Usually when we reflect on Brisbane’s “lost” buildings we immediately think of the Bellevue Hotel or Cloudland. However some may have forgotten about another building which played an important part in Brisbane’s early tourism industry. The Canberra Hotel, which stood for 58 years, had a remarkable and successful history before the wrecking ball crashed down.
The Canberra Hotel was officially opened on 20 July 1929. The hotel was situated on the corner of Ann and Edwards Streets, opposite the Salvation Army’s People’s Palace. It was erected by the Queensland Prohibition League (formerly the Strength of Empire Movement, and later the Temperance League). The founders aim was to demonstrate “that a first class hotel could be successfully conducted without the curse and nuisance of liquor“. They dedicated the building to “the highest type of residential life … [and as] a guarantee and an assurance that the fight for a sober land was not going to die out“.
At the time of opening the Canberra Hotel was a 7 storey steel, reinforced, concrete building. A few years later two extra floors were added. The 9 floors contained 280 rooms, (which could accommodate 465 people), 13 specialty stores, a lodge hall and office accommodation for the Queensland Temperance League, the Independent Order of Rechabites and the International Order of Good Templars.
The State Library of Queensland is very fortunate to hold an advertising flyer for the hotel from ca.1937. On this flyer, among the various features and virtues of the hotel, it proudly states that “it offers its guests the safety of a fire-proof building. Because of no fire risk, the Canberra carries no fire insurance“. In today’s society such a boast would probably see a sudden decline in bookings. Also in this flyer, the Canberra promotes itself as the first hotel in Australia to “incorporate re-conditioned air to its dining room service (providing cooled, cleaned, and dehumified air at a fixed temperature)”.
The Canberra Hotel was a popular destination for people travelling from regional Queensland to Brisbane and it was often referred to as the “city hotel for country people“. Naysayers, who believed at the time of opening that a “dry hotel” was doomed to be a commercial failure, were forced to eat their words as the hotel attracted 442,001 guests between 1930 and 1935.
In 1952 the Bjelkie-Petersen’s, Joh (later Premier of Queensland) and Flo (later Commonwealth Senator), had their wedding reception at the Canberra. The Canberra was reputed to have the largest selection of non-alcoholic beverages in Australia, specialising in virgin cocktails. The Lamplight Bar was the first non-alcoholic bar in Queensland. In 1979 the Canberra Hotel celebrated its 50th anniversary in style with a “monster” birthday cake, reported the largest ever produced in Brisbane, or so the proprietors claimed.
In 1985, the Queensland Temperance League sold the hotel. The new owner was granted a liquor licence, and the first beer ever served at the hotel was sold on 3 March 1986. By the time the Hotel closed for demolition in 1987, it had welcomed over 8 million guests. Unlike Cloudland and the Bellevue Hotel, the Deen Brothers’ demolition company was not contracted. On this occassion a competing firm, Bo’s Demolition was used. When speaking to the press their demolition expert commented “I’ve got no regrets whatsoever. If I didn’t do it, George Deen would“.
At that time it was one of Brisbane’s largest demolition projects . The site of the Canberra Hotel was ear-marked for ‘Central Place’, which the developer intended to be the “world’s tallest skyscraper” – standing at 445m high, with 104 storeys. In 1987 the world’s tallest building was the Sear’s Tower (now named Willis Tower) in Chicago, at 442m in height. The building project was eventually shelved. Today the very modern (and modest in height) Mincom building stands in its place.
The State Library of Queensland holds a number of collection items relating to the history of the Canberra Hotel, including old photographs, advertising flyers and administrative records of the Queensland Temperance League from 1939 to 1955.
Myles Sinnamon – Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland