The Johannesburg central business district (locals call it the CBD) has experienced tumultuous change over the past 50 years. Nowhere is that change more visible than at the once glitzy, now abandoned Carlton Hotel.
The Carlton opened at the height of apartheid in 1972, when black South Africans in Joburg still had to carry passbooks. The hotel was grand, by all accounts, albeit with ugly (in my opinion at least) brutalist architecture. The Carlton had 31 storeys, more than 600 rooms, a rooftop pool, and several fancy restaurants and shops. Only the richest South Africans could afford to stay there.
Less than 30 years later, in 1998, the Carlton Hotel was closed and mothballed as the CBD collapsed around it. The Carlton has never re-opened.
This hulking skyscraper has been sitting empty for more than two decades, and as far as I know there is no plan to revive it. (It’s not alone, either. The old Joburg Sun Hotel, a few blocks away, suffered the same fate.)
The Carlton is closed to the public and it’s not easy (or advisable) to get inside. But thanks to a gutsy friend who shall remain nameless, I recently spent a few minutes snooping around the lobby and took some pictures.
I wasn’t sure if I should share those pictures because, again, I do not recommend that anyone else try this. Also the pictures are’t very pretty — they’re hideous, in fact — and I was too nervous to take very many.
But last week I shared one photo of the hotel entrance on social media and received many interesting comments from people who visited the Carlton in its heyday.
I received stories of matric dances (the South African version of prom), wild parties, honeymoons, and stolen shoes. One person posted a picture of an ancient Carlton Hotel dining menu with “Cream of Lettuce Soup” for R0.35. (That’s $.025 today — 2% of a U.S. cent.)
So I decided to post the pictures I took, along with some of the memories people shared with me.
Carlton Hotel Memories
Most of these memories were shared in comments on my 2Summers Facebook page. Some of the stories were very long so I’ve shortened them a bit, but otherwise they’re word-for-word.
…My mom used to exhibit antiques annually in the Carlton Centre Rondehof and so my routine was to catch the number 34 bus from Malvern after school to Carlton Centre and hang out at the pet shop, stationery shop and have lunch at Pumpernickel! My sister and I would go ice skating but whenever we appeared at the Carlton Hotel on one of our adventures, we would be snubbed by the doorman wearing morning coat and top hat! There was so much brass everywhere but since I was just seven, I thought it was gold.Kristina Gubic
My parents, new immigrants, were invited for ‘tea and scones’ on the pool deck by new friends circa 1975. My father told my mother the cream on the scones smelled off, when she lifted her scone to her nose, he pushed it into her face. She’s 75 now and still hasn’t forgiven him.Anne Erasmus
My friend Esme worked at the SAA office in the Carlton and when we got married in 1985 she organized for us to have the Honeymoon suite! We arrive at the hotel full of love and alcohol, announce who we are and that we’re in the Honeymoon suite… only to discover that another C. McCarthy had a reservation and he was given the Honeymoon suite… we get given another room… we go up to the room… key in the lock open the door and the chain is on the door… occupied room … so down we schlep back to reception the alcohol is wearing a bit thin… but the love is still holding us up… get more apologies and another key! Arrive at the room we unlock… no chain … the alcohol and love return… I walk in first past the bathroom and there are shoes on the bathroom floor… another occupied room!!! Now there is no love and the alcohol has totally evaporated… I have blisters on my feet… we’re tired of the up and down… back to reception we go! Now the night manager is fighting with staff for incompetence… other guests are trying to party with us… and we are finished!! FINALLY we’re given an unoccupied room… we fall into bed… exhausted … the alcohol says ‘HELLO’ the love says ‘zzzz’! We are JUST falling asleep when there is a knock on the door… I swear… my new husband turns over and goes back to sleep… it’s management with complimentary champagne!! OMG! We got a fruit basket in the morning and breakfast and more apologies but Charlie McCarthy from Durban got the Honeymoon Suite!Ilsé McCarthy
We spent the night after our wedding at the Carlton Hotel! It was 1988, very expensive, and the only ‘international’ (read non racial) hotel in Jozi at the time (I think). Was very fancy for two students! We loved it.Gloria Castrillon
According to this Times Live article (which also has some great recent photos of the hotel), the Carlton was indeed classified as an “international” hotel and this classification allowed it to accept non-white guests, even while the rest of the city was strictly segregated. I would love to hear from people of color who stayed at the hotel under apartheid.
I went there often. They were like the previous ‘Stuttafords’ . I recall they sold cigarettes. Cameo was the brand back then, my Mom smoked it. Beautiful pale blue box with a Cameo brooch on the middle of the box.Zanie de Klerk
The ANC’s election victory party in 1994!Janine Onthemove
My dad worked for Amcoal (now Anglo Coal) and we lived on the mines in Mpumalanga for a large part of my childhood (1980s- 1996). We would go to the Carlton hotel twice a year (July for the annual “Chairman’s ball”; and November for the end of year function)… I remember my dad sneaking me in to see the decorations. The Christmas function was sometimes in the Three Ships restaurant and my parents would bring little things back for me like serviette rings — some of whose attachments are still in our Christmas decorations collection now. My dad would take me to the top of the hotel where the pool deck was (I was fascinated by the notion of a pool in the air and the fake grass surround), and we would ride the service escalators on to the top floors (some were very narrow)…When my parents went to their evening functions, I was left with a ‘baby sitter’ from the hotel staff. I would get room service for my dinner – always with ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce. I was fascinated with the notion of phones in the bathrooms… last time I went there in 1996, I was 12 then, only 100 rooms were open and they were closing the hotel down. Can’t believe it is still empty.Jennifer Koen
I remember finishing an army camp in the Vaal Triangle and spending a weekend with my wife at the Carlton Court, great meals and shopping downtown, fascinated by the electric blinds.Glyn Demmer
There was a “honky tonk” bar at ground level with old fashioned piano tunes to match. The floor was always at least ankle deep in peanut shells. (Name of pub escapes me at this moment.) Great fun and wonderful vibe.Marion Fowler
Another person wrote that the bar above was called the Main Reef.
My first intro to the Carlton Centre complex (the mall, hotel, ice rink, viewing deck) was through my father. He was a philatelist and there was a stamp shop in the Carlton Centre where he often went to seek rarities. I found philately really boring but I loved entering that beige concrete parking lot in my father’s beige sedan, and walk around the centre with my dad. It was huge to me! The hotel: My mom used to sometimes take me and my sisters to the top pool area during school holidays. Not to swim (residents only) but for light lunches, etc.
I used to spend a lot of time in town during high school (1982-1986 — exactly the years that the CBD was starting to decline). It was unusual for teenagers from the developing malled suburbs, but my friend Alan and I loved it…We felt so independent.
When celebrities visited they would almost always stay at the Carlton Hotel, before being helicoptered to Sun City in the made-up country of Bophutatswana. Alan and I waited and waited in the reception for Olivia Newton-John to appear but to our surprise, we saw her in the lobby of The Landdrost on the other side of town.
I hated high school, but my weekend downtown trips made up for the misery. Our matric dance was held in the Carlton Hotel’s 2nd floor ballroom. It was a big deal driving there myself.
The last time I went into the hotel was in the mid 2000s when the ballroom was being used as a studio for Strictly Come Dancing.Bradley Kirshenbaum, Founder of Love Jozi and author of I Love You I Hate You
I worked at IBM which was across Main St. opposite the hotel. At night you had to close the office blinds to not see outside because the people in the hotel usually didn’t.Al Ford
Thanks to everyone who contributed their memories. Someday maybe I’ll collect more stories and do a bigger Carlton project.