The Hydro Majestic Hotel stands on the upper slopes of the Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains, 115.8 kilometres west of the Sydney CBD. Last December it re-opened for business six years after it’s resale and interim closure in 2008. The new owners, the Escarpment Group (a consortium of Sydney developers headed by Huong Nguyen and George Saad), have an ambitious vision for the Medlow Bath hotel, including an extension to its facilities and services, and a major renovation of the once great Blue Mountains landmark to recover some of its past glory. About four years passed before construction work commenced on the site. There was a big clean-up job apparently as when vacated seven years ago, a very large amount of assorted clutter was left behind by the previous occupants [‘Saving a grand old beauty’s soul’, Peter Munro, Traveller, 7 January 2013, www.traveller.com.au].
The Hydro Majestic through the agency of a renovation that cost $30 million has been transformed, from its erstwhile state of dishevelment and disrepaire, to again rise seemingly phoenix-like in 2015. The new exterior makeover resulted in the complex’s buildings being painted uniformly white, clearly the developers are hoping that the anticipated returns will repay the investment (all up a reported $40.5 million including the purchase price) so that the venture doesn’t end up a ‘white elephant in all senses!’
The Majestic’s current incarnation however is only the latest of many manifestations and reinventions that the hotel has gone through over its long, colourful history. The Hydro Majestic’s genesis lies in the overseas travel experiences of retail baron Mark Foy around the turn of the twentieth century. Foy was co-owner of the large Sydney department store, Mark Foys (named after his father Mark Foy Sr) in Oxford Street, Sydney, later relocated to Liverpool Street in a famous piazza building. The young entrepreneur’s experience of health spas on the Continent gave him the idea for starting a hydropathic therapy operation in Australia. In 1902 Foy purchased several large blocks of land in the Blue Mountains to re-create a similar spa resort to the highly-popular sanatoriums he had visited in Europe. The site chosen at Medlow Bath was supposedly located on natural mineral springs that incorporated the earlier Belgravia Hotel [John Low, ‘Palace in a Wilderness: Hydro Majestic Medlow Bath’, www.bmcc.nsw.gov.au].
Upon completion in 1904 Foy opened his Medlow Bath hydropathic sanatorium (the first health resort in NSW) which he named the Hydro-Majestic. By this time whatever springs were present (if they ever existed) had dried up. Consequently Foy imported large quantities mineral water from Germany for use in his establishment [www.hydromajestic.com.au (Wikipedia entry)]. He also introduced a German-manufactured generator to supply the Hotel and the surrounding township with electricity (purportedly four days before the city of Sydney achieved electricity!) [www.hydromajestic.com.au, ibid.].
A series of spa pools connected by springs to the hotel generator were constructed in the nearby bush for the use of guests. Foy advertised that the Hydro would provide cures for nervous, alimentary, respiratory and circulatory ailments. Foy from the establishment’s start was also intent on trying to broaden the Hydro’s appeal, advertising it as “the most enjoyable place to spend one’s holidays” [Elaine Kaldy, ‘Medlow 1883 and Now’ (1983), cited in ‘Mb002 : Hydro Majestic’, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, www.environment.nsw.gov.au]. To coordinate the therapeutic programs Foy brought out a Dr Bauer from Switzerland to introduce guests to his “diets of weird and wonderful treatments” [www.hydromajestic.com.au].
Mark Foy, to all accounts, was not particularly hands-on in his business pursuits, leaving it to a host of managers and agents. The Hydro for instance was apparently leased to influential hotelier and parliamentarian James Joynton Smith in 1913 [‘K032 : Carrington Hotel’, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, www.environment.nsw.gov.au]. Foy’s conspicuous affluence and delegation of tasks to others allowed him the leisure to pursue outdoor activities. The business baron also had a reputation of being something of a playboy-about-town in the ‘Great Gatsby’ mould, legendary for throwing lavish parties for his friends at the Hydro and at his other homes at Bellevue Hill and Bayview.
The Hydro Majestic owner was a keen sportsman, yachtsman and motor-car enthusiast. He was such a car enthusiast that he would periodically have sales of bulk numbers of his vehicles on site at his Bellevue Hill property [“MARK FOY’S MOTORS” (Advertisement), Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September 1910 – an adroit coupling of business with pleasure on his part; cited in Pittwater Online News, Issue 102 (17-23 March 2013), http://www.pittwateronlinenews.com/mark-foy-history.php]. Foy used his fleet of cars to ferry guests on trips from Medlow Bath to nearby Jenolan Caves. He also kept horses on the grounds for guests to explore Megalong Valley by horseback [Office of Heritage and Environment (Hydro Majestic), www.environment.nsw.gov.au].
Foy had a series of bush walk tracks built on the cliffs below the Hydro Majestic. The walking tracks provided spa guests with a physical outlet that would complement Dr Bauer’s therapeutic programs. Guests were encouraged to exercise in the fresh mountain air as part of their recovery. These tracks with local physical features with names like Tucker’s Lookout, Sentinel Pass and the Colosseum offer breath-taking cliff views of the Megalong Valley, and are still explored by bush walkers today.
As well as the hotel site itself Mark Foy purchased a considerable amount of land in the Megalong Valley to grow food for the Majestic hotel dinner tables. Foy built a large rural holding at Megalong which he called the Valley Farm, on it was a racecourse, stables, diary farm and a piggery. The farm grew corn, turnips and oats [‘Mark Foy – Retail Tycoon and Megalong Valley Farm’, www.megalongcc.com.au]. The produce grown in the valley was transported up to the resort by a flying fox Foy had rigged up.
