In 1962 the Southern Cross Hotel opened on Exhibition Street, and the international jet set came to Melbourne.
The city block on the corner of Exhibition and Bourke Streets, at the east end of the city, has always played a role in the history of Melbourne.
The first principal building on the site was the Eastern Market, which opened in 1847. It was one of several markets in the fledgling city, which provided, among other things, fresh produce, hardware, and agricultural equipment.
Originally a series of small wooden shops, grouped around a central open space, in the 1870s the Eastern Market was remodelled.
A large, low, main building was constructed, and a series of sheds for the market stalls. This development took several years, during which many of the stallholders relocated to the Queen Victoria Markets, at the other end of the CBD.
After the Eastern Market reopened, one of the stallholders was Charles Cole, a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur turned bookseller. Cole turned his market stall into ‘Coles Book Arcade’ on Bourke Street, a hugely popular local shop eventually billed as the world’s largest bookstore (read more about this, here).
By the early 20th century, the Eastern Market had begun to specialise in fresh flowers, while the associated shops evolved into a curious assortment of attractions; tattoo artists, fortune tellers, even circus acts.
The surrounding streets steadily developed a seedy reputation.
Nearby was ‘Little Lon’, a notorious early Melbourne slum, and the eastern end of the city was best known for its brothels and dive bars.
Its reputation was compounded in 1921 with the murder of Alma Tirtschke, a 12 year old whose body was found in Gun Alley, a block from the Eastern Market (read more about this famous unsolved crime, here).
The press reporting of the story highlighted the unsavoury nature of the neighbourhood; The Age called it ‘squalid and depressing’.
The Eastern Market stallholders agreed, and through the 1930s and 40s resumed their. Many stalls sat empty, the main building grew shabby. The market struggled on until the late 1950s, when it was finally closed, and the site sold.
The new owners had a very different idea for the location.
From the perspective of the present day, it is difficult to imagine the size and impact of the 20th century’s most famous airline: Pan Am (AKA: Pan American Airways).
The company was founded in 1927 by two former US Army Air Corp officers, and began modestly: their first contract was a mail route between Florida and Cuba. Passenger services in Central America began the following year.
But Juan Trippe, Chairman of the Board of Directors, had oversize ambitions. Trippe’s strategy for expansion hinged on three tactics: aggressively countering rival airlines (or acquiring them), investment in cutting edge aircraft, and his political connections, which he used to get a monopoly on popular routes.
Under Trippe’s leadership, Pan Am grew rapidly; from a network of a local flying boats, known as ‘Clippers’, to the first regular transatlantic flights in the 1940s.
Jet aircraft arrived after World War II, bringing a new era of planes: bigger, faster, and with more range.
Pan Am was at the forefront of this change, acquiring pioneering jets from manufacturers Douglas and Boeing.
The advanced planes opened up new routes, and their larger size meant more passengers; the economy of scale then lead to cheaper airfares.
Air travel, previously the preserve of a select few, was now a viable option for many. International travel became much more common, and the leisure and tourism industry expanded dramatically to service a huge new customer base.
People who followed this new trend, regular overseas travel by plane, were given a name: the jet set.
Pan Am was closely associated with these developments. It’s logo and uniform were iconic, the airline became one of the world’s most recognisable brands, associated with glamour and adventure.
The company’s expansion continued through the 1950s and 60s; the Boeing 707 arrived in 1958, the Douglas DC8 in 1960.
Alongside its burgeoning air passenger business, Pan Am also looked to diversify.
One of its offshoots was a hotel chain, InterContinental Hotels and Resorts, which Trippe launched in 1946. Similar to its parent airline, the InterContinental chain began in South America, before expanding globally.
With its own line of hotels, Pan Am was able to offer another novel innovation: the holiday package, with flights and accommodation bundled together.
Travel packages proved popular, and InterContinental hotels sprung up around the world.
In 1956, Melbourne became the first city in the southern hemisphere to host the Olympic Games.
This event brought international attention, and proved to be a catalyst for change. Many of Melbourne’s major buildings had been constructed in the 19th century, or between the World Wars.
The local government felt the city had an old-fashioned look, and rushed to modernise. In the scramble, and in the absence of any meaningful heritage legislation, a lot of the older buildings were simply demolished, and their architectural legacy lost (you can read more about this, here).
