “It’s a building with mixed emotions—you have to really get it to want to stay here.”