The first hotel in Australia’s first tourist destination is celebrating its 130th birthday – and after a nine-year $10 million facelift, the Carrington Hotel at Katoomba, has not 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 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, who later extended the hotel, 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, at Singapore, within the British 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 1960s and was bought by developer Theo Morris in 1968.
The hotel’s loyal clientele kept her afloat for almost 20 more years.
The Carrington finally closed in 1986 and, along with tourism in the mountains, slid into gradual shabbiness and ultimate dereliction. The Carrington’s abandonment was more public than most hotels.
Perched at the top of Katoomba Street, her brick chimney visible from neighbouring towns, the great white monolith yellowed and moulded, cracked and flaked for 13 years — like Charles Dickens’s 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 in bringing the building back to the height of her heyday — back to the day when the Duke and Duchess of York came for lunch on March 31, 1927.
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 is content with its current four-star rating.
‘‘We make an effort not to be a luxury hotel,’’ says Brischetto. ‘‘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,’’ says Brischetto. ‘‘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 have 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,’’ says Brischetto. ‘‘Activity breeds activity.’’
The Carrington is now a physical and emotional anchor for the Katoomba community, with many community groups regularly using the main building as a meeting and event venue.
Locals drop in 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 well patronised by residents and visitors.
‘‘One of the first things we did was open the place up to community groups,’’ says Brischetto. ‘‘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 would 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, Blue Mountains Ukulele Festival, Lady Luck Festival and the Roaring 20s Festival) and supports many community causes.
Jarvis and Brischetto are 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.
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.
Jarvis is Katoomba Chamber of Commerce president, Slow Food Blue Mountains committee member and Bendigo Community Bank treasurer.
BMLOT chairman Randall Walker congratulated Brischetto and Jarvis on the Carrington 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,’’ says Walker.
‘‘After all, the hotel rigged the first telephone line in Katoomba, fired up a power station before Sydney and was the first hotel in Australia to offer en suite bathrooms to its high-brow guests.
‘‘Today, that can-do attitude, community mindedness and generosity of Mark and Michael, and their staff, continues The Carrington leadership tradition.’’
Details, The Carrington Hotel is centrally located on Katoomba’s main Street 15-47 Katoomba St, Katoomba Blue Mountains, Australia visit www.thecarrington.com.au