Fitting in to Hotham St

Rhonda Dredge

If you walk down George Mews in East Melbourne and turn left you’ll enter an unnamed lane that takes you past a dog leg and several unmarked doorways leading off it, including a circular gate into a hidden garden.

This is laneway culture, East Melbourne style, without the hype of the city and with clever renovations that lead the eye.

When architect Lisette Malatesta moved into the suburb in 2015 she chose a ‘70s building to renovate.

Her aim was to complement the tastes of the locals in more ways than one. She bought the East Melbourne General Store and gave it a new second story based on architectural forms along Hotham St.

She added a deco front balcony to reference one on a block of flats and the peak of the roof is reminiscent of the black gable added to the nearby church.

“Traditionally milk bars have owner/operators,” she said. “You are developing relationships and friendships with clients like a hairdresser.”

During the lockdown, locals came four or five times a day, for the paper, coffee, bread, lunch, wine. Takings went up 30 per cent.

A milk bar can be the centre of community life. Lisette knows all her customers by name. Some live alone and enjoy the chat. “I’ve got the keys to everyone in the suburb,” she said.

She offers traditional lunches such as a salad roll for $7, made on the spot without all the trendy toppings.

“I just do it the way a milk bar would have made it,” she said. The last thing she wanted was “hipster central.”

The building posed a similar challenge. How could she make it fit into the site and provide a family home?

She designed the renovation, registered as an owner/builder, subcontracting to 32 tradies, and did all the excavation herself. “I rented a bobcat,” she said, and got the job done in a year.

The idea of the circular entrance off the lane came from Hong Kong. She removed the roller doors and created the alluring entrance to her downstairs office. The garden is a common space shared with a tenant.

East Melbourne has the reputation for being expensive for family dwellings. Lisette has three children, is a single mum and was prepared to make her vision work. They all live above the milk bar and try and fit into the neighbourhood, ecologically and socially.

Lisette has noticed a change in the microclimate since an oak was chopped down in the back lane.

“The owls have gone. There are more rodents and the temperature has dropped by three degrees,” she said.

Her garden serves the practical purpose of absorbing water when rain creates floods down the lane •

Caption: Lisette Malatesta at the East Melbourne General Store.

Caption: A circular entrance off the lane.

Like us on Facebook