Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Gracious Grand Hotel

Covid-19 was the not only the death knell of millions of people but also the death warrant for many businesses especially those in financial difficulties. Long after its heydays of the 1880s and 1890s this hotel did not possess the cachet of certain of Port Elizabeth’s more popular beach front hotels. Notwithstanding this, the Grand Hotel is historically amongst one of the few remaining original hotels of the 19th century. Nonetheless, it remains an important link to Port Elizabeth’s illustrious past. With the Main Street no longer being either the business centre or the entertainment hub of Port Elizabeth, this could presage the final demise of the hotel. However, the recent conversion of the hotel into student accommodation could stave off the inevitable demolition and enable it to soldier on until the 22nd century albeit in a difference guise. 

Main picture: Scenes during the visit of Lord Loch, 27 January, 1890 with the procession nearing the top of White’s Road. Men of the P.A.G. Regiment formed the procession. Note the decorative archway at the top of the road and the spectators at the Frand Hotel lining the balconies

In the Grand Hotel’s long history, the nobility and the elite have walked through the foyer that was once decorated with animal 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.

In 1863, a strip of land above but parallel with White’s Road earmarked to be sold for the erection of houses, was subdivided and then sold. The original building on the site was a house built in 1867 for Robert Dunlop Buchanan. Designed by Port Elizabeth architect, F M Pfeil, it became known as “Dunlop House“. Bordering the house were Prospect Hill, Belmont Terrace and White’s Road. On the opposite corner of White’s Road and Belmont Terrace was a small rectangular building with a distinctive steeply pitched A-frame roof. This building commenced life as the Diocesan Grammar School.

Buchanan’s house possessed a stunning view of the sea with John Owen Smith’s jetty protruding into the sea in front of his warehouses lining the landing beach. Further to the south east, the ill-fated breakwater was under construction. From the vicinity of St Mary’s Cemetery, railway wagons could be seen shuttling down the hill replete with rock mined from the quarry adjacent to the burial ground. Over the following decades the various occupants resident there would utilise the broad verandah to admire the view across the bay. For whatever reason, none of these families would reside there for long. After Buchanan, came Skelton Wimble, William Septimus Jones and then James Brister followed as owners or occupants. It was Brister who renamed it “Park House”.

Foyer of the Grand Hotel
Foyer of the Grand Hotel

It is presumed that it was Brister who built the extension to the White’s Road side of the hotel. In June 1885 Brister advertised the house to let with 24 rooms. It is presumably after he extended it to White’s Road and constructed wonderful oriel bay windows looking out onto White’s Road, that it was Brister that did so. On 15 October 1885 Arnold Lipman opened the building as the Grand Hotel. In March 1889 Walter Bunton took over and renamed it eponymously Bunton’s Grand Hotel. It swiftly gained a reputation as the most impressive place in which to stay. Extant photographs reveal how impressive the interior fittings were. In order to complement these fittings, in 1893 Bunton brought out a gaggle of obsequious Indian waiters. Dressed in their smart uniforms and matching turbans, these attentive waiters were an instant success.

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.

Distinguished visitors

Over the years and especially over the period to the turn of the century under Bunton’s able management, this hotel attracted some very influential guests. The most notable were Mark Twain out on a lecture tour in 1896, Sir Alfred Milner on an official tour in 1897 as well as Cecil John Rhodes in 1898 and Field Marshall Lord Roberts in 1900.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his nom de plume Mark Twain, lauded as the greatest humourist that the United States had produced, would entertain the Port Elizabeth audiences with three shows. Not only was he a comedian par excellance, but he was also a gifted writer, publisher and lecturer. It was part of his world tour that Twain would arrive at South Africa where he would give performances at the coastal towns – Durban, East London and then Port Elizabeth. Arriving in Algoa Bay on Wednesday 17th June 1896, he would only present of the first of three shows on Monday 23rd June 1896. It was here that Twain presented his comedy, At Homes, where it was recorded that it was presented at the capacious Town Hall, and “excited a very large demand for seats.

I classify this period of the hotel’s existence, as it heyday. Its main competition during this period were the venerable hotels, the Palmerston in Jetty Street and the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square. Neither had the cachet of the Grand as it attracted mainly the great unwashed, the hoi polloi and the rabble whose only purchase in venturing into a hotel was to down a beer.

Further developments

After the death of Walter Bunton 1903, his wife, Marie Louise [nee Pfeiffer, carried on with the hotel. In the period 1911 to 1913 she extended the hotel in brick on the Prospect Hill side. This extension was constructed under a reinforced concrete roof at a cost of £3 984. During this period, Walter’s son, Henry Arthur Bunton – aka Harry- assumed responsibility for running the hotel. I presume that Harry assisted his mother with managing the hotel, but after her death in 1917, his interests in farming came to the fore. It was just four years after her death in September 1921, that Harry sold the hotel. William Henry Head. Head built extensions with lock-up garages in Whites Road. They were completed on 1 September 1924 at a cost of £2 550 by Murray and Stewart. In August 1922 Smith and Dewar called for tenders for an extra storey to the east wing of the hotel, but this did not materialise. The dining room was extended in October 1924 for £900. At its busiest, the hotel was not large enough to accommodate all the guests. As a consequence annexures had to be utilised. Mavis Bank, on the corner of Bird Street and Belmont Terrace was one such annexure.

Bunton's Grand Hotel seen from the Donkin Reserve, circa 1890
Bunton’s Grand Hotel seen from the Donkin Reserve, circa 1890
Harry Bunton, son of the erstwhile owner of the Grand Hotel, is in the middle

From 1933 the hotel was leased by North Wells and bought by him in 1945. In 1980 the Wells family sold it 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. Circa 2020 the new owners of the hotel are in the process of converting the hotel into student accommodation.

Front of the Grand Hotel
Front of the Grand Hotel
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

Lord Roberts entering the grounds of the Grand Hotel in 1900

Valuation of the Grand Hotel in 1932
Valuation of the Grand Hotel in 1932
Grand Hotel-Drawing room
Grand Hotel-Drawing room
Newspaper cutting on the Grand Hotel
Grand Hotel in 1906 with tram descending White's Road
Grand Hotel in 1906 with tram descending White’s Road
Lord Roberts entering the grounds of the Grand Hotel in 1900

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.

Sources

Website of the Grand Hotel

Article by Margaret Harradine

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Sources:

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

Recent photographs: Jonker Fourie

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