One of Australia’s grandest 20th-century hotels, The Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains reopened after being closed for renovations for the past six years. The hotel fittingly reopened on All Hallows’ Eve, as it was once host to regular costume parties for the Sydney elite back in its hey-day, as well as being the site of Australia’s first prime minister’s death in 1920.
Built in 1904 by Mark Foy, a retail baron who unloaded his shares of Foy’s department store chain to purchase and fund the development in 1902, the Hydro Majestic originally opened and functioned as a hydropathic sanatorium until 1909.
The focal point of the hotel was its lantern-shaped domed casino, which Foy shipped the pre-fabricated structure from Chicago to Sydney. Foy also built gardens, brought in his own herd of cows for milk, and included a steam-driven generator imported from Germany. This generator produced electricity for the resort and the neighbouring township of Medlow Bathand four days before the city of Sydney had access to such amenities.
Unfortunately, the hotel was severely damaged from a bushfire in 1922, whereupon Foy immediately began his own 14 years of refurbishment. Although it was not long after that the Hydro was taken over by the U.S. Defence Department in 1942 to be turned into a hospital for American casualties from the battles of the Coral Sea and South Pacific.
The building eventually fell into disrepair and in 2008, new owners George Saad and Huong Nguyen paid $11 million for the property, then closed the hotel for the next six years for its $30m refurbishment.
Backed by developer, and hotel owner, George Saad, The Escarpment Group hired architect Ashkan Mostaghim of Mostaghim & Associates, with interiors by Peter Reeve of CRD.
Mostaghim created the new Hydro Majestic Pavillion and a revised interpretation of the hotel’s old Boiler House to create a café environment with vistas from the Majestic Point Lookout.
Reeve revitalised the historic hotel with a fusion of Victorian, Edwardian, and Art Nouveau architecture and design through a unique range of carpets, paints, wallpapers and furnishings, aiming to restore the hotel’s “incredibly glamorous” past.
"People have a romantic vision of this building," said Reeve to Sydney Morning Herald, "I think part of our job in bringing it back to life is to enhance the romance and to not contradict history, and not to make it fake, but certainly to make it as glamorous and desirable as possible.”
The hotel’s famous casino still features it’s original stained glass and was refurbished to its monochrome origins, with patterned Edwardian carpets and focal chandelier.
As most of the hotel’s original furniture was either lost in the 1920’s bushfire or sold during the 1960’s and ‘80s, the furniture is modern yet historically aesthetic. Although there are still a number of Edwardian sofas marked “Property of Mark Foy” for observant guests to appreciate.
Next to the casino, The Wintergarden overlooks the Megalong Valley, which Reeve described as being designed in 1930’s streamlined modernity, punctuating the end of art deco and introducing the modern era.
Though the hotel’s most reflective of 1920’s opulence is the Hydro Majestic’s Cat’s Alley, featuring Zimmerman pantings and drapes trimmed with peacock feathers.
“Our idea was to go back to this magical, crowded lounge space, where you could have a cup of tea, or a gin, or absinthe, if you felt like it,” said Mr Reeve.
When asked about the challenges of feeling with planning and heritage developments, Ms Nguyen told Sydney Morning Herald, “I think we would love to see less red tape when you have got such a significant tourism investment in the region, definitely. I think something needs to be looked at in terms of - not so much incentives, but encouragement for more projects of this nature, otherwise we won't be able to see iconic buildings and heritage richness such as the Hydro brought back to life.”
Heritage architect and president of the Art Deco Society of NSW, Jennifer Hill, commented, “What you have got to recognise is that places have to change. The reason places go into decline is because they haven't kept up with the times – but keeping up with the times doesn't mean losing the whole image of the place.”
“The Hydro Majestic is extremely important because of what it is: a sanitorium-type hotel, it's the best of the ones that were done, the grandest. What you want is a situation where people come to this building and it exudes all the qualities that it had in the past, which may not mean that it has all of the original fabric. If you are able to re-image this building as a 2014 spa, 110 years later, then I think that's a fantastic outcome,” said Mr Hill.
The Hydro-Majestic was home to regular costume events and Gatsby-esque parties, as Foy owned the largest fleet of motor vehicles in Australia and would chauffeur his friends from Sydney to attend. Every night there would be a changing dinner menu to complement its ‘dress-for-dinner’ atmosphere, with background music supplied by the Hydro Majestic’s permanent band.
The hotel’s renovation has also lead to a revival of the Hydro Majestic entertaining atmosphere. Ms Nguyen said recognised artists would perform at the Hydro, “and that will provide what has been lacking in the Blue Mountains”.
“We are known as a nature-based tourist destination. A lot of the feedback we have been getting from tourist operators as well as tourists - particularly international tourists - is that we do lack the entertainment and attractions that keep them overnight,” she said.
“The program of entertainment and of experiences that we are looking forward to bringing for day tourists, as well as the overnight tourism, will be very exciting and we look forward to unrolling that in the next few months.”
The venue opened to the public on Friday, October 31 with a series of high tea events. The Hydro Majestic's other venues, such as a Salon de Thé, will open progressively over the following weeks. Accommodation in the hotel’s 54 rooms will be open to the public on December 23.