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.
Did you know there’s a whole book about the hotel? https://www.kehrerverlag.com/en/leif-bennett-yvonne-mueller-inside-the-carl-ton-hotel-johannesburg
And here are some more pics: https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/photography-2/abandoned-hotel-carlton-johannesburg-south-africa-history/
Yes! I don’t have a copy of the book myself but I’ve seen it.
I miss the Carlton I used to go in 1988 to the 54 floor there was a canteen they used to call it panarama view.. when I was pregnant and drink milkshakes everyday I went to the Carlton court hotel once.. I miss the 80,s and 90,s
Hello to you all… Just a quick word to say that I had the great honour to work at Westin Carlton Hotel for 2 years 1981-1983. It was so elegant.. Loved my experience there.. To see it like this breaks my heart. I live in Sweden now but have great memories about my time there. 🙂
Thanks Maja 🙂
Hi Maja, did you perhaps work at El Gacjo restaurant?
Great blog stirring up many wonderful memories. Pumpernickel was a popular meeting spot before heading to the Doors nightclub around the corner in Marshall Street. I would love to get into the Joburg Sun which also stands empty, it is also such an iconic building.
So would I!
Wow, now this sent me on a memory trip. I have been there a few times in the early eighties. Just a few – once, to attend a press conference as a young journalist with David Hasselhoff who visited South Africa – I was so sure he looked at me once. 😁😁
A dinner with the late dr Chiavelli at the Three Ships restaurant. I was so scared using all the cutlery, I just watched him all the time to get a tip which ones to use. 😂
The Main Reef bar had peanut shells on the floor. You get a small bowl with peants and could just throw the shells on the floor.
Last time was when Mark Shuttleworth was JHB Newsmaker of the year. I think it was about 10 years ago. All guests had strict instructions where to park and how to get to the room. I think it was probably the old pool restaurant, but everything around us was closed up with boards. What a memory. So wish I could join you on your trip.
Wow, amazing memories Salome! Thank you for sharing. The Hoff! 😂
I think it was called the Clock bar? I used to work on the 47th floor of the Carlton Centre. Such fond memories. My sister and one of her friends from school used to be waitresses at one of tbe restaurants/ballroom for functions. I dont renember the year. It was such a grand place.
You should because these are great. It’s like A Gentleman in Moscow, that old hotel vibe from a bygone era. By the way, I saw your secret friend standing guard by the door as you took a photo of the mirror. 😛
Hahaha I know that’s her cameo appearance!
My ex (according to our son) bought lots of top-end gorgeous furniture and linen at an auction of the Carlton Hotel contents in the mid 90s – at excellent prices.
Oh wow, that’s fascinating!
Those incredible photos were worth the risk! So glad you decided to post them here, along with people’s memories.
Thanks 2Summers for the interesting and informative article,as well as the fascinating stories and comments from readers.
I also went occasionally,as a budding philatelist (actually ‘accumulator’ !) to that stamp shop,and also to visit a pharmacist colleague in the pharmacy there. He was the Hon. Secretary of our Southern Transvaal [ = Gauteng now ] Branch of the Pharmaceutical Society, and had arranged for our Annual General Meeting in one of the function rooms on a lower floor – probably late 70s/early 80s.
After the AGM my wife and I decided to go up to the Three Ships Restaurant, located on an upper floor; we took the lift,with a couple of other passengers, and enjoyed coffee and cake (I think) and called for the bill.
I knew that I had put 3 R5 notes into my back pocket before leaving home,but my pocket was empty !
The (head ?) waiter was very understanding, and agreed that I could bring the money in as soon as possible, which I did in the next day or two.
The pickpocket/s probably went straight back down in the lift, and had my R15 – worth quite a lot more in those days – and had the advantage of spending it at my (double !) expense !
Thanks for again arousing nostalgia about iconic Joburg buildings; a suggestion : I’m not sure whether it’s still standing, but the small building in Pritchard Street next to the historic Cuthberts store building, was once the site of Tothills Pharmacy where I worked. It was noted for being the smallest (business) structure in Joburg – worth at least a viewing; I could expand on some details.
