open house hobart 2021: wrest point

Open House Hobart day 2.

Our first stop was the Wrest Point Casino, which is a site than contains far more than the 74-metre (or 73 metres or 75 metres?) tower building that is, I believe, still Hobart’s tallest building.

Our tour guide was Graeme Tonks, who has written a book on the history of Wrest Point, which I’ve referred to to make sure I’ve got my facts correct in this post. He said that the tour was going to focus only on the architecture of the site, not any of the social and ethical issues that might come up around the casino, which I think was good to set out up front. The time for that discussion was not now.

Prior to the British arrival, the point was a camping ground for the muwinina people, who lived in the area we now call Hobart, but who did not survive British colonisation.

We started the tour near the front gates on Sandy Bay Road, where Graeme gave us a brief history of the site. In 1808 the site was granted to former Norfolk Island convict Thomas Chaffey, as part of a 62-acre parcel of land that extended up to the Mt Nelson track. He built a house on the promontory, which he named Chaffey’s Point.

Graeme mentioned that Chaffey’s Point became the place where people who had been executed were strung up. In part, this acted as a warning for people on any approaching boats of what would happen to them if they broke the law. The hanging place was moved from Hunter Island in Sullivans Cove because the locals found the smell and sight of decaying bodies around the wharf area offensive. I can’t imagine Mr Chaffey and his family would have particularly enjoyed the sight and smell from their home either. At around the same time, the authorities established a whaling station next to the point, so it must have been a barrel of olfactory unpleasantness for the people who lived there.

Thomas’ son, William Chaffey, built the Travellers Rest Inn on Sandy Bay Road in 1836. It’s still there but no longer used as a hotel. It houses the computers that run the gaming facilities in the casino. After his father’s death, William Chaffey sold part of the site, including the promontory, to David Dunkley, who built his own home, St Helena, there. Graeme said that Dunkley was also responsible for the Duke of Wellington Hotel on Macquarie Street, which explains the name “Dunkley” appearing on the side of the building. I’ve often wondered about that.

George Robertson acquired the property in 1898 and rebuilt St Helena. In 1928, Mrs Ina Lucas, who was originally from NSW and had lived in Cressy, deciding to move to Hobart with her alcoholic husband to try and keep him away from the booze (not entirely sure that was ever going to be successful), bought the property and built a new home called Wrest Point. This home was designed by the architect Lauriston Crisp, whose own home ‘Iluka’ (1926) is not very far away on Sandy Bay Road.

The gateposts were from Mrs Lucas’ time, and they are original, with the northern one having been moved further north later on to accommodate a larger gate.

After some digging around, Graeme discovered that the sandstone for these posts had come from Cressy. The clue to this, apart from it being where Mrs Lucas had lived, was that the sandstone hasn’t deteriorated in the way that much of the sandstone sourced from the south of Tasmania has done. Apparently northern sandstone can withstand the salt air better.

Mr Lucas died in 1929, and Mrs Lucas moved to England with their two sons in 1934. She sold the property to Arthur Drysdale in 1936. Drysdale was one of Tasmania’s most successful businessmen, who after running a string of farms, meatworks and butcher shops, would go on to run the Tasmanian lotteries.

Moving into hospitality, Drysdale had the Wrest Point Riviera Hotel built on the site in 1939. It was designed by the team of David Hartley Wilson and Colin Philp, who are responsible for several rather lovely art deco/moderne streamline buildings around Hobart. (Including, I was surprised to learn, the Shamrock Hotel on the corner of Liverpool and Harrington Streets.)

The entry of the former Wrest Point Riviera Hotel (April 2020)

What’s most interesting about this is that, rather than demolish the Lucas house, because it was only new, they built the hotel around the house, so there are elements of Mrs Lucas’s Wrest Point residence within the hotel itself. This includes some external windows (on the right of the above photo), the ladies’ powder room and rest room, and the study, which is untouched (and currently used for storage).

This has to be the best thing I heard all weekend!

Graeme showed us a plan of the house overlaid with the hotel so we could see how it had been done, as well as an early photo of the hotel. From the river, it would have looked absolutely stunning.

He also said there were seahorses on the entrance, which have long since disappeared. I wasn’t sure if these are original from 1939, but I found this photo on the Tasmanian Archives website and I thought they looked a bit too kitschy for 1939. According to Graeme’s book, however, they were part of the original design, in keeping with Drysdale’s P&O design for the hotel, which was intended to capture “the feel of an imposing luxury liner berthed off the sparkling waters of the Derwent River”. A grand building, lavishly fitted out, it provided a standard of hospitality and entertainment previously unknown in Tasmania.

