At the height of the “Marvellous Melbourne” boom-time, gold rich citizens roamed the streets and the Parer’s worked their restaurant, hotel and catering magic, lining their own pockets with great success. They worked hard, took risks, backed their abilities and brought their family in at every possibility. What epitomised this success was the creation of Parer’s Crystal Cafe & Hotel. For the Parer family it became a symbol of their position in shaping Melbourne at it’s heart in Bourke Street.
If Joseph and Francis Parer were the first of the family to arrive in Australia in 30 May 1855 aboard the Greek vessel the “Telemacho“, then their brother Steven’s arrival on the ship the “Norfolk” on 9 February, 1858 signalled the beginning of the Parer’s prominence in the hotel business as he precipitated the purchase of the Duke de la Victoria at 91 East Bourke Street (later including 93).
In October 1885, the Parer Bros. bought Nissen’s Cafe at 103 Bourke Street East, between Swanston and Russell Streets, for £32,750. The Age wrote, “Parer Brothers, who immediately entered upon extensive alterations and additions with a view to improving the establishment and making it one of the most handsome places in the city”.
They changed the name to Parer’s Café and while continuing operations began renovations including enlargement and adding an additional story at the front of the building to a cost of about £20,000.
The frontage was 33ft to Bourke street and a depth of 313ft running right through to Little Bourke Street.
The Parer Brothers was more a syndicate than a company that owned many properties, land, ventures and business over it’s time, initially it owned Duke de la Victoria, which later extended with the purchase of the Temple of Pomona, but also Parer’s Crystal Cafe & Hotel.
The Parer Brothers ownership also evolved over time, but what is clear is that it initially involved the brothers Steven (Estevan Parer y Xicola), Joseph (Josep Parer y Bosch), and Francis (Francisco Parer y Xicola). Later it involved the other brothers Phillip (Felipe Parer y Xicola) and John (Juan Parer y Xicola), their cousin Salvador Parer y Puig (his father was Josep, Pau’s brother), and their nephew Michael Parer (Miguel Parer y Arenas).
What is clear is that Parer’s Crystal Café & Hotel was the brainchild of Steven and his brothers Phillip and John who were the main the main protagonists in the venture.
Francis by this stage had moved out fully to Box Hill and the vegetable gardens for health reasons.
While Joseph left on 28 March, 1890 after over extending his finances, with, among other things, the Albion Hotel and The Grand Junction Hotel in Traralgon forcing him into a protracted insolvency during 1892.
Joseph’s circumstances certainly weren’t helped by the Parer Bros big land speculation in what is now Noble Park in the outer South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. When the land boom went bang, this land became worth substantially less than what they initially paid.
Steven bought Phillip and John’s shares on 7 March 1904.
Steven’s eldest son Joseph Anthony joined Steven as a partner towards the end of Steven’s life.
On the 14 October, 1886 a new hotel and café was opened to the public with members of the Parliament in attendance for the evening. The hotel had 80 bedrooms and suites in the upper room.
The Argus reported that the bar and café on the ground floors were:
laid with tessellated pavements and a centre marble panel. The fittings at the bar and cafe are of walnut and Huon pine, relieved with nickel shafts and a large number of handsome mirrors. The bar is divided into several compartments, large bevelled mirrors being fixed to the walls, and the ceilings are covered with coloured decorations. The cafe is designed to accommodate upwards of 200 people, and is arranged in accordance with continental fashion. In the centre is a large ornamental fountain, around which will be placed suitable floral decorations. In the rear of the cafe there is a spacious billiard salon. The work has been carried out under the supervision of Mr. P. Matthews, architect.
The Launceston Examiner on 1 September, 1888 describes, “A visit to Parer Brothers’ Crystal Cafe, say from 10pm to 11.30pm is a study. The room is a large one and the walls are covered with mirrors from floor to ceiling. Small tables are placed round the room and two rows of tables in the centre. The place seats about one hundred. Chess, dominoes and draughts were being played at several tables. Of those present, two-thirds had coffee, the other third liquors of some sort. There was a continual coming and going, so that at least 500 men visit this cafe every evening; the greatest order and decorum prevailed. At 25 minutes past the 11, a waiter commenced turning out the lights which were placed round the room, and as he did so, the occupants of the tables beneath rose and quickly went and as light after light was put out the people cleared and in five minutes the place was empty and the front doors locked. Our party consisted of three tee-totalers and two who were not. Hotels close at half-past 11 in Victoria.
Confusion with names and location
There is often confusion between the Parer Bros. Hotel which was The Duke de la Victoria Hotel at 91, 93 Bourke Street East and Parer’s Crystal Café & Hotel at 103 Bourke Street East. This is for several reason:
- The close proximity of the Parer holdings and premises.
- Time has blurred the memories into myth.
- The Duke de la Victoria was in a prior location initially and was moved to to 91 Bourke Street, though where it was originally still remains a mystery.
- The acquisition of The Temple of Pamona in March 1873 and addition to the Duke de la Victoria.
