Thursday, April 28, 2011

Across the Border: Kings Cross: Bars: Kings Cross Hotel

I used to walk straight by the Kings Cross Hotel without giving the pub a second glance. But now I linger and stare and spy and it's safe to say I have a massive crush on this building because for once it has been given a makeover that befits its grand presence on the streetscape of Kings Cross. Gone is the garishly ugly, suburban-club-style signage that appeared above its doors when it reopened following a $9 million overhaul in June 2008. Instead the only signage is the original grand lettering on the top of the building and rather than looking away, your eyes are drawn up by the plants that now decorate the hotel's numerous Juliet balconies. The building is alive again. When the hoardings came down and it reopened following this $20 million refurbishment, I couldn't wait to go inside . . .

The ground floor bar is just like a regular pub, with bar seating, club chairs and televisions mounted to the walls. It's cosy; not all that exciting, but is a vast improvement on its former stark style, which featured cold tiled floors and uncomfortable looking cafe-style seating.

But the first best part of the pub is the first floor: 

What could be more fabulous than spending the night drinking with the Coca-Cola sign for company. There's also ample opportunities for spying on people on the street. 

It's also a good place to eat as the kitchen is on the same floor. When I went with my friend on Saturday night I had a $12 steak and he had $16 nachos. The menu ranges in price from $8 for chips to $26 for an eye fillet with mash, spinach and pepper sauce. In between, there's about 16 other items including Tasmanian salmon with lemon mash, asparagus and tomato ($21) and a KX burger with chips ($16). On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the kitchen also offers $12 specials, which includes Chili Mussels and Fries. 

On the second floor is the FBi Social space, which is one of the rare intimate live music venues in Sydney. Gigs are organised by the independent Redfern-based radio station, so the music is likely to be very good. The Chaser comedy team also held a show in the space a couple of weeks ago and I think they have another one coming up.
In a couple of weeks, the third floor of the Kings Cross Hotel - the one directly above FBi Social - will open with a 70s themed FBi Social spillover lounge:

The space is fitted out with comfy-looking sofas, which will apparently help to absorb the sound of the bands playing on the floor below, as the music will be piped into the lounge. 

That beautiful wooden box (above) is one of the building's original elevator carriages and is apparently going to be used as a photography studio, where FBi Social punters can have their portraits taken. 

So how do I know about all these grand plans and dreams? Because when I returned to the hotel on Tuesday to take some better pictures, one of the lovely hotel people offered to take me on a tour of the building. Oh, grand! 
So they have friendly staff, who are also locals, which is a good sign. 
The charming young man also took me up to the fourth floor of the Kings Cross Hotel where a new bar, Feted Glory, (or was it Faded Glory?) is scheduled to open in two months.

I had actually peeked at the space while snooping around the building on Saturday night, but this time I was introduced to the designer, Brian P, and artist, Andrea Davies (below) who was busy at work painting murals on the walls:

The room is all Baroque Bacchanalian with warm tones, gilt furnishings and Rubenesque nudes peering down from the walls. Perhaps they found some of their furniture at Royalty Prussia?

I am sure Feted/Faded Glory will be the scene of many debaucherous parties, so long as it attracts the right crowd.

The next floor up, is the Level Five Rooftop, and the only way to get there is by taking one of two lifts from the ground floor. Don't hesitate: visit the rooftop as soon as you can, just so you can see the bloody marvellous view during the day:

And at night (with 311 Bus):

The view also looks west to the city:

While at night, the rooftop is lit up with dozens of fairy colourful lights:

But by far my favourite treat of the guided tour was seeing what's inside the tower. Ever since it reopened, I have been obsessing about the corner tower. At night I could see lights on inside and I desperately wanted to have a look. And as much as I want to show you the pictures I have taken, I am worried about ruining the surprise and mystery. Think: Arabian Nights; VIP.
But I can't resist showing you the tower's view:

And I love the way the Horizon always juts into frame:

Before my Tuesday tour I had spent the entire morning researching the history of the Kings Cross Hotel, so there was an added thrill in being led through the space with all the colourful hotel stories still fresh in my mind. It almost gave me goosebumps. The hotel's history is rich but I had to trawl through dozens of historical newspaper archives on the excellent Trove website to discover just the smallest jewels of information to piece together its past. 
It all begins back in the late 1800s when the James's Victoria Hotel stood on the site:

There are very few references to this hotel period in the archives. The picture above was taken in February 1911, just prior to its demolition. The building is obviously in the Victorian style, but I can't find the exact decade it was built. Based on other historical records of the day, I suspect it was built sometime in the 1880s. The site was owned by Mr R James and family. On the 20th of June, 1892, Mrs James placed a wanted advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald:

''A good general servant wanted at once, another kept, own family, only 1. Mrs James, Victoria Hotel, Kings Cross.''

The next mention of the James's Victoria Hotel was on Friday, March 6, 1914, when the Municipal Council of Sydney, who had resumed the land, published a notice in the Sydney Morning Herald inviting tenders for the lease of the site.
Under the 30-year lease conditions was a building covenant of 13,000 pounds, meaning potential lessees had to demolish the building and spend a minimum of this amount erecting a new hotel. 

