2 September 2023

Riverina Rewind: Back when motels offered a taste of the future

| Michelle Maddison
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motel in 1950s

The Club Motel was flooded in its first year, in June 1956. Photo: CSU Regional Archives.

This week the Museum of the Riverina takes you on a tour of some of Wagga’s earliest motels.

Motels began appearing in Australia in the early 1950s after the craze kicked off in postwar USA.

Originally called mo-tels, the word is a portmanteau of ”motel” and ”hotel” and refers to the ultra-modern idea of being able to pull off the highway and drive your car right up to your room!

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The simple low-rise brick buildings with all the modern conveniences like air-conditioning, colour TVs and even swimming pools were considered a futuristic form of holiday accommodation.

Sydney’s Lansdowne Bridge Motel on the Hume Highway is believed to have been the first in Australia, opening its doors in 1949.

Wagga was not far behind and the 35-room Club Motel opened on 1 December, 1955, with Else Hill as manager.

It was built by H C Buckman & Son for the grand sum of $110,000 and still stands today at its “central and convenient” location in Morgan Street.


The Club Motel remains at its “central and convenient” location in Morgan Street. Photo: Supplied.

Sadly, several other motels are no more. One that many remember fondly is the Koala Welcome (Motor) Inn, at 22 Thompson Street.

The Koala was the largest motel in Wagga, boasting 50 rooms, and was built in the 1960s.

motel in the 1960s

Wagga’s Koala Welcome Inn was considered a great place to dine. Photo: Jayne King via Lost Wagga Wagga.

Attached to the motel was the popular Candle Light Restaurant, which, by all accounts, was the ideal place for a quiet and elegant dinner and included silver service waitstaff.

Described by those who remember it as ”classy” and ”fancy”, it was probably the best restaurant in town at the time.

In the mid-’80s a French chef was in residence, and before that, Frances Ahern was the cook. The restaurant was licensed and offered international cuisine and a full a la carte menu. There was a cocktail bar, and imported wines were served.

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The venue advertised ”Fine food, personal service and intimate surrounds”. Specialising in fresh fish and huge seafood platters (and apparently the best lobster mornay in Wagga), the restaurant was a favourite destination for locals looking to celebrate special events including milestone birthdays, wedding receptions and anniversary dinners. In 1974, a lobster dinner would set you back $8!

Cheryl Grainger spent her wedding night there in 1976, and the total cost for the newlyweds’ accommodation, breakfast and champagne came to a grand total of $33.60. Overnight tariffs in 1985 were $45 for a single and $50 for a double.

motel under construction

Construction work on Wagga’s first motel, The Club, which opened in December 1955. Photo: CSU Regional Archives via Lost Wagga Wagga.

One of Wagga’s upmarket motels, the Koala, was where Aussie rockers AC/DC stayed when they toured in December 1975.

One of the best-remembered managers was John Sydney, a German migrant, who took the surname Sydney as that was where he landed when he first arrived in Australia.

Other managers included John Holdforth and his wife, and Heinz Liedler.

There was a pool, and each room had a bedside phone and digital clock. Built in the late 1960s, the motel was demolished in May 1996 as part of the $25 million redevelopment of the Sturt Mall.

Today, the site is part of the Kmart carpark. But its memory lives on in the minds of many who were lucky enough to either stay there or dine at the restaurant.

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