An article released by Queensland Hotel Association – Published in July 2018. The magazine can be found here: QHA REVIEW
AS MID-CENTURY ARCHITECTURE MAKES A COMEBACK TO MODERN-DAY DESIGN, ONE BUILDING IN TOOWOOMBA WAS AHEAD OF ITS TIME AND HAS STAYED ON TREND FOR THE PAST 60 YEARS. THE BURKE AND WILLS HOTEL ON RUTHVEN STREET IN TOOWOOMBA WAS BUILT IN 1957 AND DESIGNED BY AN INFLUENTIAL MODERNIST AND ACCLAIMED AUSTRIAN ARCHITECT, KARL LANGER.
Then known as Lennon’s Hotel, the seven-storey building was the tallest building in Toowoomba at the time and was considered quite innovative, highlighting the ambition of 1950s architecture. The rooms were considered luxurious with large windows, bathroom a telephone, as well as its own colour scheme thanks to the architect’s wife, Gertrude Langer. It offered an exclusive service to its guests where those telephones had direct connections to several shops including a hairdresser and beauty salon which were attached to the hotel on the ground floor, so guests could place their orders easily. Over the decades, however, the hotel changed hands and changed names. Under the present ownership, it is affectionately known as the Burke and Wills Hotel.
AS WE STARTED TO LOOK AT WHAT NEEDED TO BE DONE, IT EXPANDED GREATLY INCLUDING THE GROUND AND FIRST FLOORS WHICH WERE PROBABLY LAST TOUCHED IN THE 1970s.
Adding to their portfolio of hotels, the Hakfoort Group purchased the hotel from Mercure in 2004 as a declining business and did a small refurbishment before it reopened its doors in 2005. However, the hotel was still in need of work and the Burke and Wills Hotel shut its doors for just under one year while a major refurbishment took place. This latest refurbishment was four years in the planning followed by 11 months of construction, reopening just two months ago in May. “How we came to this refurbishment, was a hangover of that original refurbishment process,” Hakfoort Group director, Albert Hakfoort said. “In 2004 when they did that refurb of the accommodation tower, not only has a lot of things changed technology-wise, but we were using analogue televisions then and we use digital TVs now. There was no wifi, there was barely internet back in those days.” The ground and first floors were never included in the 2004 renovation processes and Albert said both had suffered greatly as a result. Ten years on, the hotel group was looking to update their soft furnishings such as carpets, curtains, beds and linens; and suddenly the scope of work became larger than just furnishings. “As we started to look at what needed to be done, it expanded greatly including the ground and first floors which were probably last touched in the 1970s. “The scope started to get away from us, so we thought rather than doing another half job, we’d do a full job,” Albert said. The project wasn’t without its hurdles, one of which included a battle with a state heritage listing application at the same time as the company’s development application, thus adding a year to the planning and development process. With a local heritage listing, Albert said the building was protected because architect, Karl Langer was a notable person within the Queensland architectural landscape, however internally there was freedom and flexibility to renovate. And so the refurbishment began and accepting the challenge to transform the dated hotel into a modern midcentury structure was the owner and director of award-winning architects Darren S Dickfos Architects Pty Ltd. Darren’s brief seemed relatively simple as the development approval (DA) was already in place.
DURING THE CONSTRUCTION PROCESS, WORKERS UNCOVERED THE ORIGINAL CELLAR OF THE EXCHANGE HOTEL, THE ORIGINAL HOTEL THAT WAS BUILT ON THIS IN 1863.
“We were to take the DA drawings and give them hospitality feel and a five-star look about the place,” Darren said. But like most refurbishments in older buildings, Darren uncovered plenty of obstacles along the way. “It was quite a well thought of building for 1957. We had to keep the tower or the refurbishment of the external tower in a sympathetic manner to the original structure, so while we modernised it the lines and angles of the facade were maintained. “It was originally brickwork and because it was such a special example of modernist architecture, we didn’t want to take away from that so that’s why those external lines have been maintained because they are an important part of it,” Darren said. “Given it was built in 1957 there were a lot of strange things we found, such as some really uneven floors, the lift tower was out of plumb, and there was a lot of asbestos. “A lot of the fire rating and fire safety systems had to be upgraded, and there were different pieces that had been added on over the years so there were problems with floor slabs collapsing and little things like that. There were a few dramas to overcome and problems to solve but the building was 60 years old,” Darren said. During the construction process, workers uncovered the original cellar of the Exchange Hotel, the original hotel that was built on this site in 1863, prior to its demolition in 1956 which made way for what is now the Burke and Wills Hotel. Keen to preserve a historical structure, Albert wanted to salvage the cellar, however, it was hidden beneath approximately 190 cubic metres of rubble that had been contaminated with asbestos products from previous demolitions. “The footings, the walls, everything was there, however it was full of rubble and asbestos-containing material. We were scrambling to see if we could incorporate this heritage feature into the bar, but it was too shallow from the stairs to be used reasonably we couldn‘t because of the contamination and the work involved,” Albert explained. While the cellar could not be saved, almost every other area throughout the hotel both internally and externally was refurbished and one of the main aspects to modernising the building was the addition of a curtain wall – a non-structural covering to keep the weather out. “We really needed to give it a facelift, the building really looked old, with the brick window sills and the old paint job, so we wanted to modernise the feel of it and that meant putting a curtain wall on both sides,” Albert said. “It has not only added an aesthetically pleasing finish but it is also cleaner, modernised, looks nicer and brings insulation properties that weren’t there from the 1950s to nowadays, so there were a lot of benefits from doing that and I think it has modernised that property.” Internally, Darren explained the rooms were to have a luxurious feel while taking the hotel in a new direction by appealing to the leisure traveller and accommodating families with children. In order to achieve this, the previous 92 rooms were reduced to 82 in order to create 16 luxury king suites as well as nine adjoining rooms ideal for families with children.
“There are 19 five-star suites and executive suites which include features such as TV recessed into the bathroom wall so you can watch the TV while you’re in the bath,” Darren said. “The rooms had to be pretty special because they have a good occupancy from out of towners, so the rooms had to be perfect and likewise the foyer.” Offering opulent marble columns, a gold revolving door, chandeliers and an expansive reception desk behind which sits a four-metre-long, two-way tropical fish tank, the foyer makes a statement for when guests arrive. Albert said he wanted that “wow” factor not often found in a country town. A statement chandelier with a petal featured at its centre was custom made and chosen for its representation of Toowoomba’s iconic Spring Carnival. “It is a delicate balance between something classic and something that’s modernist to tie in with the tower building. The gaming room is a brand new addon building, it was done in a black-faced brickwork with white grouting so it stood out, but is still quite modernist in its appearance externally,” Darren said. Burke and Wills offer four function areas for groups of all sizes from 15 to 250 and three of those rooms pay homage to Toowoomba’s history with the Karl Langer room named after the building’s original architect, the Allan Cunningham room named after the English botanist and explorer, and Lennon’s room which is named after the hotel’s original name from 1957. The hotel now appeals to the wedding market with so many options available and this latest refurbishment has not only provided an old building with a new look, it has enabled the Burke and Wills hotel to move forward into the future with a new direction appealing to everyone.