More modern buildings would be constructed in their place.
In June 1956, John Murray, Senior Vice President of Pan Am, visited Melbourne to inspect sites for a new InterContinental Hotel.
Murray viewed three locations, eventually settling on the block formerly occupied by the Eastern Market. A deal was struck between Pan Am, local investors, and the city council; Melbourne companies would build the hotel, which would then be run by the InterContinental.
A 99 year lease was signed between the government and the hotel consortium.
The design of the new building would be a partnership as well; Los Angeles architects Welton Becket & Associates teaming up with local firm Leslie M. Perrot & Partners.
Both the government and the airline wanted a bold design. The architects would not disappoint.
The plans they produced envisioned an eleven-storey rectangular tower, housing the hotel’s 435 rooms (making it the largest in Australia).
The tower would be principally white, with the room’s exteriors providing a contrast; they were decorated with mosaic tiles, in 23 shades of eye-catching blue.
Alongside the tower was a glass fronted shopping plaza, which would be home to a range of high-end retail outlets.
It was to be a striking, modern building, unlike any other in Melbourne. To give it some local flavour, the new hotel would be called ‘The Southern Cross’.
Construction commenced in 1961, and was completed the following year. The building had a lavish launch on August 24, 1962: the guest of honour was Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies.
Press coverage was voluminous, and highlighted the hotel’s up-to-date design and features, including individual air-conditioning and a television in every room, both uncommon at the time.
The hotel had nine different bars and restaurants, a number of them themed.
The ‘Mayfair Room’ featured 19th century fixtures and gas lighting (some of it salvaged from the old Eastern Market), the ‘Coolibah Restaurant’ aboriginal artwork, and the ground floor ‘Tavern’ was styled like a traditional English pub, with dark wood panelling, and lead light partitions.
Below ground was a 300 capacity carpark, and a 500 seat ballroom.
Noted local writer Keith Dunstan paid a visit to the hotel, the year it opened:
‘This new building is certainly different.
The walls on the outside are decorated with a rich blue, mosaic tile. How can I describe it? In drab Exhibition Street the Southern Cross stands out like something imported from the Gold Coast, or Florida.
The bedrooms look most comfortable. As a special concession to Australians, one can open the windows, in defiance of the air conditioning. The passages on alternate floors are in blue and gold, and there are 7 different colour schemes in the rooms.
As you walk through the concourse of shops, inside there is a courtyard, away from the madness of the streets. In the centre there is a garden and a waterfall sculpture.
It is really its own city, on Exhibition Street.’
– Keith Dunstan, ‘Walkabout’ magazine, July 1962
The new hotel proved immediately popular, attracting curious locals and international visitors in high numbers.
In June 1964, The Beatles came to Melbourne.
The rock group had been growing rapidly in popularity over the previous two years, but had been catapulted to global superstardom earlier in 1964, when they appeared live on the Ed Sullivan show. An estimated audience of more than 70 million had tuned in to watch them perform, a subsequent series of live stadium concerts were sold out.
But more than their success as musicians, the band became associated with a kind of hysteria that followed them. ‘Beatlemania’ manifested itself with hordes of excited young people, crying, screaming, scrambling desperately to catch a glimpse of the group.
As part of a whirlwind world tour, the band agreed to several shows in Australia.
The Beatles landed at Essendon airport, then Melbourne’s principal airport, on June 14, 1964. An estimated crowd of 5 000 turned out to watch John, Paul, George and drummer Jimmy Nichols disembark.
Ringo, who had been unwell and who did not play in Australia, joined the band later the same day.
The band were booked into the Southern Cross Hotel, and a much larger crowd, estimated as high as 200 000, had gathered in the surrounding streets. Most had been waiting for hours, since the early morning.
A large police presence was on hand to control the throng, but struggled to keep order. Barricades erected on Exhibition Street to keep the hotel entrance clear were swept aside by fans, many of whom then climbed trees, or on top of cars, to get a better view.
After arriving in a closed car via a staff entrance, the Beatles appeared for a few minutes on a hotel balcony.
They laughed and joked amongst themselves, and did mock Hitler salutes to the crowd below; a favourite joke.
