The New Members’ Club Set to Transform the Southern Highlands

When the Berrima Vault House opens next month it will offer everything from boutique stays to private dining and even a speakeasy bar named after the resident ghosts.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

The small village of Berrima in the New South Wales Southern Highlands has long been known for its scones, lolly shop and well-preserved Georgian architecture. It’s a favourite pit stop for tourists and families on the busy route from Sydney to Canberra, and its cafes are popular throughout the day, yet after dark not a lot happens. That’s about to change with the launch of the Berrima Vault House next month.

Part restaurant and hotel, and part members’ club, the Berrima Vault House aims to be an “innovative and creative space to gather, celebrate, work, drink, dine and reside”. The venue will offer boutique accommodation, club lounges, a café, restaurant, speakeasy bars, workspaces, country gardens, private dining rooms and will host cultural events. The venture is part of a multi-million dollar reimaging of a convict-built brick building built over 170 years ago, which historically housed the infamous Taylor’s Crown Inn.

The building was first built in 1844 by convicts. Photography by Abbie Melle.
CEO and co-founder, Si Philby. Photography by Abbie Melle.

The concept is all about being a game-changing place of work and play, says CEO, Si Philby: “The building is split 50:50. So, one part is open to the general public as a restaurant, and then the other half of the building, which has private dining rooms, beautiful gardens, and a club lounge is for members and reservations. But we’re not being ultra exclusive, like other overseas members’ clubs; we will have a membership base and will also have the ability for people to privately book in for events or reservations.”

Leading this revitalisation with Philby are fellow local residents Paul Nemeth and Oliver Peagam and further input has come in the form of UK-based designer Stuart Holt, of Javelin Block, who has extensive experience with heritage buildings. “I always try to choose a building that lets us work with it, rather than against it,” Holt explains. “People call it ‘good bones’ and the Berrima Vault House has incredible bones. Quite eclectic really. You can see ‘NYC West Village’ brickwork, internal ‘English Cotswolds’ stone detailing, all wrapped in a ‘New Orleans French Quarter’ jacket.”

The property offers many spaces from which to dine and work. Photography by Abbie Melle.
The history of the building has informed the design. Photography by Abbie Melle

Holt’s design has helped pull together the eccentricity of the building, as has Dan Lywood’s playlists. The music curator has worked with Chateau Marmont, Chiltern Firehouse and The Standard Hotels, among others. However, the real star of the show is the beautiful building and its history. Originally built by convicts in 1844, the first owner William Taylor was a prominent local businessman, and, as you would expect, it has changed hands frequently since then. Said to be haunted, the eerie jail cells in the basement, interesting archaeological finds and the supposed ghosts give this project the kind of patina and personality, which can be missing in large-scale venues like this.

And it’s this history that features heavily in the structure of the Berrima Vault House – the vaults for example are now private dining rooms, called George’s Cell and Mary’s Cell, named after the King George and Queen Mary era coins found in the floors. And the speakeasy bar is called Hank and Molly’s, after the ghosts that have been felt and seen on the staircases. There is even a sealed vault that appears to be the beginnings of a tunnel running underneath the road to Berrima Jail. “This is an Australian first; this kind of venue in this kind of setting hasn’t existed before,” explains Philby. “We want to redefine how we work, by offering all of the business infrastructure generally needed, as well as redefining how we play, by designing innovative social spaces  for enjoying beautiful food and quality drinks.” And location, he says, is everything. “Geographically Berrima is a great spot, but more important is the landscape that it offers. There are some phenomenal historic places and buildings; the local produce is outstanding… all of whom we’re engaging for the venue.”

The Members' Club makes up half of the venue. Photography by Abbie Melle
Where possible the original fixtures have been preserved. Photography by Abbie Melle

Another reason behind this venue’s location, especially since lockdown, is the diversity of the local community, many of whom are refugees from bigger cities. For UK-born Philby, who moved here permanently a few years ago, the region reminds him of the Cotswolds in England, both from a community and an “appreciation of fresh air” point of view. “There is a phenomenal community here; we’ve got a really diverse mix of landowners, tech entrepreneurs, board directors, start ups and new business leaders,” he explains. “So, what we’re creating, really, is a canvas for people with like-minded attitudes to come together to redefine how we work and play, and we want to provide a way to be part of something special.”

The Berrima Vault House opens next month to both members and the general public, and while the venue offers a seemingly unending list of features, Philby freely admits he is most excited by the private dining areas. “The thing that had me at ‘hello’ from the very start was the fact that there were these undiscovered jail cells underneath the building,” he explains. “So I can’t wait for a private dinner in one of the jail cells, with our beautiful local food and wine and, of course, a glass of whiskey on the rocks.”