- The numbering of the streets in 1887 when the Melbourne City Council ordered the renumbering of properties across the city to make houses and businesses easier to find. So 103 East Bourke Street became 200 Bourke Street.
- The Parer Bros. company or syndicate included both and more at various times and included ventures not restricted to Melbourne, but all around Australia from Queenstown in Tasmania to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and much of county Victoria.
- Parer’s Crystal Café & Hotel was an iconic and distinguished building and represented the central operations of the Parer Bros.
- A company at one time bore the name of Parer’s Crystal Café and Hotel Pty Ltd which owned the Parer’s Crystal Café & Hotel.
- Over time the premises were altered, added to and reduced.
I have settled on Parer’s Crystal Café & Hotel as the convention, though it also included a restaurant. It was also known and labelled by many names or conventions. I settled on Parer’s Crystal Café & Hotel because that’s how it was initially described and how it is more often referred in newspaper articles. While it is oft times referred to simply as Parer’s colloquially, it can be confused with the Parer’s Hotel, formerly the Duke de la Victoria at 91,93 Bourke Street East.
Parer’s Crystal Café & Hotel – Sold!
After the death of Steven Parer on 27 June, 1911 at his home in Fitzroy the family put Parer’s Crystal Café & Hotel up for auction on the 14 November 1911. A bid was made for £38,000 and this was passed hoping for another £10,000.
On the 11 May, 1914 though it was sold and for £38,000 to Centreway Cafe Company Proprietary Limited. Given it was originally purchased for £33,000 and was a substantially less iconic and square actual footage building, it’s fair to say the 28 year capital appreciation was minor.
What is not clear here, is whether this was the sale simply of the building or whether it included the business as well. The advertisements highlighting “under new management” which suggest it was both, but there are many indication that suggest it wasn’t as clean cut as that. It may be that individual Parer’s continued at times to manage the Café, Restaurant and Hotel, in particular Michael Parer in the 1920s and 30s.
There have been suggestions that Michael Parer’s brother-in-law William Henry Higgins and long time friend and meat supplier Sir William Angliss owned the premises during this period, though I’ve yet to produce concrete evidence to support this it does explain Michael’s involvement and some comments he makes in family correspondence to that effect.
What does the hotel letterhead tell us?
Hotel letterhead was a mainstay in that industry and as you can view from the two examples below, spread 28 years apart, the changes in design were nuanced, but important.
The 1901 letterhead leverages the name of Parer Bros., which had a well founded reputation and rely’s on the iconic nature of the building as part of it’s brand. The street had very little street shelter along it’s side walk at the time and Parer’s Crystal Café and Hotel would have been much more visible than several decades later.
The 1929 Letterhead and subsequent advertising is much more focused on the entrance which has evolved after some retail shops were built into the front of the building creating a passage to the back with the café and restaurant dining areas. Interestingly the new owners still saw much goodwill and value in using the Parer name very prominently.
Under original management
While at times Michael Parer held the licence for Parers Crystal Café & Hotel, it appears in the papers as under original management from September 1949. What all that meant is difficult to decipher, but it may have been one last hurrah! for the parent company and indeed for the Parer’s involvement in the building as operators of the premises, even if they didn’t own the building.
Sold again! And a name change
On the 23 March 1950, Parers Crystal Café & Hotel was sold at auction for £119,000. This time to Sharpe Bros. Pty Ltd which had occupied the retail store in the premises for a decade. They had plans to make the building into a department store, that never seem to have progressed.
The auction sale describes the building as such:
“The Hotel comprises main bar, lounge bar, dining room and domestic adjuncts on the ground floor. On the upper floors comprising of sitting rooms, bedroom and bathroom accommodation the whole comprising 100 rooms. The victuallers’ licence, furniture, plant and equipment will be sold with the property.
“At the rear of the hotel building are situate two 2-story shops and dwellings and a 3-story brick building with frontages to Little Bourke-street let on Weekly tenancies.
“Land: 32ft 1 inch to Bourke-street by a depth of 315ft 6 inches through to Little Bourke-street to which the frontage is 67ft 10.5 inches. At point approximately 188ft north from Bourke-street the land widens to approximately 68ft and enjoys access to the easterly and westerly boundaries from Bullens-lane and Deal-Alley respectively.
“This magnificent site, situate in one of the most valuable sections of Melbourn’s retail section has a superficial area of approx. 14,750 sq ft”.
In 1951, the owners changed the name to Ushers Hotel.
The end of an icon & Wheelan the Wrecker
Wheelan the Wrecker and it’s well known sign “Whelan the Wrecker is Here” operated in Melbourne for a 100 years until 1992. Whelan came to perform the last rights on the Parer’s Crystal Cafe & Hotel building in October 1960. It was to make way for Walton’s department store, this then became Midcity Village Cinemas.
As Whelan performed his duties, Michael S Parer paid one last visit and took some photos, which have not stood up to the test of time, but give a reportage flavour of the final demise of this family icon.
I have memories of viewing movies at the Midcity Village cinema on Bourke Street, but that too is gone now. In it’s place is the Midcity centre a small, not particularly memorable arcade.