Entry of the Wrest Point Riviera Hotel in the 1940s
(Photo from Libraries Tasmania online collection PH30/1/5524)

Graeme took us through the old hotel and pointed out where modifications had been made over the years. For instance, the reception area, which had been in the main entry hall, is now within the ground floor of the tower building, and some of the older accommodation is now used as offices. A lot of the older rooms had shared bathrooms so couldn’t be used for accommodation any more.

The beautiful staircase leading from the ground floor of the former Wrest Point Riviera to what is now executive offices

There’s also a couple of public phone booths built into one of the walls, where guests could take calls.

Wall detail in the former Wrest Point Riviera

We went into the Derwent Room, which used to have space where a full band would play, and a dance floor. This made the hotel a massively popular entertainment venue for the Hobart community and was the place to go for American servicemen posted here during World War Two.

Light from the Derwent Room

As we walked into the tower building from the Riviera, Graeme showed us a photo of the architect’s model, which, sadly, no longer exists.

Crossing from the hotel to the tower via what used to be a balcony

The tower was designed by Sir Roy Grounds and completed in 1973, but not without its share of controversy. The issue of a gambling licence to the Federal Group, which bought the hotel in the 1950s, was the subject of much community concern and it ended up going to a state referendum. From what I can find out, Federal Group proposed that a casino would be a great way to attract more tourists to Tasmania, as there were no legal casinos anywhere else in the country. The “yes” vote narrowly won and the casino became a reality in 1973.

Wrest Point with the Casino Tower (1973), and the old art deco Wrest Point Riviera (1939) obscured by a more recent addition

Graeme pointed out the lift from the ground floor to the first level, which was installed so the Queen didn’t have to walk up the stairs. It’s exquisitely fitted out in blackwood, and is the slowest lift in the history of the world. (So I’m told. I was too impatient to wait for it and find this out.)

Our last stop was the Birdcage Bar, a cocktail bar that was installed a couple of years after the building had been completed. It’s best known for its frescos, painted by the surrealist artist Charles Billich. Most of the women are real people and many of them were dancers from the cabaret show. One of the women had a zebra stripe cape, and Graeme said that this, along with several other boxes of show paraphernalia was discovered in the attic of a Sandy Bay house by new owners, after several previous owners hadn’t even noticed them. This stuff is all now back with Wrest Point.

Billich frescos in the Birdcage Bar

Graeme told the story of one of the women, Honey Hogan, who later married former Premier Jim Bacon. Honey had been one of the original croupiers at the casino. Graeme said that because the casino was so new, they couldn’t use “experience” as a criterion for hiring croupiers because there was no one in Tasmania or even Australia who would have qualified, so other factors came into play, none of which, I imagine, would get through anti-discrimination legislation now!

One of the other painted women isn’t real, and her backside lines up with the head of the person who might happen to be playing the piano. Graeme explained that this was because of a disagreement between Billich and one of the pianists, and this picture was his response.

Over time, these images were deemed to be dated, and there were plans to paint over them, but what ended up happening was false walls were built over them and they were forgotten. It was only much later that someone remembered they were still there, and they were able to remove the flat walls and invite Billich back to restore his work.

The tour was fascinating and went for much longer than the allocated 50 minutes. Graeme said he was planning a return tour early in 2022 for anyone who was interested (me me me!) that would be longer and would cover a lot of the spaces we didn’t get to see today, like the spiral staircase leading to the high rollers’ room, and its amazing mural.

The casino is currently being redeveloped for its 50th anniversary, and this includes moving the original casino room to a space with windows. This is apparently unheard of for casinos: gaming rooms traditionally don’t have windows. Or clocks.

At the date of posting this, I’d just been on the longer tour with Graeme, so stay tuned for a follow up post of some of the other features (and lots of photos) of this property , which, love it or hate it, has played a massive part in Tasmania’s social and economic history. Thanks to Open House for organising the tour, to Wrest Point for making it possible, and to Graeme for taking the time to share his knowledge and insights of this Tasmanian icon.

Additional information and clarification of dates came from Our Tasmania: Sandy Bay, from Graeme Tonks & Mark Dibben’s book Wrest Point: The Life, The Times and the People of Tasmania’s Hotel, and from the follow-up tour of Wrest Point with Graeme in February 2022.

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