Hi Dave, thank you for the story! Sorry about your R15 though, haha. It’s funny how things like that stick in your memory for decades. Thanks for the recommendation about the building in Pritchard Street — sounds fascinating. I will investigate.
Tothills. I met Abe Rakusen when I supplied him with my products. What a mensch,
Wow, you renegade! But worth it to get the interesting stories.
The exterior is indeed hideous.
Hideous! But this was the architectural fashion (at least in Joburg) in the 1970s. We have so many buildings that look like this.
Wow. It’s like a cautionary tale about white racist architects and artists.
Yes, I guess it’s no coincidence that the architecture fits so perfectly with the prevailing ideology of the time.
Brutalist architecture; designed to ‘intimidate’ even nature e g ex Johannesburg General Hospital, now Charlotte Maxeke, which defaced a majestic ridge and replaced gracious homes. Stalin did the same – visit any eastern European country.
The Carlton Hotel was the first in the country to offer braille menus. We took our then 7 year old duaghter to the Koffiehuis Restuarant to enable her read the menu and make her own choice. A big deal in the life of a blind child. Kerry is no longer with us, but that special memory remains with us.
That is a very special memory indeed. Thank you for sharing it. I’m sorry for your loss.
Fascinating reading all the stories, thank you!
On the hotel being “international” – a lady from Soweto posted a pic on Twitter of her grandfather’s wedding reception at the Carlton hotel (getting married to a Swati princess no less).
I will try find it tag you.
Oh wow, that’s amazing!
The bar mentioned above was called “The Peanut Bar”. My then wife Marie-Jeanne (we were married between 1971 and 1981) worked there as a waitress…
Correction. The bar with peanuts was not called the peanut bar, I remember now. It was called “The Shock Bar”… Ruphin Coudyzer
Wow, the Shock Bar!
I feel a measure of ambivalence adding my comments to the many memories of the Carlton Hotel published here. I’m conflicted because I enjoy people’s recollections of the hotel in its heyday, but I am saddened by the undignified demise of the old lady of Main Street.
More than saddened – I am angered by pictures and reports that provide graphic detail of what the hotel has become…. Derelict, abandoned, broken and valueless. Dead. I worked at The Carlton for almost eleven years during its peak and this period was the highlight of a long and varied working life. I confess that I find these pictures of the interior of the hotel offensive – almost disrespectful, like the desecration of the body of a loved one, now an object of casual curiosity.
It’s not widely known, but a significant number of former employees of The Carlton – now, in all four corners of the World – have remained in close touch (more than fifty years after the hotel’s opening and twenty-five years after its closure). For the members of this group, The Carlton was not just a job or another hotel: it was a highlight of their working lives, and their eyes go misty when they talk of their experiences there.
For us, The Carlton lives on, in splendour, despite the ugliness of its remains…
Thanks so much for your comment, Piero. It’s moving and beautifully written!
I remember the original Carlton Hotel in Eloff street Johannesburg .Every year they celebrated the Governor Generals Ball. It was a fund raising event to raise money for the Hope Home for orphaned children. During the year, young girls were encouraged to collect funds towards the event. They were then invited to the ball to be presented to the Governor as Debutants as a reward for their hard work. I still have a photo of myself walking down the red carpet where we curtsied to the Governor. All the girls were dressed iin beautiful white evening dresses.
That’s an incredible memory – thank you for sharing.
There was a really great restaurant / Bar beside the main entrance, one got peanuts in shells and the whole floor was covered in shells …..also i went to a show and dinner at the very top , forget the name ,but Mel Miller ( comedian )entertained us that evening. The cars were parked by drivers and delivered back to the entrance , what a pleasure !! good old days !
It seems like everyone loved that bar with the peanuts. A bar like that would probably never exist now because of peanut allergies! Haha.
