The Australia Hotel in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, was until its closure on 30 June 1971 and subsequent demolition, "the best-known hotel in Australia", "the premier hotel in Sydney" and described itself as "The Hotel of the Commonwealth". The hotel was situated in one of Sydney's important thoroughfares in the heart of the city.
The foundation stone was laid by Sir Henry Parkes in 1889, and the opening of the new establishment was performed two years later by Sarah Bernhardt, whose name was first in the new hotel's register, subsequently displayed in a glass showcase in the main foyer. The Sydney Morning Herald reported "French actress Sarah Bernhardt arrived in Sydney, bringing with her 100 pieces of luggage. As hundreds of fans flooded onto Redfern railway platform as her train approached, she was whisked away from the platform to the Australia Hotel where hundreds more excited fans wanted to catch a glimpse of the glamorous celebrity. Her expensive flower filled 2nd floor suite played host to pets including a large St Bernard, a smaller pug dog, a native bear and several cages containing possums and parrots. Theatergoers, many of whom had paid up to £2 for a seat, were genuinely moved by Mme Bernhardt's performance in Dumas' La Dame aux Camillias at Her Majesty's Theatre. After the show, drama critics called her a 'woman of genius' saying she had held the audience spell bound." Next to the hotel, across Rowe Street, stood the famous Theatre Royal.
The hotel had a large entrance onto Castlereagh Street in polished granite, the stairs grey and white marble, the doric columns red. The squared columns in the entrance foyer were imported Italian marble, and the magnificent neo-classical staircase which led from the main foyer to the first floor was completely in multi-coloured Carrara marble. From that floor to the 10th a massive carved and highly polished mahogany Victorian grand staircase, with stained glass windows, led to their rooms those guests, who, in the early days of lifts, still preferred to walk.
The first floor contained a pillared corridor with various reception rooms, in addition to the Winter Garden - "famous for its morning and afternoon teas, light luncheons, and theatre suppers", and the Moorish Lounge, leading to the huge dining room - the Emerald Room, with its highly decorated ceiling some 20 feet (6.1 m) above the guests, Italian chandeliers, and a dais at the west end containing a white marble operating fountain and other statues, engulfed in palm court style shrubbery.
In the late 1920s an extension was constructed to the north of the main hotel which fronted on to the city's historic Martin Place. A highlight of this block was its circular art deco black glass staircase.
A small branch of department store David Jones Limited was located in the hotel, which provided goods for visitors, hampers for sending to Great Britain and Australiana souvenirs.
The hotel also contained a number of very fine paintings of Australian scenes including eight watercolours by the famous artist, Gladstone Eyre.
The hotel boasted international standards of comfort and service. The Australia became "the place to stay and be seen by the upper echelons of society". The hotel remained an oasis for those who scorned modernity and sought the more refined atmosphere of the classic European hotels. Apart from the accommodation for guests, rooms were also provided in the Rowe Street wing for their servants, including the children's nurses, who had their own dining room with their charges. Robert Helpmann had a suite permanently reserved; Marlene Dietrich stayed there several times (thereafter her suite, rooms 707-708, was named after her) and one lady lived there for 31 years.
The hotel hosted many famous events. In 1910 Australasian Wireless Limited obtained a licence from the Postmaster-General's Department to run telegraphy tests, from the hotel's 6th floor, with ships at sea, on 27 August. It was subsequently permitted to handle commercial traffic in 1911 – the first in Australia.
In January 1941 Cabinet Ministers gave a dinner at the Australia for Mr. Robert Menzies who was about to leave for Great Britain. In April 1949 the hotel had the historic importance of being the venue of the first successful television demonstration in Australia, when the State Governor, Lieutenant-General John Northcott was televised in the hotel's ballroom as he opened the demonstration.
In 1968 the Hotel Australia was purchased by the MLC Insurance and Finance group who, amid mounting concerns, announced their intention of refurbishing and maintaining the hotel, one of the city's landmarks. However the following year they announced its impending closure and closed it on 30 June 1971. They demolished it in almost record time, to erect a modern $200 million, 68-storey office block/skyscraper in its place; the MLC Centre. (MLC was later purchased, in 2000, by the National Australia Bank).
The Royal Australian Historical Society who fix their famous Green Plaques to historic buildings and sites, placed their 39th plaque on the MLC Centre in memory of the Australia Hotel.