Sofitel Sydney Wentworth turns 50: The scandals and drama behind the iconic Sydney hotel

Once you reach 50, you're bound to acquire a few secrets. Even a scandal or two. 

So, as the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth – the city's most enduring five-star international hotel – prepares to celebrate its half-century (it opened on December 14, 1966) – what's the goss? Can the staff reveal any of those deeply embarrassing anecdotes that surface at landmark anniversaries like this?

Well, what about the day Princess Diana risked being poisoned? 

Perhaps the most iconic image from the hotel's photo archive shows Diana being twirled by her husband Charles, Prince of Wales, on the dance floor in 1983. 

But in the kitchen, there was a crisis. Executive chef Willie Ruck, keen to make a splash, had chosen an unusual main course: tenderloin beef with oyster mushrooms. 

Oyster mushrooms in Australia were a rarity in Eighties Australia, so Willie bought early and put them in the fridge.

Two hours before the biggest banquet of his life, Willie's assistant whispered to his boss: the mushrooms were off. 

Menus had been printed. No fresh oyster mushrooms were available. Imagine the next day's headlines: "Royals poisoned – Republican plot?"

Swearing his assistant to secrecy, they cooked a bowl of the suspect mushrooms, divided them in two, and monitored each other for food poisoning. 

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With no adverse reaction as the main course was due to be cooked, Willie decided to serve the mushrooms to Charles and Diana. And, as history records, the royals weren't poisoned.

So that's it? 

Surely in 50 years, there must have been something juicier?

Well, staff say, what about the scary encounter in 2007 when an unsuspecting newlywed couple checking into the hotel were astonished to be congratulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin (both he and Chinese President, Hu Jintau​, were staying at the hotel when Sydney hosted APEC)?

Or that time when the richest man in the world arrived by private jet and almost left without paying his bill? (When the mistake was pointed out Bill Gates wrote a signed IOU).

That's the problem with the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth. After 50 years, there are NO scandals. 

Is that an indication "the Wentworth" is staid? Or that its staff are faultlessly discrete?

Either way, December 14 marks the day 50 years ago when Sydney gained its first international hotel built specifically to cater for "the Jet Set". 

Photographs of famous guests – including the Queen after opening the Sydney Opera House in 1973, Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren​, and politicians like Margaret Thatcher and George W Bush – are being displayed around the hotel.

Current executive chef Boris Cuzon​ has created a special 50th anniversary champagne high tea featuring classic treats from the Sixties, including the Wentworth cheesecake, lemon tartlet, opera cake and homemade scones, plus savory delicacies and a selection of 17 Ronnefeldt teas.

And in the foyer, there's a temporary exhibition with photos and news clippings showing the construction progress, the original architectural model, and the classic and highly colourful outfits worn by Qantas stewardesses throughout the Sixties.

To understand the significance of this anniversary you'll need to imagine Australia in December, 1966. 

There was only one modern five-star hotel in Australia before the Wentworth. Melbourne's Southern Cross Hotel opened in 1962 (it was demolished in 2003).

Even Canberra had The Rex, built in 1959, and most famous for hosting Lyndon Johnson in 1966, the first serving US President to visit Australia.

So Sydney had fallen behind its international rivals, and no one knew this more than the board of Qantas Empire Airways. 

Qantas had bought a controlling interest in the "old" Wentworth in 1950, when it became the airline's city terminal where passengers would check-in before being transported in style to board their flight.

That hotel, on Charlotte Street, had served the city well since the 1800s with its 200 guest rooms and iconic ballroom (Charles' predecessor as Prince of Wales, later to briefly become Edward VII, had danced on that very floor). And the name went back even further, to 1854 when a boarding establishment, Wentworth House, opened in a building owned by William Charles Wentworth, the explorer turned entrepreneur and politician. 

But by 1961, Qantas had decided to build a bold new Wentworth in Chifley Square. Leading American architects, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, were given the task of designing the $11 million project in association with a local company, Laurie and Heath.

