Thursday, 25 June 2015

From the historic to the hypothetical, with a brief motel stop alongthe way

This week's Sepia Saturday prompt photograph shows the Chittenden Hotel in Columbus Ohio. I have no idea what it was like inside but appears to have been a  large establishment that was demolished in 1979. I can't claim to have stayed in many grand hotels, and really they are not my style in any event, but the prompt reminded me of two that I've had the pleasure of visiting. Here are a couple of relevant memories, together with some references to the history of the hotels.

The Australia Hotel in Castlereagh St Sydney was very much a grand hotel in its time. I stayed there on the night of 9 December 1969, just eighteen months before it closed for good and was demolished to make way for a 35 storey skyscraper known as the MLC Centre. I had never stayed anywhere like it before, and was most impressed, although it wasn't a planned stay, as the following article explains. I was one of the group of school students aged between 16 and 17 who had been awarded exchange scholarships by the Goethe Institute and were headed to what was then West Germany for three months. Our families had farewelled us and we were among the 72 passengers aboard a Boing 707 that was flying over the middle of Australia, when part of a wheel belonging to our plane was found on the tarmac back in Sydney. As reported in the article below, the pilot made the decision to turn back, rather than attempt a night landing in Djakarta. This was my first independent trip without family, and could well have been my last, but thankfully my number wasn't up that day, and I'm here to tell the tale. Our plane landed safely and as the article relates, we were put up at the Australia and the Menzies, another prestigious city establishment. We departed afresh the next day, with no further problems. I see from a scrapbook I put together afterwards that there were a lot of stops en route. After Djakarta the plane landed for refuelling in Singapore, Bangkok and Karachi, and we then enjoyed a five day stopover in Rome before flying into a snowy Frankfurt. From there we went our separate ways to meet up with our host families. The Felix family with whom I was billeted lived in Solingen, a centre for knife and cutlery manufacture, between Cologne and Dusseldorf, and I had a wonderful time there.


 Incidentally, Lufthansa and a number of other European airlines no longer fly out of Australia, finding it more economical to code share the first leg with other airlines such as Qantas.

I didn't take any photographs of the Australia Hotel at the time or even manage to pick up a postcard. Being a rather naive 17 year old I knew nothing about the hotel or its history and was probably a little overwhelmed in all the circumstances, and after all, our trip hadn't really gone anywhere, but I do remember sharing a room with one or two other girls. Our group and chaperones had dinner and breakfast together in a very large and well-appointed dining room, which was probably the Winter Garden, and I vaguely recall being astonished by the grand sweeping staircase. These and other features are described in this Wikipedia article.

 Here is an old photograph of the Australia, courtesy of the web site of the State Library of NSW.

The Australia Hotel c.1910


A photograph of the Australia Hotel, from the souvenir program of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1932.

 You can read about the hotel's history and see other photographs of it and of various celebrity guests who stayed there in its heyday here on the Sydney Architecture web site. The hotel was opened in 1891 and the actress Sarah Berhardt arrived with 100 pieces of luggage to perform at the opening. Over the years it was the setting for countless formal company and official dinners, launches, fashion parades and other important events. In 1949 the ballroom was the site of the first successful demonstration of television in Australia. Here is a quote from the Royal Australian Historical Society:

 Sydney's premier hotel for many years, the 'Australia' 
         was one of an international standard of comfort and service. 

         Sarah Bernhardt registered as the first guest on the first day 

of opening. One lady stayed there for 31 years.
Apart from the accommodation for guests, rooms
were also provided for their servants including the
children's nurses who had their own dining room with their charges.

This photograph from Wikipedia shows how the hotel entrance must have appeared when I was there, complete with a demolition notice posted on one of those substantial marble columns.  They look so solid but sadly their days were numbered. Sydney's heritage buildings were woefully decimated during a commercial development boom during the 1970s.  The Royal Australian Historical Society placed one of its historic green plaques on the site where the Australia Hotel stood, but sadly that plaque and quite a few others now appear to have gone missing. It doesn't show much respect for history by whoever is responsible for removing such plaques.



