1867 Menzies Hotel opens in Melbourne

Menzies Hotel 1897

Menzies Hotel, on the corner of Bourke and William Streets, was the first of Melbourne’s grand Victorian-era hotels. For many years it was regarded as the finest hotel in Melbourne and boasted many famous guests. It was extended and remodelled many times, but in 1969 was demolished to make way for an office building. The only grand hotel of the era to survive is the Hotel Windsor (originally called the Grand Hotel) in Spring Street.

Menzies Hotel, 1870s

The first Menzies Hotel was considerably less grand. It was opened by Scottish immigrants Archibald and Catherine Menzies in 1853 in Latrobe Street, near Elizabeth Street, and was reputedly a favourite with diggers from the goldfields. The couple then purchased the land in William Street using funds from a fortunate investment in a gold mine and the new Menzies was opened in time for the visit of Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, in 1867. It was built by David Mitchell, Dame Nellie Melba’s father.

In its early days, the hotel was a favourite with the “squattocracy”, who brought their whole households, including servants, to stay. It was also a tradition to take lunch at Menzies on English mail days – when the mail from “home” arrived at the post office in Bourke Street.

After Archibald Menzies died in 1889 his widow, and then his son, carried on the business. In 1896, the first major renovations were undertaken, with two storeys added to the hotel. As well as luxurious suites on the upper floors, the public rooms were redecorated in the opulent, high Victorian manner. The Sportsman, Melbourne reported that:

A picturesque addition to the Moorish hall on the ground floor is the “winter garden,” laid with Indian rugs and furnished with cool and comfortable cane chairs….In the summer months dinner will be served here at separate tables to accommodate small parties. … The main hall has been elegantly decorated by Mr. Phil Goatcher, who has also done the music room in soft tints, gold and silver, with a medallioned frieze and elaborate ceiling, whereon are depicted musical nymphs….

The new improved Menzies Hotel also offered every modern convenience, including ample supplies of hot and cold water, electric bells in all the rooms and “telephones communicating to the main business portion of the premises” in every passageway. In 1924 Menzies Hotel became a public company and in 1936 the Menzies family sold its final share. However, the traditions of the hotel did not change. In the 1930s, lunch in the grand dining room gave patrons the choice of two soups, three entrées, fish, eight different types of grills, a cold buffet, salads, three or four sweets and Stilton Cheese, all for six shillings (60 cents). The hotel employed more than 50 waiters to ensure the service lived up to expectations.

Menzies counted many a celebrity among its guests over the years. Mark Twain evidently asked if he could help stoke the boilers as part of his fitness regime. English novelist Anthony Trollope declared “I have never put myself up at a better inn in any part of the world”. H.G. Wells stayed and Poet Laureate John Masefield swapped poetry reviews with the lift operator. The Sultan of Jahore wore diamonds in his teeth and had gold sovereigns for waistcoat buttons. During the 1940s, the top floor of the hotel was, for a time, the military headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific.

By the early 1960s, however, the hotel’s upmarket image was proving a handicap. Visitors to Melbourne were seeking the modernity and convenience of new, American-style hotels like the Southern Cross. There weren’t enough “top people” to go around and Menzies was forced to consider “ordinary people with ordinary bank accounts”. A facelift, shows with international artists like Al Martino, Shirley Bassey and Diana Dors, and even  “young adults” dinner dances failed to revive the hotel’s fortunes.

Menzies Hotel 1960s

I knew Menzies only in its declining years. In 1965 I began working at an advertising agency located at 473 Bourke Street. Menzies was “the local” and Friday night drinks invariably took place at the Menzies bar. I have only hazy memories of the gaudily patterned carpets and polished brass fittings. The agency relocated to St Kilda Road in late 1968 so we were spared the grief of the hotel’s final days.

In 1968, the accommodation areas of the hotel were closed and the contents auctioned. The last function held at Menzies was the wedding of the Collingwood football player, Len Thompson, in January 1969. Whelan the Wrecker moved in on 1 May that year and another Melbourne icon was soon gone forever. Scotts Hotel had been knocked down in 1961 and the Federal Hotel was demolished in 1973. The Hotel Windsor narrowly avoided the same fate in the early 1970s.

Note: Robyn Annear compiled extensive notes about Menzies Hotel for her work on Whelan the Wrecker and has thoughtfully made them available online here. I am indebted to her for many of the facts in this story.

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