Their striking design raised eyebrows. Instead of the steel and concrete then in vogue, the "Qantas Wentworth" would be built of brick: the biggest brick building in the southern hemisphere at the time. It would also have a distinctive horseshoe-shaped guest tower gathered around a raised garden court yard which formed the roof of the biggest ballroom/convention centre in Australia. And above the entrance there would be an enormous copper awning, one of the largest prefabricated structures of its kind in the world.

As the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out in a four-page supplement, the curved facade took maximum advantage of what were then "the views to the east over the Domain and the Heads". Those views disappeared in 1992 when Alan Bond finished his Bond Tower (renamed Chifley Plaza in 1993 after Bond Corporation went into bankruptcy).

Qantas executives took the detailed architectural model round the world, pitching the hotel's many facilities to tourist bodies and convention organisers. Their hard sell paid off: the Herald reported the hotel had bookings for international conferences and conventions six years ahead.

The "old" Wentworth shut its doors for the final time on Tuesday, December 13. Next morning the new incarnation was unveiled. Long-serving concierge Tony Facciolo​ described the scenes as "bedlam". That weekend an estimated 20,000 Sydneysiders passed through the doors to peak at the numerous bars and restaurants (Coral Reef Bar, Harbour Bar, Flight Bar, Piano Bar, Ayres Rock Grill etc), the Grand Ballroom – the biggest then in Sydney – and the 16 shops in the arcade. 

The crush was so great, security guards were put on the doors the following Monday to ensure only guests were allowed in.

The hotel has gone through several guises in 50 years but has been the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth since 2002, relaunching in 2004 after a $60 million refit. There have been subtle changes – including the Soiree bar near the lobby, the Club Sofitel lounge for frequent guests, and the tasteful French-theme throughout the public areas and 436 guest rooms (45 of which are suites).

Yet an original guest from 1966 would not feel out of place 50 years on. The Garden Court Restaurant, on the fifth floor, still looks out over a formal, European-style garden; and the view from east-facing rooms still have that feeling of spaciousness in the heart of the city that was an integral part of the original semi-circular design.

Frankly, there are plenty of 50 year olds who wish they had worn as well.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

sofitelsydney.com.au

STAYING THERE

The hotel is offering a 50th anniversary package, including high tea and in-room breakfast, from $400 a room a night.

EATING THERE

The 50th anniversary high tea, including Cristina Re gift, from $69 a person. Bookings essential. 

Steve Meacham was a guest of the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth.

FIVE OTHER HOTELS THAT ARE 50 YEARS OR OLDER

HOTEL WINDSOR, MELBOURNE

The oldest five-star hotel in Australia, having occupied the same grand building in Spring Street since 1883, the Windsor symbolises the Gold Rush glory of Melbourne and continues to win awards. Its afternoon tea is legendary, however the Windsor is set to close in March 2017 for redevelopment. See thehotelwindsor.com.au

IBIS STYLES MELBOURNE, THE VICTORIA HOTEL

Opening for business in 1880 as the Victoria Coffee Palace, "The Vic" was founded by the Temperance League as a teetotal establishment. At one stage it boasted it was the largest hotel in Australia. See victoriahotel.com.au

THE GREAT SOUTHERN HOTEL, SYDNEY

There has been a hotel at 717-723 George Street since 1858 when Michael McNamara  opened The Farmer's House, renaming it the Great Southern in 1903. The current hotel – regarded as one of the most significant Art Deco buildings in Sydney – was designed by Virgil Dante Cizzio​ and opened in 1939. See greatsouthernhotel.com.au

HOTEL KURRAJONG CANBERRA

Celebrating its 90th birthday this year, this heritage-listed hotel was designed by John Smith Murdoch, who also designed Old Parliament House. It has strong connections with Australian political history, particularly with Prime Minister Ben Chifley who died in room 205 in 1951. See hotelkurrajong.com.au

MERCURE CANBERRA

Originally the Ainslie Hotel when it was built in 1927, it later became the Ainslie Ladies Hostel, the Ainslie Rex and Olims (from 1989 until 2011 when it was rebadged following a $8 refurbishment). It was originally built to house public servants working in the newly transferred Commonwealth Parliament. See mercurecanberra.com.au

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