‘Hell hotel’ behind The Block
ON a Sunday morning outside Australia's infamous "hell hotel", a line of people was banging at the front door as Australia's most infamous rooming house was starting up another manic day.
It was late April and a freezing wind along St Kilda's Fitzroy street had the old, infirm and drug or drink affected huddled up to the front door waiting for the 10am opening when they could be let in to light up a joint over a cup of instant with those inside who could afford a night in one of the dilapidated but cleanish rooms.
The Gatwick Private Hotel was a place where you can be murdered in your room, robbed, bashed or offered a variety of drugs among the cockroaches, addicts and prison parolees who graced its doors.
The notorious "house of horrors" was also regarded as home for Melbourne's downtrodden, and the people out on the street felt even less fortunate for not being among those cashed up to have rooms inside for the princely sum of around $230 a week.
A woman who introduced herself as the "famous Aunty Coco of the Gatty" told news.com.au the only reason she was outside on that windy Autumn morning was that she had been barred "cos I got caught twice for stealing".
Conversely, on the Gatwick's doorstep Aunty Coco also claimed On she "tries to look after" the seedy hotel's more vulnerable residents "cos they're always getting picked on or robbed".
Finally, the doors of the Garry yawned open and the rabble poured inside across the ruby foyer where burning cannabis competed with the rising stink of the sticky red carpet.
A couple of residents were drinking from a wine cask in the doorway of a room. A man in a dress spun around in a spirited dance routine.
A resident wandered in with a girl to take upstairs, calling out to one of the twin sisters who owned the Gatwick that he loved her.
Since the 1950s, the Gatwick has offered discount accommodation to the less fortunate of society.
But last year it entered its final days after Channel 9's TV reality show, The Block, purchased the crumbling three-storey building with its squalid warren of dodgy plumbing and patched walls.
Owners, twin sisters Yvette Kelly and Rose Banks, have been working at the Gatwick since their mid-teens.
They put the building on the market in December 2015, after reportedly struggling with the cost of maintenance and upkeep.
The original asking price was around $15m, but Nine paid around $10m for the rundown block.
While Kelly and Banks compassionately offered rooms to all-comers they did not condone what went on behind closed doors.
They admitted in the 2015 SBS documentary The Saints of St Kilda that the Gatwick could be a nightmare when people skipped paying rent and spent their welfare payments on gambling or drugs.
The documentary described the Gatwick as "Hotel Hell … a festering flophouse and fleapit".
Yvette Kelly said the Gatwick did provide accommodation for people recently released from prison, because they would otherwise be "on the street" and more likely to reoffend.
The sisters told SBS that most of the fights or trouble at the Gatwick were caused by outsiders.
With its closure confirmed last year, Ms Banks insisted to news.com.au that the Gatwick's image as a place of murders, suicides or overdoses had been wrongly portrayed by the media.
However, just a few years earlier, in February 2014, a long-term resident was bashed and kicked to death in an upstairs corridor which police later said left the walls splattered in blood.
The same month, police shot dead in the street a man suspected of stabbing a woman at the Gatwick Hotel in a botched drug deal.
Craig Douglas, 31, was shot after brandishing a kitchen knife at police on Grey Street, just around the corner from the Gatwick.
On the same night, Douglas had allegedly stabbed a woman in the back and face three times at the Gatwick.
Douglas and three companions had checked into the Gatwick, but had a disagreement with a long term Gatwick resident, a woman with hearing and speech problems, and she was stabbed.
In 2006, 34-year-old Arthur Karatasiosis was repeatedly stabbed in the foyer of the hotel by Michael Paul Smith, also 34, who was guilty of defensive homicide.
A year earlier, a Russian-born man Simon Gurfinkel, 57, was found dead in his room with 12 fractured ribs, a crushed larynx and a lacerated ear.
A night manager had found him unconscious in the corridor and, believing he was drunk, had put him to bed.
The man charged with beating Gurfinkel to death was found not guilty in 2009.
