April 24, 2024

The Southern Cross Hotel

In 1962 the Southern Cross Hotel opened on Exhibition Street, and the international jet set came to Melbourne.

The iconic Pan Am logo
The iconic Pan Am logo

Pan American Airways was the 20th century’s most famous airline.

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, Pan Am’s initial Chairman, had oversize ambitions. Investing in cutting edge aircraft, buying out his competition, and using his political connections to get a monopoly on popular routes, Trippe expanded the company rapidly.

From a network of a local flying boats, known as ‘Clippers’, in the 1930s, Pan Am began the first regular transatlantic flights in the 1940s.

A Pan Am 707
A Pan Am 707

Jet aircraft arrived after World War II, the advanced planes opening up even more routes. Their larger size also meant more passengers, the economy of scale then leading 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 travelled regularly 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.

The first InterContinental Hotel, in Belem
The first InterContinental Hotel, in Belem

Alongside its burgeoning air passenger business, Pan Am 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. InterContinental hotels sprung up around the world.

The 1956 Olympics at the MCG
The 1956 Olympics at the MCG

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. The local government felt the city had an old-fashioned look, and rushed to modernise.

In the absence of any meaningful heritage legislation, a lot of the city’s older buildings were simply demolished (you can read more about this, here). More modern buildings were constructed in their place.

Eastern Market location, Melbourne
Eastern Market location, Melbourne

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 a block between Exhibition and Bourke Streets. The site had previously been the location of the Eastern Market, a once popular flower and retail space that had declined in popularity after World War II.

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.

Model of the Southern Cross Hotel
Model of the Southern Cross Hotel

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 tower, housing the hotel’s 435 rooms (making it the largest in Australia), alongside a glass fronted shopping plaza, which would be home to a range of high-end retail outlets.

The tower would be white, the balconies decorated with mosaic tiles in 23 shades of eye-catching blue.

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’.

The Southern Cross Hotel
The Southern Cross Hotel

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 lounge at the Southern Cross Hotel
The lounge at the Southern Cross Hotel

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’ had 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. 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.

The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, February 1964
The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, February 1964

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 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 with stand in drummer Jimmy Nichols, Melbourne
The Beatles with stand in drummer Jimmy Nichols, Melbourne

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.

The Beatles on the Southern Cross Hotel balcony
The Beatles on the Southern Cross Hotel balcony

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 Nazi 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, and were in bed by 9pm. A smaller crowd kept vigil on Exhibition Street, throughout the night.

The Southern Cross Hotel says, Thank You Beatles
The Southern Cross Hotel says, Thank You Beatles

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.

Frank Sinatra arrives at Festival Hall, July 1974
Frank Sinatra arrives at Festival Hall, July 1974

In 1974, Frank Sinatra was a guest when a furore erupted during his 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 Sinatra’s tour unless an apology was forthcoming.

The besieged singer 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 then ACTU leader, Bob Hawke.

Prince Diana greeted on the streets of Melbourne, 1983
Prince Diana greeted on the streets of Melbourne, 1983

Other famous guests at The Southern Cross included Judy Garland, Rock Hudson, John Wayne, and Marlene Dietrich. Prince Charles and Princess Diana, touring Australia shortly after their marriage, also stayed there.

The Southern Cross was chic and fashionable, a pocket of cosmopolitan sophistication. It was popular with local tourists as well; visitors to Melbourne, even locals, looking to share in its reflected glamour.

Live from the Southern Cross Hotel: Brownlow '88
Live from the Southern Cross Hotel: Brownlow ’88

The ballroom also became the venue for large events in Melbourne.

Starting in the 1970s, both the TV Logie Awards, and AFL’s Brownlow Medal count, were usually held at The Southern Cross. It was also used for the Victorian Liberal Party’s election night celebrations.

Liberal Prime Minister Malcom Fraser, a Victorian, announced each of his election wins – 1975, 1977 and 1980 – in The Southern Cross ballroom.

The garden at the Southern Cross Hotel
The garden at the Southern Cross Hotel

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 tried. The themed décor was removed, and the distinctive blue tiles on the exterior were painted over white. These changes drew a mixed response.

Pan Am bankruptcy reported in the New York Times
Pan Am bankruptcy reported in the New York Times

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. Its end was swift: 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 properties sold off was The Southern Cross Hotel.

Southern Cross Hotel: abandoned and partly demolished
Southern Cross Hotel: abandoned and partly demolished

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.

While its future was uncertain, a bid by the National Trust for heritage protection was rejected.

Southern Cross Tower, present day
Southern Cross Tower, present day

The government of Nauru eventually re-sold the property, and the site was completely redeveloped. In the early 2000s, a modern office tower was constructed in its place.

Today it is a mixed use building, featuring a Commonwealth Bank branch, a VicRoads, a Post Office, and Victorian state  government offices.

As a tribute to its predecessor, the new building is called ‘The Southern Cross Tower’.



  1. I worked there early 80s as a porter brilliant job Tasman Keating, bill seaman.Ron Phillips David little the doorman great days

  2. I worked there in the early 1980’s. My first full time job as a Bell Man/concierge. Being able to see all areas of the hotel was a great start in the hospitality industry.

    One thing I remember was the rooms had fan controls for air conditioning… The a/c was in fact pumped into the corridors and then if a guest required cooling they turned on the fan and sucked the a/c cooled air into the room. As a result the corridors remained quite cool but it wasn’t that effective in the guest rooms.

    Lots of good memories…

    I remember the lift buttons could also be pulled out if the wrong floor had been selected.

    1. That room cooling system is amazing! It would have been great to see the hotel, it had just been demolished when I moved to Melbourne. Thanks for sharing!

  3. In 1972 we spent the first night of our honeymoon at the Southern Cross. It was the logies night and we ended up in a lift with Bert Newton, but we were too shy to say anthing to him. Of course we now regret this!

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