The tender was won by Annie Mozzall (nee McCarter), from Kingsford, in Sydney's south, who had married her second husband, builder Thomas Richard Mozzall, in 1904. So technically the first licensee of the Kings Cross Hotel was a woman.
In May 1914, Ms Mozzall assigned all her rights under the agreement to Frederick James Kelly, who in turn gave the lease to Toohey's, who had agreed to then grant a sub-lease to Mr Kelly to be licensee of the new establishment.
Bizarrely, I can find no reference to exactly what year the Kings Cross Hotel was built and opened, but my guess is 1915-1916. I don't even think there is a date on the hotel's parapet. This photograph was taken in the 1930s:

The Federation Freestyle five-storey building was designed by Eric Ernest Lindsay Thompson, of Lindfield, in Sydney's north, and cost 13,500 Pounds to build. Thompson also designed the similar Macquarie Hotel on Wentworth Street on the edge of Surry Hills, colloquially known as The Mac Hotel. 
Archival architectural illustrations by Thompson show that alterations to the ground floor of the Kings Cross Hotel were approved by the council in August 1917, but it is unclear what exact changes were made.
That same year in November, licensee Mr Kelly and his wife Catherine, were sued by Walter Avery, of 454 Bourke Street, Surry Hills, for alleged negligence in the District Court. Avery wanted 100 pounds compensation after claiming the Kellys's ''so insecurely and improperly fixed a sign board on the hotel premises that it fell and struck the plaintiff who was passing by.'' 
Unfortunately the Sydney Morning Herald's court reporter failed to follow up the case and write about the judgement.
While Toohey's retained ownership of the site for 30 years, the sub-licence changed hands countless times during that period. For history's sake here is a list of licensees, based on details from the Metropolitan Licence Court:

Mostyn Molony  - unknown to May 1923
William Thompson - May 1923 to August 1925
Alfred Monmus - August 1925 to April 1927
Lena Jane Monmus (executrix of the late Alfred's will) - April 1927 to unknown
William Thompson - unknown to February 1933
Arthur Horsman - February 1933 to August 1933
Reginald Gordon Rickard - August 1933 to March 1936
Frederick Smith - March 1936 to unknown
Ethel May Tinker - unknown to September 1938
Martha Jane Doyle - September 1938 to unknown
John Elwyn Doyle - unknown to October 1939
Frank Fitzpatrick Johnson - October 1939 to unknown
John J Trouville - unknown to December 1940
Thomas Lawrence O'Toole - December 1940 to unknown

Yes, I admit, there is a lot of unknowns. Licensee Mostyn Molony took Toohey's to the High Court of Australia in April, 1932, trying to claim back a compensation fee he had paid to the Liquor Board, which he later felt he shouldn't have been liable for as sub-licensee. Again the final judgement in that case was not reported.  
In The Sydney Morning Herald's January 4 1933 edition, there appeared under the headline ''Theft of Mug'' the sad story of James Henry Hassard, aged 19, who was charged at the Central Police Court with stealing a beer mug, valued at ninepence, from the Kings Cross Hotel. 
When asked by the prosecutor Mr MacDougal SM, why on earth he did such a thing, Hassard replied: ''I was under the influence of liquor.''
Mr MacDougal SM responded with: ''You have no right to be at your age, it is like your impudence to say so. You ought to be smacked.''
Poor young, drunken Hassard was fined 1 Pound, 10 Shillings or three days imprisonment with hard labour. It is not known if he was also smacked for good measure.

Although the above photograph would suggest otherwise, by 1936 - the year before this picture was taken - traffic around Kings Cross was proving a problem and a danger for pedestrians. In October, 1936, Linda Prince of Potts Point, wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald proposing the demolition of the Kings Cross Hotel as a way to ease traffic. The removal of the hotel, she claimed, ''would give an uninterrupted view for traffic coming from the city, would eliminate the two dangerous curves, and form almost a square at the section in Bayswater Road, instead of the bottle-neck now existing.''
While Ms Prince's frightening proposal was never taken up, it wasn't the last time the idea would emerge.
But until then Toohey's faced other problems. Toohey's lease was due to end on June 13, 1944 and in March of that year, the Finance Committee of the then City Council called for tenders for the new lease.
Toohey's had been paying 1500 Pounds a year plus rates, taxes and insurance and they again applied for a new lease, but an objection was raised in the Legislative Assembly about whether it was within the law for Toohey's to hold a liquor licence for more than one establishment. The lease was deferred for two years but in February 1946, the City Council accepted Toohey's tender to lease the hotel for another ten years at 181 Pounds, 10 Shillings a week - the highest tender on offer.
But again the lease hit difficulties when the Federal Government intervened, for the most remarkable of reasons:
''The Delegate to the Treasurer has informed the council that the proposed rent is too high and that a fair rent is 123 Pounds a week,'' the Sydney Morning Herald reported in September 1946.
''The present rate is 93 Pounds a week plus rates, taxes and insurance.
''Alderman Harding said that since calling for tenders the council had adopted the Kings Cross Traffic Circus Scheme, which would involve the demolition of the Kings Cross Hotel.''
So the demolition scheme was back on the agenda with the council's plans to create a circuit at the junction of William and Victoria streets to allow for a smoother flow of traffic.
The hotel was only saved by the wrecking ball because of money: the proposed circus would cost 492,150 Pounds, which was far too expensive for the council. And so the hotel remained.

