Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grand Hotel

Currently this hotel may not possess the cachet of certain of Port Elizabeth’s more popular beach front hotels, but historically it is amongst one of the few remaining original hotels. Unfortunately not all of the revamps and upgrades have retained all of the original features. Nonetheless, it remains an important link to Port Elizabeth’s illustrious past. With the recent upsurge in historical tourism, it might well be able to soldier on until the 22nd century. 

Main picture: Scenes during the visit of Lord Loch, 27 January, 1890. Procession nearing the top of White’s Road. Men of the P.A.G. Regiment in procession. Decorative archway at the top of the road. Grand Hotel with spectators lining the balconies

For most of these details I am indebted to the website of the Grand Hotel. As such I owe them a debt of gratitude.

In the Grand Hotel’s long history, the nobility and the elite have walked through the foyer that was once decorated with heads and horns. Elaborate dining room table settings were the order of the day, and in the drawing room, there were floor length lace curtains and a stuffed leopard in full snarl on the hearth rug.

Scenes from Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in Port Elizabeth, June 1897. A facsimile of the Jubilee Luncheon menu held at the Grand Hotel on the occasion of Queen Victorian's Golden Jubilee, 21st June 1887.
Scenes from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in Port Elizabeth, June 1897. A facsimile of the Jubilee Luncheon menu held at the Grand Hotel on the occasion of Queen Victorian’s Golden Jubilee, 21st June 1887.

The original house was built for Robert Dunlop Buchanan in 1867, by Port Elizabeth architect F M Pfeil. It became known as “Dunlop House”. After Dunlop, Skelton Wimble, William Septimus Jones and Kames Brister followed as owners or occupants. Brister renamed it “Park House”.

Foyer of the Grand Hotel
Foyer of the Grand Hotel

In June 1885 Brister advertised the house as to let with 24 rooms. It is presumably after he extended it to White’s Road. On 15 October 1885 Arnold Lipman opened the Grand Hotel. In March 1889 Walter Bunton took over and called it Bunton’s Grand Hotel. He died in 1903, but his wife carried on with the hotel.

The rear of Bunton's Grand Hotel taken from the hotel grounds with guests standing on the balcony.
The rear of Bunton’s Grand Hotel taken from the hotel grounds with guests standing on the balcony.

In 1911 to 1912 she extended the hotel in brick and under a reinforced concrete roof. The cost was £3 984. This is part of the building that is being renovated now. In September 1921 the hotel was transferred to William Henry Head. Head built the reinforced concrete extensions with lock-up garages in Whites Road completed on 1 September 1924 for £2 550 by Murray and Stewart. The dining room was extended in October 1924 for £900. In August 1922 Smith and Dewar called for tenders for an extra story to the east wing of the hotel, but this did not materialise.

Bunton's Grand Hotel seen from the Donkin Reserve, circa 1890
Bunton’s Grand Hotel seen from the Donkin Reserve, circa 1890

From 1933 the hotel was leased by North Wells and bought by him in 1945. In 1980 the Wells family sold to Mr Christodoulou. The original house was destroyed by fire on 30 December 1996. The owner stated that it would be restored, but this never happened, although some rebuilding took place.

Post card showing top of White's Road Dated 1907.Show's Grand Hotel and old grammar school building.
Post card showing top of White’s Road Dated 1907.Show’s Grand Hotel and old grammar school building.

Recently the ownership of the hotel changed again. Now as the Grand is under construction it is with every intention to put the grandeur back into the Grand and as you walk through the doors of the Grand Hotel you will add to that history.

Front of the Grand Hotel
Front of the Grand Hotel

Article on the Grand Hotel by Margaret Harradine

In 1863 a strip of land alongside White’s Road was sold for houses. Robert Dunlop Buchanan, a merchant with the firm Maynards, Buchanan & Co, built a home on the lots at the top of the strip surrounded by Prospect Hill, Belmont Terrace and White’s Road. His architect was the engineer FM Pfeil and the house was named “Dunlop House.”