The already excited crowd went into hysterics, and surged towards the police guarding the hotel:
‘During the “big crush” the lounge room floor of the Australian-American Club was like a battlefield strewn with bodies.
Crushing, foot and leg injuries and hysteria cases were laid out on blankets and carpets all over the floor and propped up in armchairs lining the walls.
Many were unconscious when brought in, while others sobbed in pain, or were hysterical with emotion.
Unconscious people were passed over the heads of the crowd to get them to safety.’
– ‘The Age’ reports The Beatles arrival, June 15, 1964
Things calmed down once The Beatles retreated inside. The band were tired from travel, their touring schedule was relentless, and were in bed by 9pm. A smaller crowd kept vigil on Exhibition Street, throughout the night.
The Beatles performed at Festival Hall the following three nights, before moving on.
After they left, the bedsheets they had used at the Southern Cross Hotel were cut into pieces and sold off, the proceeds going to charity.
Other celebrities would stay at The Southern Cross in the ensuing years, as it became the place to stay in Melbourne.
In 1974, Frank Sinatra was a guest when a furore erupted during a concert tour.
Annoyed by questions from a female journalist during a press conference, Sinatra (also appearing at Festival Hall) remarked on stage that all Australian journalists were ‘hookers’.
Outrage at this slur was instant. Local unions, whose members were required for transport and logistics, advised they would no longer support the tour unless an apology was forthcoming.
The besieged Sinatra fled The Southern Cross when the story broke, eventually holing up at a hotel in Sydney, as negotiations to get the tour back on schedule unfolded. Peace was eventually brokered via the intervention of future Prime Minister, then ACTU kingpin, Bob Hawke.
Other famous guests at The Southern Cross included Judy Garland, Rock Hudson, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
The hotel was considered chic and fashionable, a pocket of cosmopolitan cool in a city still shaking off its colonial roots.
The ballroom also became the go to venue for large events in Melbourne.
Starting in the 1970s, both the TV Logie Awards, and AFL’s Brownlow Medal count, were regularly held at The Southern Cross. It was also the usual location for the Victorian Liberal Party’s election night celebration.
Liberal Prime Minister Malcom Fraser, a Victorian, announced each of his election wins – 1975, 1977 and 1980 – to delirious crowds in The Southern Cross ballroom.
But by the 1980s, the hotel’s heyday had passed.
As Melbourne’s international standing had continued to grow, other luxury hotels had been built in the city. The Southern Cross faced competition from The Hyatt, the Hilton, The Langham, and others.
The building’s design, bracingly modern in 1962, now seemed old fashioned, even kitsch. Architecture historian Lewis Miles, writing in the 1990s, called it ‘garish’.
An attempt to tone down the hotel’s features was attempted: removing the themed rooms, and painting over the blue tiles, turning the whole building white. These changes drew a mixed response.
Pan Am was also in trouble.
Its era of dominance had peaked in the 1960s, and from that time it began a long, slow decline. In a way, it was a victim of its own success: the airline had always had too many routes, too many planes, and too many staff.
Overheads were enormous, and it faced increasing competition from smaller, more budget conscious airlines.
The company’s position gradually worsened through the 1980s, and it filed for bankruptcy in 1991. What had been the world’s dominant airline for decades, ceased operating the same year.
InterContinental Hotels was now successful in its own right, and continued as an independent business. As part of the restructure it streamlined its portfolio; one of the property’s it sold off was The Southern Cross Hotel.
The building was purchased by The Republic of Nauru, in 1994.
Nauru, a tiny south Pacific Island nation, had extensive business dealings in Australia, and had invested significantly in Melbourne real estate.
The new owners originally intended to demolish the shopping plaza and refurbish the hotel, but changed their plans due to ballooning costs. The shopping plaza was demolished as planned in 1995, before the project went into hiatus: the hotel tower then stood, empty and abandoned, on its corner for 8 more years.
A bid by the National Trust for heritage protection was rejected.
The government of Nauru eventually sold the property again, and the site was completely redeveloped. A nondescript, mixed use building, including a Commonwealth Bank and Victorian government offices, stands on the site today.
The new building was named, The Southern Cross Tower.