The most modern hotel in Australia

The most modern hotel in Australia
Ashley Smith

Imagine you’re an eager tourist arriving at Spencer Street Station in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

With your back to the acrid coal smoke and much-needed sea breeze of the docks, you take one of the numerous passageways to the front entrance of the station and there, across the street at the corner of Spencer and Little Collins, you find the Hotel Alexander, the swankiest hotel in an otherwise no-frills end of the city.

The hotel started life as the Alexander Family Hotel in 1866, when proprietor Charles Alexander opened an hotel on the north side of Spencer and Little Collins streets. Little is reported about the building during this period, but it has been described by the hotel website as a “classically detailed Victorian-styled building with three levels.” Advertisements during its early years, such as one found in The Avoca Mail in 1869 promised a “choice assortment of wines, spirits, ales, &c.”, along with “first class accommodation” and “good baths”. It appeared to have been a popular place for the railway workers, as an 1866 Leader article (October 20) highlights several workers celebrating the acquittal of porter Mr Smyth, who had been wrongly accused of stealing.

Charles Alexander died in 1889 but his hotel outlived him, passing through many licensees over the next four decades. By the 1920s the hotel was owned by Scottish-born spirits salesman and hotelier, James Richardson, who at one point owned nine different hotels in the country. On July 1924, an article in The Herald announced that the hotel, now named The Sunshine, would be reconstructed and that Richardson and architect Leslie Perrot (later known for designing the Chevron Hotel at St Kilda Rd and the now-defunct Hotel Australia at Collins St) were leaving for America to study design ideas. When the resulting plans were shown to the licensing court a couple of years later, it was proposed the new 40-metre-tall tower would be “the most modern in Australia” with seven floors having bedrooms with private bathrooms. While a frugal man by reputation, Richardson was still willing to spend more than £350,000 on the reconstruction.

The new hotel, now known as the Hotel Alexander, was opened on January 31, 1928. Standing at 12 storeys, the building displayed American-style influences and the finest amenities. The first-floor featured saloon bars, and then a 30-metre square mezzanine floor that featured a lounge lined with counters of polished walnut. The second floor had dining and banquet rooms, with the main one capable of seating 300 visitors. For around 25 shillings a day (for a single bed) or 45 shillings a day (for a double bed), you could stay in one of the 200 bedrooms that occupied the building, each with its own ensuite bathroom, a new concept for Australian hotels at the time. Rooms also featured an electric reading light, wardrobe facilities, a writing desk, and free delivery of the morning newspaper. It also boasted a temperature-controlled environment, allowing the best comfort for anyone wanting to avoid the stinking hot summers or brutally chilly winters. Around 150 or so staff worked at the building during that time. Along with treating guests to a night of luxury, the hotel also hosted many wedding receptions and business conferences.

Richardson passed away in 1951, and the Alexander was sold to Federal Hotels for £450,000, refurbished and renamed the Savoy Plaza. It famously featured the Rainbow Room, opened in 1956, which consisted of an all-glass dancefloor that would flash an array of colourful lights thanks to hidden revolving discs. During this time, some of the biggest celebrities of the era would grace the building with their presence. This included Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and On The Beach co-stars Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins (who ironically would later play Hollywood’s most infamous motel owner, Norman Bates).

Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, was a guest during his 1955 tour and while leaving the Hotel on January 18, became a target of a bizarre attack. The Argus (January 19) reports that a fan with a newspaper bag ran up to him and attempted to “bag his head” for reasons only known to the assailant. Fortunately, the fan was apprehended (with no charges made) and Frank would croon another day. The hotel also gave a platform to emerging local talents, from would-be Aussie icons such as John Farnham, to international superstars such as The Seekers.

The golden years of its luxurious star-studded days came to a close in the 1970s, when it was converted into a police training unit. However, after being bought by Spencer Investments in the late 1980s the hotel underwent a renaissance re-opening in 1991 as the Savoy Hotel (and for a time was named the Savoy Vibe Hotel). Today the Savoy continues to operate as a hotel and recently went through refurbishments that harken back to the halcyon days of Art Deco design with the main shell of the hotel’s exterior strongly resembling its 1920s counterpart •

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