Looking up at the Carlton Hotel and Carlton Centre

Memories From Joburg’s Carlton Hotel

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.)

Looking up at the Carlton Hotel and Carlton Centre
Looking up at the Carlton Hotel. The taller Carlton Centre, which is still open for business, stands beside it.

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.

Entrance to the Carlton Hotel
The entrance to the hotel, which still looks quite attractive with its coppery sheen.

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 lobby escalator
The Carlton lobby escalator as it appears today. We thought about trying to walk up but were too nervous about the stability of the escalator, as well as the ceiling above it.

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
Carlton Hotel loby
The porter’s desk as it appears today.

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
Breakfast room in Carlton Hotel
This looks like it might have been a breakfast bar. It’s at the back of the lobby. I love the ceiling.

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.

Lobby of Carlton
Mirror images.

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
Carlton Court mirror
The writing on the mirror says “Carlton Court”. The Carlton Court was a smaller building attached to the main hotel with even fancier rooms.

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.

Escalator in Carlton
Another look at the scary escalator.

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
I was afraid to walk down this hallway (to be honest I was afraid of getting caught and wanted to get out of there), but my friend shined her flashlight so I could take a quick photo. On the left is an old jewelry repair shop.

Thanks to everyone who contributed their memories. Someday maybe I’ll collect more stories and do a bigger Carlton project.

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    • Reply 2summers January 10, 2020 at 10:47 am

      Yes! I don’t have a copy of the book myself but I’ve seen it.

  • Reply dizzylexa January 10, 2020 at 10:59 am

    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.

  • Reply Salome January 10, 2020 at 11:36 am

    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.

    • Reply 2summers January 10, 2020 at 11:45 am

      Wow, amazing memories Salome! Thank you for sharing. The Hoff! 😂

  • Reply Deborah January 10, 2020 at 12:01 pm

    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.

  • Reply Lani January 10, 2020 at 12:52 pm

    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. 😛

    • Reply 2summers January 10, 2020 at 1:03 pm

      Hahaha I know that’s her cameo appearance!

  • Reply Margaret Urban January 10, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    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.

    • Reply 2summers January 10, 2020 at 1:03 pm

      Oh wow, that’s fascinating!

  • Reply Graham January 10, 2020 at 1:58 pm

    Great article..

  • Reply Catrina January 10, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    Those incredible photos were worth the risk! So glad you decided to post them here, along with people’s memories.

  • Reply David Sieff January 10, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    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.

    Best regards,
    Dave Sieff

    • Reply 2summers January 10, 2020 at 3:55 pm

      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.

  • Reply AutumnAshbough January 10, 2020 at 4:05 pm

    Wow, you renegade! But worth it to get the interesting stories.

    The exterior is indeed hideous.

    • Reply 2summers January 10, 2020 at 4:06 pm

      Hideous! But this was the architectural fashion (at least in Joburg) in the 1970s. We have so many buildings that look like this.

      • Reply AutumnAshbough January 10, 2020 at 4:09 pm

        Wow. It’s like a cautionary tale about white racist architects and artists.

        • Reply 2summers January 10, 2020 at 4:11 pm

          Yes, I guess it’s no coincidence that the architecture fits so perfectly with the prevailing ideology of the time.

          • Margaret Urban January 10, 2020 at 4:40 pm

            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.

  • Reply Heather Smit January 11, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    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.

    • Reply 2summers January 11, 2020 at 3:05 pm

      That is a very special memory indeed. Thank you for sharing it. I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Reply Tumtum January 13, 2020 at 11:09 am

    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.

    • Reply 2summers January 13, 2020 at 1:14 pm

      Oh wow, that’s amazing!

  • Reply Ruphin Coudyzer January 20, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    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…
    Ruphin Coudyzer

  • Reply Ruphin Coudyzer January 20, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    Correction. The bar with peanuts was not called the peanut bar, I remember now. It was called “The Shock Bar”… Ruphin Coudyzer

  • Reply Lorraine Frew January 20, 2020 at 10:45 pm

    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.

    • Reply 2summers January 21, 2020 at 6:19 am

      That’s an incredible memory – thank you for sharing.

  • Reply Mel Brigg January 22, 2020 at 11:57 am

    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 !

    • Reply 2summers January 22, 2020 at 12:01 pm

      It seems like everyone loved that bar with the peanuts. A bar like that would probably never exist now because of peanut allergies! Haha.

  • Reply Ruphin Coudyzer January 22, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    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…
    Ruphin Coudyzer

  • Reply Loretta Schmidt February 11, 2020 at 6:36 pm

    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?

  • Reply Ruphin Coudyzer February 11, 2020 at 8:07 pm

    Dear Loretta,
    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?
    Ruphin Coudyzer

  • Reply Daniel April 19, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    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!

    • Reply 2summers April 19, 2020 at 7:47 pm

      That’s fascinating – thanks for the comment! I’ll definitely get back to the CBD as soon as I’m allowed outside again 🙂

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