The business tycoon also maintained personal properties on the Medlow Bath complex, including a cottage in the Valley known as the Sheleagh Cottage. This property with its great views of the valley, now called “Mark Foy House”, is today listed as a mountains getaway available for rental. It is unclear how much time the constantly on-the-go Foy spent at Sheleagh, or for that matter at any of his Sydney properties, as the newspapers of that day regularly reported him as embarking with his family on yet another world or European tour [cited in Pittwater Online News, op.cit.]. I can easily imagine Foy’s name cropping up constantly in the Vice-Regal column that used to appear in the Sydney Morning Herald.
At the height of its popularity, in the twenties, the Hydro-Majesty was the fashionable venue to visit, “the place to be seen”. Over the years it has had more than its fair share of VIP guests, such as Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose novel The Lost World was inspired by the vast wilderness environment that the Hydro was set in. Other guests include Indian rajahs, Australia’s first Olympic swimming gold medal winner Freddie Lane, and the Commonwealth’s inaugural Prime Minister Edmund Barton, who died whilst staying at the resort in 1920. Boxer Tommy Burns set up a training camp at the hotel where he prepared to fight Jack Johnson for the World Heavyweight Championship in a very famous boxing bout at Sydney Stadium in 1908.
The entertainment and amusements provided by Mr Foy at the Hydro Majestic took various forms. In its heyday when it was a luxury tourist resort, balls and concerts were regular events. Singers such as the soprano queens Dames Nellie Melba and Clara Butt were hired to perform at these concerts. A curious feature was the cross-dressing costume parties of well-to-do guests in which the husband and wife swapped clothing with each other for the event [‘Saving a grand old beauty’s soul’, op.cit.].
Taken at its broad scope the Hydro-Majestic is an impressive if a bit discordant sight, a long line of arranged buildings, albeit positioned in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy fashion stretching for some 1.1 kilometres across the Megalong escarpment. The Hotel’s architecture is hybrid in character, with buildings being added in an ad hoc fashion over time and in a novel mixture of styles: Victorian, Edwardian, Belle Époque and a blend of Art Deco and Art Nouveau interior design.
The Majestic’s most distinctive external feature is the Casino building with its imposing Chicago-manufactured dome (this ‘casino’ has been used as an entertainment hall or pavilion rather than as a gaming house). The changing fortunes of the Hydro Majestic as a whole over the decades was symbolised in the fate of the Casino itself: going from the scene for grand balls and concerts in the 1920s and 1930s to a repository for (how the mighty have fallen!) pinball machine entertainment in the 1980s!
One of the most intriguing interior features of the Hydro Majestic is the so-called Cat’s Alley, a long corridor whose windows back in the day were draped with peacock feathers. Scone-and-cream afternoon tea visitors to the hotel would stroll down the corridor strewn with puff-pillowed lounge chairs and a set of bizarre panelled scenes, hunting scenes from different historical periods, the work of a Swiss artist called Arnold Zimmerman. Panel after panel comprised Prehistoric cavemen hunting wooly mammoths, Assyrian warriors slaughtering lions, British Raj mounted horsemen hunting tigers in India, Roman soldiers killing elephants, and so on and so on. The first time I ever visited the Hydro I marvelled somewhat bemused at Zimmerman’s paintings, finding them slightly disturbing in their obsession with the monumental struggle between man and beast, terrible but also engaging in a visceral way. Visitor access was blocked to the Alley for some years but it is pleasing to note that it is opened again after the refurbishment with additional seating.
The immediacy of a vast wilderness of National Park bushland has regularly posed a danger to the Hydro Majestic. In 1905 fire destroyed the Gallery building and in 1922 did the same to the original Belgravia wing. There have been several other close calls, the latest in 2002 when Medlow Bath’s “Gothic tourist pile”, as one article described it, narrowly avoided a spot fire blaze [Margaret Simons, ‘Majestic tourist icon survives ordeal by fire’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2002].
The Hydro-Majestic over the course of its century plus existence has undergone a number of transformations. What started off as a hydropathic spa pretty soon morphed into a luxury tourist retreat after 1909 (“Mr Foy’s Private Lodge”), only to revert more modestly to a family hotel for ordinary guests and day-trippers. In WWII the Hydro was converted into the 118th US General Hospital to care for convalescing American soldiers, some of which showed their “gratitude” by inflicting damage on the hotel’s decor during their stay. After the War the Hydro reverted to a hotel and guesthouse. By the 1980s the buildings had declined alarmingly despite receiving a heritage preservation order in 1984, business had dropped off and the very visible signs of wear and age eventually necessitated a revamping in the 1990s and again in the last few years.
In keeping with the hybrid nature of the hotel, parts of the new Hydro Majestic exude a distinctly oriental flavour. The Salon Du Thé features a Shanghai chic tea room and bar and both it and the Cat’s Alley reprise many of the oriental traits of the original 1900s Medlow hotel which featured a Chinoiserie style favoured by Mark Foy. The original Salon Du Thé displayed ornaments and furnishings such as large Chinese vases and porcelain vessels, bamboo-look furniture and silk umbrellas [www.hydromajestic.com.au].
Will the refurbished Hydro Majestic rise again to the exalted heights it attained in the inter-war period? Will patrons flock to it again as they once did? Will it be able to attract the higher socio-economic clientele associated with a luxury resort? It is far too early to tell, but it should be noted that there is a lot more choice now in Sydney with high-class hotels and resorts. Nonetheless, the Hydro’s traditional high tea is back, the complex has more restaurant options than ever before, and the magnificent panoramic views of the Valley remain the Hotel’s strongest magnet.