A current photo of the MLC Centre, the building that replaced the Australia Hotel. The entire hotel could have comfortably fitted within its forecourt. Both that area and the  MLC Tower are currently undergoing some kind of renovation work, but I doubt it's about to be torn down any time soon.

      The other grand hotel that I've been privileged to stay in was the Willard in Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC. It was April 2005 and we had arrived around 6 a.m., because our flight from Los Angeles had been delayed some eight hours due to a bird strike, but after a few hours' sleep in a very comfortable bed we were revived and ready to look around the city. Over the next few days while my husband was attending a conference at the Willard, I was free to take in all the famous sights. 

I found this postcard for sale online, showing the Willard Hotel, c. 1936.

I took the following photograph from the top of the Old Post Office Tower, looking down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House, and it and the next photograph bear out the claim on the card that the Willard lies between the Capitol and the White House. The Willard is the white building second from right, with the flag on top. The White House is in amongst the trees, beyond the building with Grecian columned front.  Once again, I don't seem to have taken any other photographs of the hotel or have bought a postcard, but inside it was very richly furnished and ornately decorated.
        The view in the opposite direction, looking up Pennsylvania Ave towards the Capitol:

Despite the sumptuousness of our accommodation, I did have one small quibble during our four night stay.  Here in Australia a bar fridge is provided as standard equipment in every hotel and motel room. It may either come prestocked or be empty for guests' personal supplies. When I bought some milk and made room for it in the crowded 'fridge' in our room at the Willard, I was rather shocked to discover the next day that because I had unwittingly rearranged some of the stocked soft drinks, they had been instantly and automatically registered on our account. Clearly that electronically programmed drinks receptacle was not a bar fridge for the convenience of guests at all, but rather was only to encourage them to purchase drinks at inflated hotel prices!  Happily the charge was reversed after I apologised for my error in not having read the fine print. 

I can recommend a very interesting and informative online article with drawings and photographs relating the illustrious history of the Willard Hotel by Elizabeth Smith Brownstein. The first hotel was constructed on the site in the 1850s. The Willard was threatened with demolition on several occasions, and in 1968 it was closed without warning for 18 years, but unlike the Chittenden and the Australia Hotel, it was eventually saved from that fate. Extensive restoration, renovation and refurbishment in the late 1980s saw the Willard reopened and restored to its former glory.

Here's a quote from the Willard Intercontinental website, referring to some of its famous guests: 

A most celebrated historic Washington DC hotel, the Willard InterContinental Washington, has been the focal point for elegant dinners, meetings, and gala social events for more than 150 years. An institution, this grand Washington DC historic hotel has hosted almost every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce in 1853. On August 28, 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King finished his famous “I Have A Dream” speech while a guest at the Willard. Other notable guests have included Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, David Lloyd George, P.T. Barnum, Lord and Lady Napier, and countless others. Walt Whitman mentioned the hotel in his works; and Mark Twain penned two books here in the early 1900s. Throughout the ages, no phrase has raised eyebrows like “I’m staying at the Willard.”
The Banquet Room, photograph from Willard Hotel web site

Back home to more mundane life in suburban Melbourne, where this sign and the shell of the surrounding structure are all that remains of the original Oakleigh Motel, which in 1957 was the first motel to be built in Victoria. The sign is heritage protected but there is no longer any motel attached, just an unconnected new  residential unit development. Some people feel that the National Trust has failed in its duty here in not preserving the building intact, but I have my doubts as to whether we should protect things just because they were the first of their kind, when they possibly have no other architectural merit. You can judge for yourself from the second and third photographs from the Photosearch collection of the National Archives of Australia, showing the motel in operation in 1959. Motels like this are still very popular accommodation in this country as in the US, especially for travelling families and anyone reluctant to pay city hotel prices.



                         Finally, here is an example of what might be called a hypothetical hotel.

