Clubbing in the 1880s

Club Hotel (c.1945, courtesy SLWA)

Architecture always has a context. In one sense, that’s trivial; a building must be on some piece of land, unless it’s conceptual only, in which case the architect is likely to be an academic, not one practicing in the real world. And this architectural context is both spatial and temporal or, in less pretentious language, a building was erected somewhere in a certain year. A building also has a function and an aesthetic, the latter often referred to in heritage circles as a ‘style’. It is rare for the function to exactly coincide with the aesthetic, but it does happen, with one famous example being Bruno Taut’s ‘Glass Pavilion’ (1914).

Glass Pavilion (courtesy Wikipedia)

The role of the architectural historian, if they can be said to have a purpose, is to establish the causal relationship between the function and the aesthetic given the building’s spatial and temporal context. Or, to drop the purple prose, why does it look like that? And I want to look at three hotels, one in Geraldton, one in York and one in Perth, of which only two survive today. For this post, I’ll stick to the one we’re missing, the Club Hotel.

The earliest of the three, the Club Hotel, Geraldton, was a magnificent building designed by James Wright and opened in 1885. It was praised at the time as the finest hotel in the colony, which was probably true, and it boasted 30 bedrooms in a town which had less than 1,200 residents. Now the high praise heaped upon it at the time might seem exaggerated, after all it was not long before this most of the district consisted of “canvas and brush, with corrugated iron architectural monstrosities” defining most high streets.[1] So any building showing design principles might be welcome. But photos show it really was an attractive building. And we can only go on photos now since it was demolished in 1991.

Giving the Club Hotel a clear architectural style is no easy matter, and such hotels are usually clumped together as Federation Filigree, since the verandah is such a dominating element of its exterior appearance. The whole is definitely eclectic, with references to half a dozen different styles, and it lacks some organisation which might have unified the façade a little better. But this criticism does not detract from having to agree with the contemporary appraisal: it was the best hotel in Western Australia. Which leads to the key question: why was the greatest pub built 424km north of the capital city and not in Perth itself? Some people questioned whether Hannah Hosken had invested too much money in the project, and it could never prove its worth. They were wrong, and the name she gave her hotel showed Mrs Hosken knew exactly what she was doing. But more on that in a while.

While the Club was being constructed, at least one person noted there was good reason to anticipate much for Mrs Hosken’s success: the forthcoming railway, “which is sure to give an immense fillip to business generally”.[2] Geraldton was named after Governor Charles FitzGerald, as was the Geraldine Mine. If this was the initial impetus for the town, its growth would come from the expansion of pastoralists ever moving north in search of more grazing land. But Geraldton had a railway station since 1879, so how could a line be forthcoming in 1885? The original railway, the first constructed by the WA Government, ran from Geraldton through Northampton and ending at Ajana. This, of course, did not link the Club Hotel to the capital city of the state. That would take some later extensions, on which Mrs Hosken was safely gambling.

But even before the completion of new tracks, the Club Hotel was well named. The intention was to attract the “leading business and professional men, and settlers”. Although, like every hotel today, anyone can enter the public section, this building had different rooms for different functions. Apartments for families, a banqueting room for up to 100 guests, a billiards room, a reading room and a commercial room, where travelling salesmen could demonstrate their wares. And a gentlemen’s club, where those with money could gather to socialise. And gamble. So much gambling, by all accounts.

If you want to attract those with excess cash, the building must demonstrate excess. So if it was not enough just to line with walls with Oregon and maple timber imported from Canada, you asked the architect to ensure the exterior reflected the extravagant tastes you, as proprietor, hoped to satisfy in exchange for renumeration. And that is exactly what James Wright achieved with the Club Hotel. Far from restrained sophistication, the Club oozed the excesses we now associate with 1980s millionaires and, more recently, Donald Trump. Far from less is more, as the modernists believed, this hotel is a forerunner of the Gold Boom extravagances of more is more. And, if there was any space left over on the façade, even more still.

And it worked. Even before wealthier travellers could arrive from further afield, business at the Club was good and it proved a good investment for Mrs Hosken, who ran the place until her death in 1906. So the context involves railways, new money, and the birth of the mining industry. The function is the transfer of cash for entertainment, while engaging in business. And this leads to an aesthetic of excess. Whether or not the style of the Club Hotel is to your taste, it was exactly what its clientele wanted to be seen in, to do business in, to socialise in, and (most importantly for Mrs Hosken) spend good money in. And it set a benchmark for other hotels to follow. But more on them later.

[1] Geraldton Express 25 March 1897

[2] West Australian 28 February 1885