By Ellen Hill
The first hotel in Australia’s first tourist destination will celebrate its 130th birthday on August 15 – and after a nine-year $10 million facelift, The Carrington Hotel hasn’t looked this good in years.
Renamed after former NSW Governor (1885-90) Lord Carrington who visited in September 1887, the Great Western Hotel was built by Sydney hotelier Harry Rowell and opened in 1883.
It was one of the finest British colonial hotels in the world, a favourite for international visitors, the elite of Sydney and those eager to see the natural wonders of the Blue Mountains.
An August 13, 1883, newspaper advertisement in the Apartments, Board and Residence Column under “B’’ for Blue Mountains reads: “BLUE MOUNTAINS. GREAT WESTERN HOTEL, Katoomba, will open on 15th August for the accommodation of the public. Apply HARRY G ROWELL Proprietor.’’
Mr F C Goyder later extended the hotel and is credited with the creation of The Grand Dining Room, one of the few remaining in Australia.
By the early 1900s the hotel’s reputation as the premier tourist resort in the Southern Hemisphere was undisputed and newspapers of the day often cited her as the only rival to Raffles within the Empire.
Sold in 1911 to Sir James Joynton Smith, who introduced the famous stained glass facade, The Carrington entered a new phase and quickly became known as a honeymoon favourite, a reputation which remained for the next 50 years.
Then World War II happened, replacing frivolity with frugality and tourism in the Blue Mountains waned.
However, The Carrington remained popular as ever through the 1950s and `60s and was bought by developer Theo Morris in 1968. The hotel’s loyal clientele kept her afloat for nearly 20 more years.
The Carrington finally closed in 1986 and, along with tourism throughout the mountains, slid into gradual shabbiness and ultimate dereliction.
The Carrington’s abandonment was more public than most.
Perched at the top of Katoomba St, her brick chimney visible from neighbouring towns, for 13 years the great white monolith yellowed and moulded, cracked and flaked like Charles Dickens’ Miss Heffernan withering within her bridal gown, her stained glass window necklace tarnished under neglect.
In 1998, as her slow strangulation by her own garden was almost complete, a consortium of buyers took over the property, now headed by former real estate agent and property developer Michael Brischetto and accountant Mark Jarvis.
Since then, they have spent more than $10 million on bringing the building back to the height of her heyday – back to the day when the Duke and Duchess of York came to lunch in 1927.
On March 31 of that year, the royal couple arrived at Katoomba by train and walked the short distance from the railway station to The Carrington. Huge crowds greeted them. After lunch, they were driven to Echo Point, home of the Three Sisters, where thousands lined the streets.
The Echo newspaper reported that the Duchess was overheard to say: “ `Look at those clouds! Isn’t it wonderful.’ The Duke’s reply was unintelligible, but his face maintained its customary passivity.’’
It is to that heady time of royal romance and love of empire, of regal colours and impeccable etiquette that The Carrington has returned.
However, while still grand in every way, The Carrington Hotel is content with its current 4-star rating.
“We make an effort not to be a luxury hotel,’’ Mr Brischetto says. “We want people to appreciate the building and its history and we believe that someone who saves up for months to spend $200 a night will appreciate the hotel more than someone who is used to staying in luxury hotels.
“We can’t be accessible to those people if we raise our prices beyond their reach and don’t make them feel comfortable enough to stay here.’’
The nine-year revamp has not been a rip and tear, quick fix overhaul but a gentle scraping away of layers, smoothing of wrinkles and buffing the rough edges.
“Nobody builds like this anymore – the architectural features, the workmanship,’’ Brischetto says. “This hotel is built with steel and concrete: it was built to last forever.
“We are timeless. In 100 years everything changes but nothing changes.
“Unlike new hotels which have to do major refurbishments and change their decor to suit the times, we’re set. As long as we preserve this place, the further we move away from the date of when it was opened, the more attractive it becomes.
“We’ve always said we’re the custodians of the hotel – there were many owners before us and there will be many after us, we’ve just got to look after it.’’
But it takes more than plaster and paint to coax back the sylph-like figures in ball gowns and crazy masks who flit along the corridors at night, the holiday hype as excited guests wheel suitcases through reception and the warm glow of genuine hospitality.
“We try and keep the hotel as occupied as possible so it’s always busy and there are people around,’’ Mr Brischetto says. “Activity breeds activity.’’
The Carrington is now a physical and emotional anchor for the Katoomba community, with many community groups now regularly using the main building as a meeting and event venue.
Locals drop in to the hotel for coffee or an evening drink, while the Carrington’s other venues (the Old City Bank Brasserie, the Harp & Fiddle Irish Pub, Baroque nightclub and the Carrington Cellars & Deli) are also well patronised by residents and visitors to the area.
“One of the first things we did was open the place up to community groups,’’ Mr Brischetto says. “I remember Mark and I standing at the top of the steps and seeing all these people looking up the path at the hotel from the street and we’d say: `Come in. Come and have a look.’
“Now we have people coming in all the time just to have a look, and we encourage that – the locals are taking ownership of it, although we do restrict the upper floors to overnight guests only.’’
The Carrington hosts several major annual festivals and events (Wines of the West, Oktoberfest, the Blue Mountains Ukulele Festival, Lady Luck Festival and the Roaring 20s Festival are but a few), and supports many a community cause.
Mr Jarvis and Mr Brischetto are also known as community leaders, taking charge, setting the pace, getting things moving, doing whatever it takes to create a positive and productive vibe for Katoomba.
Mr Brischetto has been chairman of the enormously popular Winter Magic Festival organising committee for years and is Blue Mountains Lithgow & Oberon Tourism (BMLOT) vice chairman; Mr Jarvis is Katoomba Chamber of Commerce president, Slow Food Blue Mountains committee member and Bendigo Community Bank treasurer.
BMLOT chairman Randall Walker congratulated Mr Brischetto and Mr Jarvis on the milestone: “It is fitting that the first hotel in Australia’s first tourist destination leads the rejuvenation of the tourism industry in the Blue Mountains.
“After all, it rigged the first telephone line in Katoomba; because the Carrington had its own power station Katoomba had electric street lights before Sydney; it was the first hotel in Australia to offer ensuite bathrooms to its high brow guests; and the Carrington continues to lead innovation with its state-of-the-art co-generation facility.”
- Six Australian prime ministers have visited the Carrington: Stanley Melbourne Bruce lunched there in November 1924; Billy Hughes stayed in 1930 and was seen going to the movies at the Empire and enjoying a “Soda Squash’’ at the Carrington bar; Ben Chifley attended the lunch during the Duke and Duchess of Gloucestor visit of March 1946; Bob Hawke may have stayed when he was ACTU president; Gough Whitlam attended a dinner held in his wife Margaret’s honour during the 1980s; and John Howard dined there in 2011.
- Federal Cabinet met in The Carrington library in secret during World War II because it was deemed far enough away from Canberra and Sydney to be safe from the Japanese
- Several movies were filmed at the hotel including The Burning Man and The Coca Cola Kid
- The Duke of York’s younger brother, the Duke of Gloucestor and his wife Lady Alice visited the Carrington Hotel, in March 1946, when Gloucestor was the Governor General
- NSW Governors De Chair, Strickland, Game, Sir Roden Cutler and, most recently Marie Bashir, have occupied rooms at the Carrington
- The current Lord Carrington visited in the 1950s when he was British High Commissioner