Ambassador Hotel – Style Risen from the Ashes

Written by Vicky Bowden of the Sugar City Art Deco and Modernism Society | Published September 2021

Behind Mackay’s Art Deco facade hide many stories of the people who designed, built, owned, lived and worked in these buildings over the span of close to 100 years.

Many of Mackay’s Art Deco buildings emerged out of the devastation of the 1918 cyclone.  By contrast Mackay’s Ambassador Hotel rose from the ashes of the Tattershall Hotel, which was badly damaged by fire in 1936.  The Tattershall, which had stood for more than 50 years, was a two-story timber structure with little defense against a fire.  Thankfully only two employees were resident at the time, both of whom managed to escape, losing their personal possessions in the process. The fire was not however good news for the new owner of the hotel, Mrs Mary Azar, who had contracted to purchase the Tattershall, and was planning to move in just a few weeks later.  Luckily, as the hotel was insured, the sale proceeded.

Mary Azar was not a Mackay local; she was born in Syria in 1876.  She married her husband Elias Azar, himself of Syrian origin, in Atherton, North Queensland, in 1895, when Mary was 19, and her new husband was 35.  Elias had spent the early part of his life in America, then moved to Australia in 1885, settling in North Queensland, where he conducted a draper’s business for over 30 years.  The couple had 12 children during their marriage, which was sadly cut short when Elias died in 1928 at their then home at Hamilton, Brisbane.  The family had only recently moved to the area from their property at Yattee, near Gordonvale.  When Elias died Mary still had three small children under her care, with the youngest, Mavis, being just 6 years old.

After Elias died Mary moved away from Brisbane – living in Tully, where many of her older children lived, and Yeppoon, before her move to Mackay.  In 1937 the local electoral roll lists Mary as hotelkeeper for Tattershalls, with her daughter Esme manageress.  Another Azar – son Michael – is listed as barkeeper at Mackay’s Commercial hotel.

Female hotelkeepers were commonplace.  Up until the 1960s publicans were expected to live on the premises and provide meals and accommodation.  The domestic nature of the work attracted women – and with a small family to raise, likely suited Mary’s personal circumstances well.

Whilst the Tattershall was literally, in tatters, Mary was making good on her investment by selling off what could be salvaged from the building by auction.  Essentially this was the whole ground floor, comprising the entire kitchen, passageway, and a large quantity of bricks, timber, hardwood, pine, galvanized iron, Wunderlich ceiling tiles, doors, windows and fanlights.  She had also engaged the Guthrie brothers to build a splendid new Art Deco styled hotel – the Ambassador.  The hotel was designed by Townsville architect Joseph Rooney, in an inter-war functionalist style with Art Deco detailing.  There have been some alterations over the years – notably the addition of a third story, but the Sydney Street hotel still retains key features of the original as-built in 1937.

This was a large investment for Mary Azar.  In 1940 the Daily Mercury reported a that she had paid £14,500 for the construction of the Ambassador – which was significantly more than the insurance payout on the old Tattershall premises.  The high cost was due in part to the reinforced foundations, built on the basis that a third story could be added later if desired.

The new hotel opened with great fanfare on 3 September 1937.  According to the Daily Mercury Len Sullivan’s orchestra was to play whilst the guests enjoyed “dainty refreshments”, and dancing under the stars in the rooftop garden.  Rooms were priced at seventeen shillings per day, with reduced rates for longer terms.  Hot and cold water was on-tap in every bedroom and “excellent cuisine” was available in the hotel restaurant.  When Mary’s daughter Esme married Reginald Hurley in May 1938, her reception was held at the Ambassador, and hosted by her mother.

Working life was not without drama, however and maybe running a large and expensive premises was proving to be harder than anticipated.  In 1937 Mary appears to put the lease up for sale in December, then subsequently withdraws it.  In 1938 an action was brought against Mary by the licensing court, alleging she kept the hotel open for the sale of alcohol, beyond legal closing time.  For Mary this resulted in a fine of ten pounds with six shillings costs.  For their trouble the four after-hours drinkers were each fined ten shillings each, also with six shillings costs.

Mary and Esme ran the hotel between them during the period 1937 – 1941, after which it passed to John Thompson, who paid £24,000 for the building and contents, a healthy return for Mary’s £14,500 investment.

It doesn’t appear that Mary stayed in Mackay for long.  After her tenure at the Ambassador ended, she headed south again.  In 1954 she was living in Greenslopes, Brisbane.  She died in 1957 and was buried in the family plot with husband Elias, in Nudgee Cemetery.


Michelmore and More

Michelmore and More

Written by Vicky Bowden of the Sugar City Art Deco and Modernism Society | Published May 2022 Numerous Mackay families made their commercial mark on our regional town, many trading successfully for many decades.  As Mackay grew post-first world war (and post...

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