The landward end of the north jetty and Jetty Street beyond. Rowing boat slung out on davits on either side. Buildings shown - railway station. Criterion Hotel, Criterion Chambers, Palmerston Hotel, Post office building with telephone exchange tower, St. Mary's Church. On skyline - Grand Hotel, lighthouse, Donkin memorial. Grey Institute, Donkin Street houses. Hill Presbyterian Church. c. 1885.
The landward end of the north jetty and Jetty Street beyond. Rowing boat slung out on davits on either side. Buildings shown – railway station. Criterion Hotel, Criterion Chambers, Palmerston Hotel, Post office building with telephone exchange tower, St. Mary’s Church. On the skyline are Grand Hotel [top left], lighthouse, Donkin memorial. Grey Institute, Donkin Street houses. Hill Presbyterian Church. c. 1885.
Grand Hotel formerly known as Bunton's Grand Hotel
Grand Hotel formerly known as Bunton’s Grand Hotel

It had a wonderful view towards the sea and verandas from which to enjoy it. The family did not remain here very long and the house had a number of owners and occupants after that, including Shelton Wimble, William Septimus Jones and James Brister. Brister re-named his house “Park House” and it is presumably he who built the extension to White’s Road with the  pretty oriel window because, when he offered it to let in June 1885, it had twenty rooms.

Grand Hotel in the early 1900's
Grand Hotel in the early 1900’s

On 15 October 1885 Arnold Lipman opened the Grand Hotel, and in March 1889 Walter Bunton, originally from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, took over and the hotel became “Bunton’s Grand Hotel”, the town’s most favoured place to stay while visiting. Photographs of the interior of the Grand are impressive indeed. In 1893 Bunton brought a group of Indian waiters here, and dressed in their uniforms and turbans, they were certainly very smart.

Valuation of the Grand Hotel in 1932
Valuation of the Grand Hotel in 1932

Some very interesting and important people were guests over the years, such as Mark Twain on a lecture tour (1896), the Governor, Sir Alfred Milner, on an official visit (1897) as also Cecil Rhodes (1898) and Field Marshal Lord Roberts (1900). Port Elizabeth never had a Residency, the Magistrates being given a housing allowance instead, so the Grand was found very suitable as was the Port Elizabeth Club.

Grand Hotel-Drawing room
Grand Hotel-Drawing room

Mark Twain

Lauded as the “greatest humourist the United States has produced”, Samuel Langhorne Clemens was better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. Not only was he a comedian par excellence but he was also a gifted writer, publisher and lecturer. As luck would have it – or more accurately – not have it, Twain’s attempts at being an entrepreneur, did not achieve the same success. Instead they absorbed much of his other income.

It was during a world tour that Mark Twain would arrive in South Africa. After giving performances in Durban and East London, Twain’s next port of call was Port Elizabeth at which he arrived on Wednesday 17th June 1896. He would only give three performances commencing on Monday 23rd June 1896. It was here that Twain presented his comedy At Homes in the capacious Town Hall where it “excited a very large demand for seats”  

Death of Walter Bunton

Walter Bunton died in 1903 and his widow carried on running the hotel and in 1911/12 a large extension under a reinforced concrete roof was built in Prospect Hill. In September 1921, the hotel was transferred to William Henry Head. He built extensions with garages in White’s Road in 1924 with Murray and Steward being the builders. During the same year, he extended the dining room as well. In 1922 Smith & Dewar had drawn up plans for another storey to the east wing, but this was abandoned. It should be mentioned that, at its busiest, the hotel was not big enough and annexures were used; the house on the corner of Bird Street and Belmont Terrace, “Mavis Bank” being one.

Newspaper cutting on the Grand Hotel

From 1933, the Grand was leased by North Wells and bought by him in 1945. In 1956 further extensions were made, designed by Simpson and Heugh. In 1980, the Wells family sold the hotel to Mr Christodoulou and then, to everybody’s regret, the old house burnt down on 30 December 1996. At the time, the owner spoke of restoring it, but this did not happen. Some re-building did take place and various plans have been said to be in progress from time to time but now, after a long period of general inactivity, the hotel is back in business under new ownership.

Grand Hotel in 1906 with tram descending White's Road
Grand Hotel in 1906 with tram descending White’s Road

Inferno at the Grand Hotel

On Sunday night the 29th December 1996, the Grand Hotel was engulfed in flames. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, but it was a close-run thing.