The cabaret venue at The Carlton was called “Top Of The Carlton”. My then (1980’s) girlfriend Judy Page was the leading cabaret star and performed there regularly. We would sleep in her luxury hotel room where the bar got stocked every morning with white wines…
Do you remember the pianist who played at Top of the Carlton? His name was Peter Rimmer. I’m not sure on the timing of his employment as the piano player at The Carlton but i believe it was the late 70’s early 80’s. I would love to find any pictures of him as i recently discovered that Peter Rimmer was my biological father.
i stayed at the Carlton Hotel in 1975 and I’m trying to recall as much as I can about it for a book. All dark wood with marble floors and brass w chandeliers. Have I got that memory right? The bar was to the right side of the lobby yes? it not the Clock Bar?
It was called The Shock Bar…
My wife used to work there as a waitress at around that time (1975…)
We are talking about the one with the peanut-strewn floor, right?
The cocktail lounge in the lobby on the Ground Floor was the Clock Bar (the pub with the honky-took piano on the Ground Floor was The Main Reef, later re-styled as a sophisticated cocktail bar called Charlie’s). There was also a “pre-dinner” formal cocktail lounge adjoining the Three Ships restaurant on the first floor called The Quarter Deck.
Piero, I’d love to know what your job was at the hotel!
Thanks for doing this blog. The photos are a fascinating glimpse of Joburg’s past. My father worked on the construction of the Carlton Centre and hotel as an electrical engineer. He remembers inspecting a crane hundreds of metres above the ground and dropping wrench that fell onto the pavement below. Fortunately no one was injured! He also remembered seeing the very bad race relations at first hand while working on the site. The black workers lives really didn’t matter. It was one of the reasons my parents decided to return to the UK in the mid 70s. After it was opened, my parents used to go for a buffet at the Carlton Hotel most Fridays. They visited Joburg in the early 2000s and were very sad to see how the CBD had declined. Maybe one day the Carlton will open again in some capacity. Please do keep uploading photos of central Joburg!
That’s fascinating – thanks for the comment! I’ll definitely get back to the CBD as soon as I’m allowed outside again 🙂
This is so great to take a walk down memory lane! I remember going to the Koffiehuis Restaurant as a child – my absolute favourite dish was the “Dutch Dip” – roast beef on crusty bread which you would dip into a wonderful rich gravy! Absolutely heavenly!
Sounds like a good memory!
Does anyone know what the dishes were at the 3 ships restaurant? My mom took me once as a kid in the 1980’s and we had some sort of baguette with roast beef and dipped in a jus.
Trying to think of things to cook during the lockdown that never ends.
I hope you find the answer!
I worked on the front desk at the Carlton in 1989 and again for a few months in 1991. The roast beef baguette was my absolute favourite and was called a ‘Dutch Dip’
so sad i had many a NAUGHTY DAYS / NIGHTS/ NOON times ,with my now wife , is this what SA has become ?, there will be people who will never know ,
My favorite dish in the Three Ships was “moules marinière” Steamed mussels in garlic cream sauce. The waiters also did table side cooking of steak Diane and tossed Caesar Salad with home made dressing. They printed blue matchbooks with the names of each of the guests. It was a production from beginning to end. Only the men had prices on the menus. The women then could choose what to eat, based on what sounded good, not which would be the most affordable choice.
Haha, that is all fascinating! Thanks for sharing.
I really enjoy reading your interesting article. Reliving the past of what was good in South Africa back then. The history of what was makes a person think of what could have been…….
Great Blog. Thank you! Love reading all the memories of what The Carlton used to be. If anyone remembers the pianist Peter Rimmer please let me know. He played piano at the top of the Carlton Monday – Friday (not sure if it was the 70’s or 80’s. I’d love to find out any information at all. Thanks!
The Christmas lunches in the Ballroom was sublime.
Were you not scared venturing through the abandoned hotel?
Koffiehaus for best eggs Benedict and bottomless cup of coffee. And crockery copied from VOC originals. Main Reef Bar where the girls wore red and white checked dresses and black panty hose.