The Herald Sun reported that death by drug overdose was more common and that a detective had reportedly investigated four overdoses at the Gatwick in 2014 and 2015.
It reported that prostitutes serviced clients on the premises which had clothes, rubbish and syringes in one bathroom, sagging ceilings, peeling walls and dirty toilets.
Yahoo 7 reported that between April 2012 and 2013, 74 crimes were committed at the Gatwick, including kidnapping, assault and aggravated burglary.
While it's fair to say the Gatwick's reviews on TripAdvisor were never glowing, on social media people shared a nostalgic affection for their stays at the hotel.
Historical TripAdvisor reviews described it as "a hotbed of violence and drugs" and suggested "you would be better off sleeping on a tram".
But on Facebook, others were more complimentary.
Cory Melbourne wrote: "Good crowd … I love the joint. gets a bit rowdy inside on hot days due to no aircon … and they always put on a good feed around 8ish out the front in a van.
"Highly recommend for backpackers! Plus no shortage of goon bags getting thrown around the joint if that's your thing! Make sure you wear thongs in the bathrooms also!"
Darren Paul Boag wrote: "Not bad for the money per week … 5 mins from the beach, 15 mins from the CBD.
"All night parties, rock and roll to heavy metal head banging stuff, no night the same.
"What an experience to tell the backpackers about, it beats being cold in a car they say!"
The Gatwick, with its grand sweeping staircase, high ceilings and historic architecture was purpose built 80 years ago as a modern and luxurious hotel.
By the beginning of October 1937, the Gatwick Hotel advertised it was 'only just built and ideally situated … luxury private residential hotel".
It boasted an Oriental chef, Alex Julius, "wall to wall carpets … large lounges and card room"
In the 1950s, Kelly and Banks' mother, Maltese-born Vittoria Carbone bought the hotel and turned it into a long-term accommodation boarding house for Melbourne's downtrodden.
"Queen Vicky" as she was known provided affordable shelter for up to 90 of the needy on any given day, giving the homeless, the drug-addicted and parolees and social outcasts rooms with private bathrooms.
Queen Vicky died in 1998, leaving her daughters to continue her legacy of compassion, but struggle with rising costs as the seaside sleazy suburb of St Kilda gentrified and appreciated.
When news.com.au visited last year, just weeks before the Gatwick finally closed its doors, the deliberate contraction of its resident numbers was visible on the nearby streets in camping and homeless itinerants.
"Where's everyone going to go when they shut the Gatty down?" Aunty Coco asked. "They're already locking the doors and not letting visitors in after 9pm."
The Gatty closed its doors in July last year, and boarded up the openings to prevent vandalism
or squatters as Nine's The Block prepared to take over.
Scaffolding went up in January, and workers moved on to the site to inspect its maze of plumbing and electrics before prepping the building for Block contestants and filming.
According to The Herald Sun, plans to convert the hotel into luxury apartments were submitted to the Port Phillip Council last year.
The show's executive producer Julian Cress said the renovations would not begin until every Gatwick resident had found new accommodation.
As The Block 2018 Gatwick Hotel prepares to air on Sunday night at 8.30pm on Channel 9, old stalwarts of the Gatty still lurk on the surrounding streets in St Kilda boarding houses perhaps cleaner but never as grand as the Gatwick.
The couples vying for the prize to transform the old fleapit into glamorous flats are:
Melbourne friends, Bianca Chatfield, 36, a Commonwealth Games netball champion, and Carla Dziwoki, 35, a former Melbourne Vixens shooter.
Bondi newlyweds, Sara, 31 and Hayden, 45, and Perth couple airline pilot Hans, 37, and f; light attendant Courtney, 33. .
Married couple, Kerrie, 49, and Spence, 47, from South Australia's Barossa Valley and Queenslanders, Norm, 40 and Jess, 33 from the Sunshine Coast.
The Block 2018 Gatwick Hotel, Channel 9, Sunday August 5, 7pm.