I'm not sure what kind of life the hotel had during the 1950s to the 1980s. There are rumours it was once run as a classy bordello by a woman called Kitty Kelly, who was a friend of the famed dominatrix, Madame Lash.
At some point, probably during the heritage-green 1980s, it was painted in this particularly fast-dating shade. In the late 1980s, the hotel was owned by Steve Larkin's Rofalo company and operated under the moniker, Oz Rock Cafe. Dr Larkin sold the hotel to Lady Mary Fairfax's Amalgamated Hotels in 1992 for $3.3 million. 
I remember visiting the hotel soon after when there were nightclubs playing retro music operating on the upper levels. It was fairly run down by that stage and continued to be unloved for the next decade, failing to meet safety conditions, until it was purchased by Brian Perry's company, Repeller Nominees, in 2002 for $8.5 million. 
The hotel underwent a $4 million refurbishment to meet safety requirements the following year but it was becoming clear the building needed more than a cosmetic makeover, it needed major surgery.
Getting the development application approved through the City of Sydney council wasn't so easy however, and Nicholas Back Architects fought a three-year battle in the Land and Environment Court to gain approval for the glass frontage and other amendments, as well as the 24-hour, seven day a week trading hours. 
Interestingly the hotel is not listed on any heritage register, but a heritage impact statement tendered to the court did note its landmark status in Kings Cross and is architectural significance. 
In 2006 the hotel shut its doors and under the passionate direction of heritage-lover Perry, the building was brought back to life. Officially Perry dropped $9 million on the redevelopment, but I suspect it was much more. Nicholas Back Architects converted the back of the hotel into apartments and workers laboriously stripped the hotel facade of the green paint using an environmentally friendly soy-bean paste. The building was gutted and restored to its former glory. 

The only problem when it reopened in June 2008, was that there seemed to be no money left for clever marketing. And then, of course, there was that awful signage above the front doors as well as the unwelcoming, seemingly sterile foyer-style ground floor bar. 
I did a straw poll among my Kings Cross friends last week and none had been to the Kings Cross Hotel after it reopened in 2008 - despite the fact they are all enthusiastic drinkers and lovers of the neighbourhood. 
The hotel stayed open for about a year, until it was sold, in October 2009, to Top Ryde Nominees, a company owned by pub king, Bruce Solomon.
Solomon is a director of Solotel, a hospitality group that runs 18 drinking holes across Sydney, including the Darlo Bar, the Green Park, The Clock in Surry Hills, Newtown's Courthouse Hotel, The Golden Sheaf in Double Bay, The Paddington Inn and the Opera Bar.

So it seems the Solomon Group has more than enough experience and expertise to make the Kings Cross Hotel a success. I would just hope that they make sure to market the place to locals. A pub is nothing without locals. Perhaps they could introduce a badge for people in the 2010 and 2011 postcodes so that we can buy $3 schooners. The old, storm-damaged Bourbon did this, and they had a loyal following.

ARCHIVE PICTURE SOURCES: Trove, City of Sydney Archives.

Kings Cross Hotel
248 William Street
Kings Cross NSW 2011
02 9331 9900

Sunday to Thursday - midday to 3am
Friday to Saturday - midday to 6am


Billie Bites said...

Looking forward to checking it out - especially that mysterious tower


Great bloody post! I'm thirsty and don't care if they serve only schooners!

Mark Turnbull said...

Please note the original architect for the Kings Cross Hotel was Sydney city councillor , Ernest Lindsay Thompson , 1870 - 1935 , not his nephew Eric Lindsay Thompson , 1905 -1957.

Violet Tingle said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Mark. Have amended the text. Best, Violet.

Jackie May said...

Really enjoyed that. My grandfather was Frank Johnson, the licensee from October 1939. He went on to be the publican of the Hotel Coolah, which then stayed in our family for 50 years. Will try to get more info on our family connection to share with you.

Violet Tingle said...

Wow, that's great Jackie. Look forward to hearing from you. Violet x

Sacha said...

Fab post! And great looking pub.

Anonymous said...

Bruce Solomon (Solotel) does not own the Clock. Lady Mary Fairfax's company does. Bruce just manages it as he manages other Amalgamated Hotels (e.g the Sackville in Balmain).

Mike said...

I had my first beer in a place called the Oz Rock Cafe. It was in back in the year 1987 and had Mad Max's motorcycle in it. I wonder if it's the same place described in the article.

Mike said...

I had my first beer in a place called the Oz Rock Cafe. It was in back in the year 1987 and had Mad Max's motorcycle in it. I wonder if it's the same place described in the article.

Unknown said...

Hello wondering if your grandfather had a son Norman who was in the hotel business at Kings X. We are looking for Norman Johnson Kings X hotel Circ 1971/1972