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Dusting off the Carlton - and its memories Print E-mail
The Y-shaped Carlton Hotel
The Y-shaped Carlton Hotel

ONCE the Carlton Hotel was a rich status symbol for Johannesburg; an internationally renowned establishment where the moneyed and the famous wined, dined and slept in style. 

The five-star hotel - in an upside-down Y-shape that abutted the lofty Carlton Centre, South Africa's tallest building - was always a proud reminder to Joburgers that their hospitality was among the best in the world.

Henry Kissinger, Francois Mitterand, Hilary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Whitney Houston and Mick Jagger were among the hotel's more revered guests during its 25-year history.

For all those who worked at the Carlton, it was an exceptional training ground - a centre of excellence that provided a launching pad for jobs in top international hotels.

It's no surprise, then, that the Carlton Hotel's "family" of former employees is planning a reunion in January next year to celebrate the hotel's grand legacy.

"It's difficult to describe what was so special about the Carlton Hotel, what holds its former employees together so strongly," says Tori Anderson, a former duty manager.

"But, for many, it was the greatest hotel they ever worked in," says Anderson, whose five years there were "the best in my entire career".

Anderson - now a hospitality consultant who has Joburg Tourism, the Sandton Convention Centre and the Sandton Tourism Association on her books - is co-ordinating the search for Carltonites, many of whom now hold down top jobs in the hotel industry around the world. The reunion is an attempt to gather everyone who worked there - from the bottom to the top.

Already the Carlton Alumni group has 400 names on its database. With adverts being placed in newspapers here and abroad, emails, group SMSs and word of mouth, there is hope that the grand reunion, being held from 7 - 9 January 2005 at several venues including Gallagher Estate in Midrand and the Carlton Centre's 50th floor, will reunite scores of people who have one thing in common - an intense nostalgia for the Carlton Hotel.

One of them is Tony Beart. He was employed - first as a project co-ordinator for Anglo American and Western International, and finally as executive assistant - from 1969 to 1975. The hotel, which took seven years to build, opened in 1972.

As Beart says: "It is no ordinary hotel that develops such a calibre of people, people who are still so passionate about it."

"When you worked there you realised how superbly you were trained. It had a unique culture and legacy quite different from other hotels in the southern hemisphere; a culture that pervaded over the years."

Today, an eerie silence cloaks the Carlton Hotel, which was closed and mothballed in 1997. The lavish fittings and furniture were sold off to the Krok brothers for R3-million and used to furnish Gold Reef City's Three Ships restaurant - once the renowned eatery at the Carlton - and the Protea hotel there.

Now, the dust-covered interior is a stark shell of its former self. The once-glitzy ballroom is a huge, dark cavern. All that remains to testify to the good old days is a lonely grand piano. 

The Carlton Hotel was closed and mothballed in 1997
The Carlton Hotel was closed and mothballed in 1997

Plans are afoot to reopen the hotel, but there is no guarantee that this will happen in time for the reunion. Several groups are pitching for the Carlton Hotel contract but Transnet, the owner of the Carlton complex, is reluctant to invest in the hotel industry and is waiting for solid financial backing. 

The flight of the city's business moguls from the inner city to the more sanitised surrounds of Sandton and Midrand in the 1990s sapped the strength of the once-illustrious hotel, forcing it to close in defeat.

Two years later the entire Carlton Centre complex - including the hotel and the city's biggest parking garage, with the famed ice rink on top - was bought by Transnet from Anglo American for R32-million.

Since then, the Carlton Centre has slowly come to life again. After Transnet moved its own offices there, others trickled in. The centre, after being almost empty, now boasts 93 percent occupancy of its office space and retail occupancy of 65 percent.

Things are really looking up: a Pick 'n Pay that will take up 3 000 square metres is opening in August and the South African Revenue Service has moved from Rissik Street to its premises of 5 000 square metres in the centre. Today the Carlton Centre is a bustling shopping precinct again, the site of shops like Soviet, Aca Joe, Totalsports and Levisons.

Mark Mac Keiser of Propnet, Transnet's property arm, is the centre's acting portfolio manager. He says several other "big names" are planning to move in. "When you speak to me again in a year's time, things will look very different," he says. Mac Keiser has no immediate news on the fate of the Carlton Hotel but he is confident - particularly given that South Africa is to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup - it will soon reopen.

The Connoisseur, a leather and luggage shop, is preparing to move next month from Sandton City to a prime space that opens into the hotel's lobby - in the belief that it will soon reopen.

"We want to be part of the revival of downtown Johannesburg. It's a much safer place than it was," says The Connoisseur's Kimmie Rondan. "Just look at the quality of shops trading in the Carlton - it's the centre of Africa, after all. We're looking to the future and we're getting in now while the rentals are still low."

Beart's consortium is pitching for the hotel contract. "I'm extremely keen to see the Carlton back on track. Once it opens the landed gentry will visit again and this will send out a strong message that the city is back."

Hotels, he says, are an important benchmark against which a city is measured. Although the 600-room Carlton cannot be a five-star hotel again by today's standards (its rooms are too small) it can certainly be restored to its former glory.

Many remember the hotel's fine restaurants, its world-class conference facilities, the pool deck and the banquet hall that could hold 500 guests. It topped the list of the stable of hotels of Westin - formerly Western International - for a long time.

As Beart recalls, the entire Carlton Centre complex, including the hotel, was an example of "fortitude and sheer bloody guts". Those who put in the money - Anglo American, SA Breweries and Barclays Bank - "had deep pockets but they also had an amazing faith in the city", he says.

By South African standards, the complex was a "think big" project that paid off until the 1990s. With the Carlton Centre back in business, it's time for some new "big thinkers" to revive the hotel and send out the message that Joburg's new-look inner city really has arrived.

Carltonites keen to attend the reunion can phone Tori Anderson on 083 263 4286 or email her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 


 

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