The report by Andrew Whitlock on this fire in the Herald on the 31st December 1996 is included in toto below.

A massive fire swept through the R6-million Grand Gardens Hotel in Centra Hill yesterday morning, turning huge sections of the historical building into a wreck of twisted steel and smouldering wood. Flames leapt 30ms into the air and a thick cloud of smoke was visible kilometres away from the hotel. Police and firemen battled to keep curious onlookers away from the scene as flaming timber and chunks of masonry collapsed.

Fire at the Grand Hotel on 29 12 2020

This forced firemen to back off and use an aerial nozzle from the relative safety of a rescue platform on one of the fire engines. The traffic department quickly closed sections of Western Road and other roads surrounding the hotel, and diverted traffic, preventing an early morning snarl up. The building dates back to 1880 and housed a number of antiques and irreplaceable memorabilia.

Fire Safety division officer Andre Kunneke said late yesterday afternoon it had been established that the fire had started in an air-conditioning unit in the entertainment section of the hotel. Mr. Kunneke said firemen had been forced to wait until midday before they were able to enter the building.

Fire at the Grand Hotel on 29 12 2020

The building had vast timber beams and when these collapsed into the interior of the entertainment section, the huge fire heated the thick brickwork to a very high temperature. Although we continued to spray onto the fire, it took a long time for the building to cool sufficiently for us to be able to go in and douse the fire completely. Mr Kunneke said a police forensic team from Pretoria was to have visited the scene today, but this was cancelled when the Fire Safety Division established the cause of the blaze.

Port Elizabeth Fire Department division officer Malcolm Gelvan said 39 firemen raced to the fire after receiving a call at 5:40am. A night porter saw flames at one of the air conditioning units and ran to call hotel manager Jordan Christoforou, who stays at the hotel.

Fire at the Grand Hotel on 29 12 2020

Mr Christoforou apparently tried to put out the fire with one of the hoses. However, he was not able to do so as the ceiling was already ablaze. He was overcome by the intense heat and smoke and had to run out of the hotel as the fire took out.

“We arrived within minutes, but there was so much old wood already on fire that we concentrated on keeping the flames from the hotel’s residential area”, Mr Gelvan said. Mr. Christoforou said he was not sure how many guests were staying at the hotel, but most of the guests had left on Sunday.  

Fire at the Grand Hotel on 29 12 2020

Two of the guests who were brought to safety by police and firemen said they had been sleeping when police threw bottles at their windows to catch their attention. Phillip Balamatsias, who stayed at the hotel for the past four months, said when he heard bottles hit the window, he grabbed his firearm before investigating. “I was surprised to see police outside,” a shaken Mr Balamatsias said.

Like fellow guest Bernard Zeelie, who has spent 10 months at the hotel, he was able to grab most of his belongings and dash from the blazing hotel. Still clutching his hotel room key, Mr. Zeelie said police had removed burglar bars and helped him with his belongings. Devastated hotel owner Andreas Christodoulou said the damage to the hotel had not yet estimated, but he would be meeting insurance assessors today.

In drafting this blog neither the extent of the damage to the building nor the loss of irreplaceable antiques and memorabilia could be ascertained.  

Recent photographs

Grand Hotel today#02
Grand Hotel today#03
Grand Hotel today#04
Grand Hotel-Recent#01
A letter written in 1898 by Cecil John Rhodes to the Grand Hotel after his stay.
A letter written in 1898 by Cecil John Rhodes to the Grand Hotel after his stay.
view-from-the-grand-hotel-to-the-donkin-reserve
Date on which the Client sat at the Grand, then Buntons and drew the sketch.
Date on which the client sat at the Grand, then Buntons and drew the sketch.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: White’s Road

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood

Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Road through Target Kloof & its Predecessors

The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth

What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?

A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922

The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Railway Station

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Great Flood of 1st September 1968

The Friendly City – Port Elizabeth – My Home Town

Sources:

Website of the Grand Hotel: http://www.greenhotelspe.co.za/history.htm

Recent photographs: Jonker Fourie

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