23 November 2022

'A glamorous lady' - a brief history of Rydges Canberra hotel

| Dione David
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The Pavilion Hotel became Rydges Hotel in the late 1990s. Photos: Rydges.

“The building is designed to be related to the Parliament House with respect – like a little sister who will grow into a glamorous lady.”

So read the 1988 design brief by Golden Wing Sydney for what was known as the Pavilion Hotel, now Rydges Canberra.

It was a very different time in Canberra. Old Parliament House was making way for New and, a short ways down Canberra Avenue, the “little sister” was taking shape.

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It was the site of the old Wellington Hotel or “Wello” as it was then known which, prior to the establishment of the nearby National Press Club, was a popular watering hotel for pollies and press.

Named for the then-called Wellington Ave (Canberra Avenue) where it was located, the Wello opened in 1927 – the same year as Old Parliament House.

When she was torn down in 1984, given the location, it was imperative whatever structure took its place should reflect Parliament House.

“Its echoes of Parliament House are the vertical precast facade, the green glass and spandrels and the curving walls,” the brief read.

“At the front of the hotel, facing Canberra Avenue is the main entry with its plexiglass porte cochere, which is the largest revolving door to date in Australia.”

Old Rydges Canberra hotel foyer

Italian Rosso Verona marble, Indian New Rubin Red granite and the Verte Jade reception desktop characterised the hotel in its earlier incarnation.

It was also impacted by Walter Burley Griffin’s design principles, which stipulated “buildings in the central area of Canberra should be three storeys high with the top two floors masked by foliage level of trees and the columns supporting these levels through an open ground floor storey should match the trunks of trees.”

With considerable experience in hotel design, prominent Canberra architect Bryan Dowling was chosen for the job.

Mr Dowling specialised in the design of “tension membrane structures”, with an atrium enclosed at the top by a suspended tension membrane structure and on the east end by a series of plexiglass curved vaults.

The George Bar & Grill at Rydges Canberra

The impressive atrium is still a central part of the hotel today.

“It is the central feature of the hotel design,” the design brief read. “The … membrane itself is a woven polyester substrate coated with polyvinyl difluoride, giving a fire-resisting, self-cleaning long-life finish to the fabric. This is the first project on which this particular membrane has been used in Australia.”

Curiously just two years later, the hotel underwent a major project to replace it with a new fabric membrane.

The company responsible, Spacetech, wrote a letter to the then manager Don Goode to explain that the job would require the installation of scaffolding for access to the main mast and ring beam and warn him of the increased noise during the installation and dismantling stage, and the presence of a crane in the front driveway.

“You mentioned that you may vacate the rooms at the front of the hotel and we feel that this would be a good idea,” the letter read.

Break out space at Rydges Canberra

Even today, curving walls carry “echoes of Parliament House” per the original 1988 design brief.

Though the then Pavilion was renamed Rydges in the late 1990s, there’s little evidence of further major refurbishments until 30 years later.

“Hotels are flexible buildings that get an entirely new wardrobe every five or 10 years,” the design brief read.

“So the basic building is timeless, but the decoration will fit to follow the fashion trends.”

Rydges Area Director of Sales and Marketing ACT Natalie Graham said evidence of “new wardrobes” over the years was discovered following the major 2020 hailstorm.

“The entire roof of the hotel – the atrium, the glass roof over the leisure area – were smashed in,” she said.

Old leisure space at Rydges Canberra

The glass roof over the leisure area was smashed in the 2020 hailstorm.

“The hotel was completely shut down because we had to rebuild it. Then COVID happened and the whole world shut down so we took the opportunity to refurbish the hotel.

“It involved rebuilding the roof, the interior atrium, a new bar and replacing the flooring.

“It was at this time that we cleared out storage in the basement and found over 100 artworks. Pieces that were chosen for the hotel by the various general managers over the past 30 years, or gifted by guests, most of which were works by local artists, were just gathering dust in the basement.”

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When the hotel reopened curators came through to assist the hotel with displaying the eclectic works across its hallways.

“Now walking from reception to a guest room is like walking through a gallery, which tells stories of art across Canberra over three decades,” Ms Graham said.

Like the Wello before it, the steps at the front of the then Pavilion Hotel remained a popular spot to enjoy a beverage.

George Bar and Grill at Rydges Canberra

The George Bar & Grill make Rydges Canberra a popular place for an after-work tipple – as was the Pavilion before it and the Wellington before that.

Today Rydges follows the tradition, albeit in the sleek, modern setting of The George Bar & Grill.

The yawning atrium, complete with those marvellous membranes and decades-old trees, remains a striking central feature of the hotel as it stands today.

True to its 1980s design brief the facade remains, curving still like Parliament House – only now, as a glamorous lady.

Rydges Canberra is at 17 Canberra Avenue, Forrest, ACT.

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Steve Anderson3:57 pm 21 Nov 22

Let’s not kid ourselves, this boring building marks a great lost opportunity- imagine if they had re-furnished and modified the Wello?

Let’s not kid ourselves, they could re-furnish and modify the Wello all they like, it will always be just a boring old pub!

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