Heritage

IN PICS | Glamour gone to ruin: Joburg’s lost luxury hotels

The city’s CBD was once home to a pack of posh hotels. Now most of us don’t even know they existed. Brian McKechnie and Jo Buitendach unearth a few icons

09 April 2021 - 06:00 By Brian McKechnie and Jo Buitendach
Carlton Hotel circa 1990s.
Carlton Hotel circa 1990s.
Image: Supplied via Financial Mail

Today downtown Joburg is a cacophony of hooting taxis, vibrant pan-Africanism and frenetic energy, but there was a moment, not so long ago, when silver cutlery and starched white linen were the order of the day.

In a city regulated by repressive segregationist laws, extreme wealth and abject poverty often rubbed shoulders on the same sidewalk. In the midst of this incongruous dynamic existed a bevy of glamorous hotels that hosted the city’s who’s who and even international celebrities.

These bastions of 20th-century decadence were famed for fine dining, chic design and up-to-the minute amenities.

THE ORIGINAL CARLTON HOTEL

Think of hotel opulence in SA and the Carlton Hotel immediately springs to mind. While this iconic 1970s establishment might have closed nearly 25 years ago, its New York-esque ghost still towers over the city. But did you know that there was an earlier incarnation of the Carlton in Joburg?

At the turn of the previous century, randlord Barney Barnato aimed to transport a slice of London desirability to the booming but backward mining town. The diamond magnate may have died before his plans could come to fruition, but the hotel opened with much fanfare in 1906.

The Sunday Times, itself then recently founded, boasted that the building, which had a whopping nine storeys, “towers so high that one imagines that it would be possible to step off the roof onto a passing cloud”.

The old Carlton Hotel, in a scan from the book 'Meet Me at the Carlton' by Eric Rosenthal (1972).
The old Carlton Hotel, in a scan from the book 'Meet Me at the Carlton' by Eric Rosenthal (1972).
Image: Supplied via Financial Mail

This Edwardian beauty stood at the corner of Eloff and Commissioner streets and laid claim to technological marvels such as a revolving door (to keep the dust of the mining town out, of course), Turkish baths and an elegant tea room resplendent with luscious palm trees and mirrored surfaces — the perfect place for “women folk to have tea”.

In preparation for its grand opening, the hotel owners hired a Union Castle liner to transport furnishings and a white staff of 200 from Europe.

The Carlton soon became “the place to be”, entertaining the upper echelons of local and international society, including the British royal family, who made the hotel their headquarters during their 1947 tour of SA.

Despite the old Carlton’s popularity and glamour, it struggled to keep up with the times, and by the Swinging Sixties the revolving lobby door had been permanently locked. The building was demolished shortly after.

THE WESTIN INTERNATIONAL CARLTON

Linked to the old Carlton in name only, this hotel realised Barnato’s dream of transplanting international glamour into the heart of Joburg.

When it was opened on October 1 1972, the Westin International Carlton set the bar for SA excellence. The 600-room hotel was an integral part of what was called the Carlton Centre complex, designed by New York-based SOM Architects, inspired by the Rockefeller Center and home to the 50-floor Carlton Tower — Africa’s tallest office building.

Oil baron Marino Chiavelli enjoyed regular Friday lunches at the hotel’s Three Ships restaurant. Other guests to sample traditional SA fare below the posh spot’s Cape brass chandeliers included the Rev Jesse Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Kissinger, Naomi Campbell and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

A scan of a Carlton Hotel brochure from the 1990s; the establishment once boasted 'three restaurants - each decidedly different'.
A scan of a Carlton Hotel brochure from the 1990s; the establishment once boasted 'three restaurants - each decidedly different'.
Image: Supplied via Financial Mail
A scan of a Carlton Hotel brochure from the 1990s shows the establishment's once opulent interiors.
A scan of a Carlton Hotel brochure from the 1990s shows the establishment's once opulent interiors.
Image: Supplied via Financial Mail

The new Carlton became a central location in SA’s political transition. Westin’s “international” status meant that black guests were welcome and patrons of all races could mix freely, escaping the apartheid regime’s oppressive talons.

The Black Management Forum was founded there in 1976, and in 1987 the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Cyril Ramaphosa, met mine owners at the hotel demanding increased wages and better working conditions for mineworkers. Following his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela made the presidential suite his home from home.

