When Potts Point local and property investor Tony Benjamin saw the Hemmes family were selling their iconic Merivale building on the corner of Macleay Street and Challis Avenue, he bought it because he loved the property and its stunning heritage features.
Now, thanks to a collaboration with three respected furniture design houses, the building has become an exclusive set of luxe serviced apartments that visitors are flocking to. We recently caught up for a chat.
Tony, great to chat to you. We’ve known each other for many years…
Yes – you helped me sell my Darley Hall apartment and buy my new penthouse in Billyard Avenue! And of course, you were a part of the deal with 55 Macleay Street and more recently, when I bought the old Merivale building on Macleay Street from the Hemmes family.
I remember we negotiated that sale just hours before the auction. Quite a day!
Yeah. Those things, you’re either a hero or an idiot, when you’re buying off market. But I’m pretty confident with anything I buy in this area. I always feel it’s going to be a good investment moving forward.
You’ve bought and sold a lot here over the years. How long have you lived in the area now?
About 17 years, and I’ve been investing in property between Elizabeth Bay and Potts Point, for 15 years or so. I have a passion for heritage buildings. One reason is because my mum is an antique dealer, and I grew up surrounded by antiques. We lived in a lot of older places in Queensland, and I just love the style of heritage buildings. I like the size and the ceiling heights. I just like the warmth that those buildings have over newer, or more modern buildings.
So obviously that’s why the Merivale building appealed to you?
Yes. I bought it because I’d always loved it and I think it’s on the best corner in Potts Point. At the time, I had no idea what I’d do with it, so I just bought it and then thought, right, now what? And the idea for III Rooms followed.
So talk me through the concept of III Rooms?
It was definitely inspired by the iconic 3 Rooms Paris, which I’ve always loved – self-contained accommodation that was curated by fashion designer Azzedine Alaia. The Apartment by the Line in New York and LA also appealed to me – and the fact that this building had three apartments available and was essentially a blank canvas, with off-white walls and timber floorboards, it made sense. We approached three design houses – Cult Design, MCM House and Jardan – to collaborate with us and style the apartments, and all of them said they’d love to do it.
|Jardan||MCM House||Cult Design|
Great idea, to create different spaces in each apartment to appeal to different people.
Yes, each apartment has its own personality, which I love. The Cult apartment is particularly high-end, luxurious but also quirky and colourful. Jardan has almost a bit of a Scandinavian-meets-Australian feel, it’s very family-friendly. And the apartment MCM designed is just a bit more edgy and fun. All we had to do was sand the floors and paint the walls and the design houses really brought them to life. They did an outstanding job.
And all the furniture is shoppable, right? So often you’ll be in a boutique hotel and want to buy everything in the room…
Yep, you can buy all the furniture from the design houses themselves – I think some have even done a special page on their sites with the items to purchase from the apartment they designed. And they do eDMs which promote III Rooms and we do the same, so it’s a nice cross-pollination of marketing and PR, which I think is working for all of us.
You launched in February then Covid hit – has that affected things?
Everything definitely froze for a few months. But I’ve noticed in the past few weeks there’s been some good word of mouth about III Rooms, and we’re getting great traction on bookings, so I like to say July is the new March!
You’ve lived in the area close to twenty years. What keeps you here? What do you love about Potts Point?
I just love the village. I think it’s Sydney’s best village. It has great cafes and restaurants of course, that goes without saying, but it’s more than that. Everything’s walkable, it’s a really beautiful area, compared to, say, the grittiness of other nearby suburbs like Surry Hills. It also has that great proximity to parks, the city and to the harbour. There’s nothing it doesn’t have.
I always think of Potts Point as being the Grand Dame of the area.
Yes! But what I love is the efforts to bring some vibrancy back here too. In III Rooms, for example – I love that juxtaposition we’ve done. We’ve got this stunning heritage style building and we’ve given the grand Old Dame, as you say, a bit of modern flair, with some beautiful design.
I bet your mum got on the phone asking you to squeeze in a few more antiques though…
Ha! Mum had a shop in our house in central Queensland and after school I would go to her antique shop most afternoons, and somehow that love of old things, old buildings, heritage – it rubbed off on me. A lot of people get scared off by heritage buildings but I’m sort of attracted to them. You have to be willing to spend some time and money on them but it’s worth it.
What other projects have you got on the go?
The property at 55 Macleay Street, the old Holiday Lodge hotel, I’ve got DA approval to do a small boutique hotel there. So that’s one that I’ll be proceeding with if not before Christmas then soon after. It’s an exciting one. Potts Point needs a beautiful high-end boutique hotel and I’d like to provide this to the area. A hotel which is part of the neighbourhood, loved by locals and visitors alike and something that becomes a Potts Point institution.
Is it a good time to be developing right now?
Yeah I think so. Obviously, that will take, you know, 12 months or so from beginning construction, so I’m going with the view that by that time, the market will improve. So I think this is the time to bring products to the market, knowing that in the next 18 months or so things should be back to normal, if not better than normal. So it’s a good time in that respect. Obviously if you were opening a new hotel today, that would be a scary proposition. But I think my time frame is fine.