Kelvin Club is in ‘kilter with life’

Despite being 150 years old, the CBD’s Kelvin Club is reluctant to define its identity.

Rather, it celebrates the fluidity with which it can adapt itself to the present day.

President John Dall’Amico describes it as “progressively traditional”, which would be confusing without an explanation.

Second in age only to the Melbourne Club, the Kelvin Club has the acres of illuminated billiard table felt, the leather lounges and the subterranean mood lighting. 

But it also possesses an attitude that has seen its membership more than double to around 500 in the last year alone.

It is actively inclusionary and sees itself as a local community asset.

Committee member Gerard Kelly says the club provides the sumptuous lounge rooms and open fire that CBD apartment dwellers don’t have in their own homes.

Fellow member Su Baker agrees, saying that the club provides a public domain to complement nearby private living spaces.

“It offers one of the great benefits of urbanism,” Prof Baker said.

“It’s really a hip, urban, community club.” Mr Dall’Amico said, despite the CBD having about 30,000 residents, it could be an overwhelming place and it was sometimes difficult to identify a sense of community.

“Despite everything that goes on around them, the residents still need to feel that the city is their space too,” he said.

He said the demographics of the club had changed markedly in recent times.

Whereas, in the past, business professionals would use the club for lunches and retreat to the suburbs after hours, a lot of these members had retired and no longer came into the city.

“We’re finding more and more residents are looking for a sense of community and they are finding it here,” he said.

The club started in 1865 as the Fitzroy Bowling Club, included East Melbourne in its name in 1906 and moved into the CBD in 1927 when the Victoria Parade tram was routed through it bowling green.

Without a green, a name change was in order and “Kelvin” was chosen out of respect for 19th century Scottish mathematician, physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin.

Unofficial club historian Jim Colbert revealed that the most valuable asset the club had at the time was a pre-1906 liquor licence which allow unrestricted hours and an exemption from police supervision.

It’s not hard to see why the club experienced a golden era of popularity in the days of six o’clock closing. 

With no licensing advantage following the radical relaxation of such laws in the 1990s, club membership has ebbed and flowed over recent decades.

Part of its charm today is that it retains its authentic feel as one of Melbourne’s originals.  But, unlike its exclusive cousins, the Kelvin Club is transparent and welcomes everyone. Gerard Kelly says he knew of the club but assumed (incorrectly) that he wouldn’t be welcome even if he wanted to join.

A social occasion at the club opened his eyes to a unique city oasis where people reached out to him.

“It’s a bit like stepping into a bygone era, but the club has a very progressive mindset,” he said. Membership manager Floriane Touboul said prospective members were nearly always intrigued by the heritage aspects of the club.

“They are also looking for a sanctuary in the city – somewhere to bring their family and clients,” she said.

The building itself was built as a warehouse in 1870 and later housed a printing company. From 1927, radio station 3LO occupied the building. 

When the club relocated there in 1946, it shared the building with 3AW, which occupied the second storey.

The club bought its premises in 1950 and assumed full use of the building in 1956.

Some traditions remain, with a ban on phones in the bar and dining room and diners being called to attention every Friday at 2pm to toast Lord Kelvin.

But embracing change is the new tradition. According to life member Kevin Silberberg, it’s the club’s willingness to change that will guarantee its future.

“If you don’t change, you are completely out of kilter with life,” he said.

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