ANC stalwarts Thabo Mbeki, Roger Sishi and Nelson and Winnie Mandela attend a banquet at the Carlton Hotel in 1991.
ANC stalwarts Thabo Mbeki, Roger Sishi and Nelson and Winnie Mandela attend a banquet at the Carlton Hotel in 1991.
Image: Tiso Blackstar Group

The National Peace Accord, key in curbing violence during negotiations to end apartheid, was signed at the hotel in September 1991. And Madiba heralded the birth of a new democratic SA when he delivered the ANC’s victory speech from the Carlton’s ballroom in April 1994.

THE LANDDROST

When gazing up at 88 Plein Street today you will see Landrost Mansions, an affordable housing block of 241 apartments. This no-nonsense structure was once the legendary five-star Landdrost Hotel, one of Joburg’s most luxurious institutions.

A scan of a Landdrost Hotel brochure; this luxe establishment was opened by Southern Sun in 1973.
A scan of a Landdrost Hotel brochure; this luxe establishment was opened by Southern Sun in 1973.
Image: Supplied via Financial Mail

Opened by Southern Sun in 1973, the hotel and its impressive open-air terrace (the perfect spot to laze away a poolside highveld afternoon) overlooked the Union Grounds and the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

The Landdrost prided itself on being “SA’s first truly traditional luxury hotel, where modern facilities are presented with the grace, elegance and style of bygone days”.

The nostalgia didn’t stop there. The hotel was dedicated to the men of wealth and society who built Joburg, including former town landdrost (magistrate) Carl von Brandis, after whom the hotel was named.

Bridget Oppenheimer hosted her Top 100s Club at the hotel’s Annabel’s restaurant. Women of the club would meet dressed in fur coats and wearing strings of pearls and diamond necklaces. It was rumoured that the hotel deployed extra security to keep the mink-and-diamond brigade safe at their monthly gatherings.

These scans of a Landdrost Hotel brochure show how fashionable this hotel once was.
These scans of a Landdrost Hotel brochure show how fashionable this hotel once was.
Image: Supplied via Financial Mail

Today, if you look back at the hotel’s stylistic choices, it seems a confusing mix of retro-tastic brown-and-orange carpeting, heavy wood panelling and themed hotel suites, including a somewhat apt Cape Dutch option and a seemingly less appropriate Mexican suite.

The Landdrost excelled by offering an extensive selection of wining and dining — including French fare at Annabel’s.

The hotel also housed Churchill’s Bar, Barnato’s Rib Room and Ouma’s Kitchen, all themed to honour colonial history, one lavish buffet at a time.

THE PRESIDENT

Centrally located, opposite Park Station on the once grand Eloff Street, the President Hotel opened in 1969.

Photo of a damaged postcard of the President Hotel.
Photo of a damaged postcard of the President Hotel.
Image: Supplied via Financial Mail

The Brazilian-inspired modernist design accommodated a ground floor public plaza, a pool deck and a roof top nightclub with views across the city.

The hotel’s lower floors were clad in ceramic tiles in four shades of green. The colour festival continued inside, on to the decidedly Wes Anderson-style Gold Ballroom.

The President housed an impressive collection of artworks, including Cecil Skotnes tapestries and narrative panels by Giuseppe Cattaneo.

Guestrooms were less restrained, and included a themed Garden Suite with its own indoor gazebo. Alternatively you could stay in the Sherlock Holmes Room.

The hotel was converted into office space in 1987 and today houses an inner city church.

THE JOHANNESBURG SUN AND TOWERS

Touted as “a taste of life in the 21st century”, Southern Sun opened its flagship Johannesburg Sun and Towers at the corner of Jeppe and Small streets on February 1 1986.

Surrounded by more than 2ha of landscaped parkland, complete with heated swimming pools and a running track, the “luxury resort in the heart of the city” even boasted an artificial urban lake.

The Johannesburg Sun and Towers in its heydey.
The Johannesburg Sun and Towers in its heydey.
Image: Southern Sun archive

The 37-floor high-rise accommodated 900 hotel rooms, making it the largest hotel complex in the southern hemisphere.

In an apparent world first, each room came equipped with a “personal computer”, on which guests could view their stocks on the JSE, set a wake-up call and pay their hotel bill, all without leaving the six-star comfort of their bedroom.

Patrons could dine in relaxed style at the Lakeside restaurant, admire the Christofle silverware, luxuriate in fine cuisine from French-trained chefs at the St James, sample single malts at the Judges Bar and experience the Suki Hama, SA’s very first authentically Japanese sushi restaurant.

The last guests checked out of Joburg’s “hotel of the future” in 1997.

• This article, which is an adaptation of a talk the writers gave at a Johannesburg Heritage Foundation event, was originally published on the Financial Mail website.