This looks like a hotel, doesn't it? But perhaps the fact that it is standing out on its own on the edge of a highway might raise a doubt, and in fact this is not somewhere you could check into. In reality it is just a giant folly, built to resemble a hotel. Click here to read a piece by its creator, artist Callum Morton.  At 20 metres high it's pretty realistic, and some of the windows even light up at night for its nonexistent occupants. It's constructed beside a 39 km tollway called Eastlink, which connects the north eastern Melbourne suburb of Donvale with the southern suburb of Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula. There are a number of other roadside scupltures to divert drivers on the otherwise fairly boring commute, including for example this giant bird pecking at a worm. 

                                                      Photograph from Visual City  website.

For more blogs on hotels and other matters, just check in to Sepia Saturday #285
 where you can dine out on a virtual smorgasbord of photographs and ideas, but no bar fridge provided, so it's BYO drinks! 


Barbara Fisher said...

Wonderful stories Jo and I’m very glad your plane landed safely, or you might not be here to share them.

Wendy said...

What a frightening ordeal, especially for a teen on her own. I'm sure every trip after that will trigger a memory!
I'm afraid the very convenient and budget-friendly roadside motels do look rather tacky next to the Willard and the Australia.
I'm glad you were forgiven for your bar-fridge faux pas.

Jo Featherston said...

I got over it - you can't dwell on these things.

Barbara Rogers said...

How interesting to hear about travels hither and yon. I've stayed at the Willard on my 16 year old trip...for a week. Didn't remember half as much as you did!

La Nightingail said...

I wonder what the purpose of the giant hotel folly was? A very strange sort of sculpture. The blackbird is interesting. One thing you'll never see is a skyscraper in Washington D.C. There is a restriction on the heights of buildings there which is why its skyline looks so different from other major cities.

Anne Young said...

Sometimes unfortunate events stay in our mind more than the fortunate events - a bit of a dramatic start to your trip overseas. Are you still in contact with your host family?

Jo Featherston said...

No, unfortunately we lost touch after a while, although Roger and I did call in on the family a few years later when we were travelling around Europe after finishing uni. The daughter who is around my age took over from her father as company director, and now following a merger she is a co-director. She is the fifth generation of her family to run it since they began the company in 1843 and still lives in the family home where I stayed. I did send her a message via the company and also tried a German old schoolfriends site but I haven't heard anything back.

Lorraine Phelan said...

Goodness Jo!! What an adventure. You're full of surprises.
I enjoyed your story-telling.

Kristin said...

I should have been an exchange student.

Postcardy said...

It is fortunate and amazing that the Willard wasn't demolished when it was closed for so long.

ScotSue said...

I do like reading about such grand hotels - they look so much more interesting than modern days ones. - I just want to explore them.

Family History Fun

Brett Payne said...

I've learnt not to open the bar fridge in any of those hotels.

Mike Brubaker said...

You've earned a double prize for this post! Hotels no longer have that same quality of romance and adventure. I'm more familiar with seedy motels than grand hotels.


What a journey!
Glad you made it safely out of that first plane.
Resurrecting the Willard is good news to me.
We destroy way too easily, and its dining room looks so lovely.
Why bother with the bar fridge when you have the bar downstairs.
I have only ONE experience with motels, and ironically,
it was called the Royal Motel. There was definitely NOTHING royal about it.
Mike called those "seedy". Doesn't even cover half of it...
I love Morton's Hotel. Fun concept!!

Joan said...

Staying in the Australia and the Willard did indeed provide for a good post, to say nothing of the eventful story of of the plane with a missing wheel. I do believe there could be a mystery story there. I love old hotels, so your pics were most welcome, tho I was sad that the Australia was demolished -- yours and Postcardy's posts made my heart break a bit

Anonymous said...

The Australia in Melbourne was pretty impressive too at the time. Stomach sinking story of the missing wheel. Thanks.

Alex Daw said...

Great stories. I think my father had his 21st at the Australia Hotel. I'm intrigued by that bar fridge story - electronically programmed? I must look closer next time.