WHEN Mark Twain visited Adelaide early last century he chose to stay in the city’s finest lodgings, the Grand Central Hotel on the corner of Pulteney and Rundle streets.
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes also stayed there and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward Vlll) hosted a royal dinner party in the stately dining room for the Adelaide elite when in residence there in the early 1920s.
Our Grand Central Hotel story begins in the mid-1840s when the colony was just a few years old.
The York, a new “public house”, was erected on a Pulteney St site and quickly gained a reputation as one of the finest establishments in the city.
In 1865, it was extensively refurbished to accommodate increasing patronage due to its excellent reputation and proximity to the main shopping area.
The Grand Central Hotel, on the southeast corner of Rundle and Pulteney streets, was built in 1910 and was the only kind of high Victorian building in Adelaide. (State Library).
In 1909 William Gibson, then part owner of the Melbourne department store Foy and Gibson, purchased the York and undertook an ambitious redevelopment program.
He flattened the popular hotel to make way for what was to become the city’s most impressive structure.
Completed in 1911, The Grand Central Hotel opened with much fanfare on June 20. It was described by the newspapers of the day as “looking back to high Victorian style” and portrayed as “Adelaide’s own Dorchester”.
Its truly imposing proportions dominated Rundle St. The giant facades were decorated with a complex pattern of string courses, pilasters and mouldings of every description.
The bay windows rose to almost the full height of the building, and the corner bow window was capped with an open turret. It was described as “a strictly Edwardian building” and was the only example of high Victorian style that Adelaide possessed.
The hotel boasted 150 rooms plus lounges, two saloons, a billiard room, and writing and smoking rooms. The dining room could accommodate up to 600 people. Other publicised features included an “immense” central light court, electric lifts and artificial heating.
The flat roof was intended to house a tennis court and tea garden.Despite its grandeur and the list of famous guests, the hotel was a disappointment for its investors and not considered a financial success.
The Advertiser reported on November 1, 1924, that “The Grand Central Hotel, Pulteney Street, Adelaide, was formally closed yesterday. “The hotel was very popular among travellers and citizens.
Mr P.J. Hennessey informed a representative of The Advertiser that there was no ceremony in connection with the closing. “The upstairs bar would be retained, as a matter of form. T
he intention in the future was to make use of the premises in connection with Messrs Foy & Gibson’s department store”.
On 26 June, 1971, The South Australian Hotel in North Terrace closed its doors for the final time, marking the end of an era and bringing to a sad conclusion almost 100 years of Adelaide social and community history.
During the 50th anniversary celebrations of The Beatles’ legendary visit to Adelaide, “The South” – as it was known – was remembered as the place where the famous pop group stayed.
But the iconic hotel has played a much bigger and more colourful role in the history of our city than hosting just that one group of famous visitors
Photo from the State Library of SA. The South Australian Hotel at the very height of its fame. Photo by Max Dupain, taken in the early 1950s
The story has its beginning in 1879, when a public house was first erected on the site in North Terracce.
It wasn’t long before that original building proved to be inadequate and was demolished to make way for a much larger and more impressive establishment, which opened in 1894 as The South Australian Hotel.
With its proximity to the Adelaide Railway Station, the new hotel did a brisk business, and by 1900 further additions followed, including the three storey verandas.
Soon the hotel boasted 72 rooms with hot and cold running water, seven luxurious suites (each one tastefully decorated), a grand cedar staircase, a magnificent dining room complete with crystal chandeliers and, eventually, air conditioning (a rare luxury in those days) and 24-hour room service.
The original dining room was able to accommodate up to 200 guests and became the centre of Adelaide’s social life. The balconies offered the perfect setting for weddings, afternoon teas and other important social events.
During the 1920s, however, The South’s reputation as the premium hotel in the young city began to fade, its fortunes declining as more modern establishments opened, and gradually over the next few years it fell into a state of some disrepair.
In 1934, the lease was taken over by a very ambitious and determined woman, Louisa O’Brien, who came from a family of hoteliers.
She immediately set about restoring the once grand hotel back to its place as the finest in the city.
Legend has it that on taking control on June 18, Louisa swept in and sacked the entire staff.
Within 48 hours, she had repainted the interior and hired new staff, including Louis (Lewy) Cotton as head waiter.