The Grand Central Hotel, Royal Avenue

The Beatles, The Stones, the richest in Ireland. Richard Graham recalls an institution

The Grand Central Hotel, or GC as it was affectionately known, opened for business on Royal Avenue on Thursday 1 June, 1893.

The GC was built by John Robb, who had arrived in Belfast from Downpatrick in 1857 and went on to create one of the most prestigious department stores in Belfast around the corner in Castle Place, trading as John Robb & Co.

A man of great foresight, Robb had originally planned to develop a massive central railway terminus on the site, based on the Grand Central version in New York City, but was thwarted by hesitant town councillors.

Tired of their deliberation, Robb had to content himself with developing a magnificent, luxury hotel instead.

With over 200 bedrooms and suites extending to five floors, the GC soon became the social hub of Belfast and was acknowledged as the finest hotel in Ireland.

The proprietors proudly proclaimed that the business boasted every wonder of the age, with electricity generated in the basement to illuminate the magnificent chandeliers hanging in the Ballroom, and hydraulic lifts which would take guests "without exertion" to every floor.

The public rooms were situated on the first floor and commanded views of Belfast's main thoroughfare - they comprised of lounges, a smoke room, billiard room, coffee room and several private dining rooms.

Passing through the massive revolving doors, patrons could partake of Table D'Hote lunch in the luxurious surroundings of the Dining Room for the princely sum of 2/= (10p), comprising of soup, fish, joint, poultry, and cheese, whilst upstairs, a hip or sponge bath could be provided in your room for sixpence (2½p today).

For a quarter of a century the hotel provided unrivalled standards of service and cuisine to Ulster society and the city of Belfast, which had become one of the most important manufacturing cities of the British Empire.

Some of the most important social occasions were held in the hotel's function suites, such as the Gala Dinner to celebrate the launch of the White Star Liner Titanic on May 31 1912, which Lord Pirrie attended with many officials from Harland & Wolff.

It was therefore with great surprise and with a great deal of sadness that the citizens of Belfast learned - in September 1917, following the outbreak of war in Europe - that the building was to be requisitioned for use by the Imperial Government in Whitehall.

Reluctantly, the Robb family auctioned the entire contents of the hotel and handed over the keys to the War Office in London.

It was only after the building remained empty for several months that the awful truth came out - a requisition order meant for the Grand Central Hotel in Bristol had been sent to Belfast by mistake.

By that time the damage had been done, and faced with the daunting task of re-furnishing the entire hotel, the Robb family decided to sell the business to a consortium led by the Scotch whisky distiller, John Grant, who reopened the hotel in 1927.

Under Grant's directorship, the hotel soon regained its premier position in the social life of Belfast.

Many of the staff that had served in the forces during the Great War returned to their positions of service to ensure the hotel remained the best in Ulster. The most celebrated suite in the building was number 217.

Winston Churchill, King Leopold of Belgium, Billy Graham, Al Jolson and Mario Lanza were but a few of the distinguished guests who stretched out on its magnificent ornamental bed.

They looked out over the large entrance canopy that extended out onto Royal Avenue - under which the cream of Ulster Society arrived, dressed in shimmering frocks and dress suits, attending the most prestigious of formal functions.

An army of Bell Boys, dressed in red uniforms with rows of brass buttons, pillbox hats and white gloves catered for the needs of the most demanding of guests. For their services, the boys were paid 4s 6d (22½p) each week.

During the 1930s, on the first floor, the hotel orchestra provided musical interludes during the service of Afternoon Tea whilst during the same era, tea dances became an important part of Belfast's social scene.

Other celebrities from the world of entertainment included The Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore) who insisted on wearing his mask at all times - even during dinner.

Bob Hope was often seen walking around the hotel corridors, along with cowboy film star Gene Autrey, who sang to his matinee fans from the balcony in 1939.

An invoice from 1945 details that a wedding reception for 50 guests could be held in one function suite for the sum of 6s 6d per head (32½p) with a room hire for private apartments charged at 21 shillings (£1.10). Flowers would be extra.

As time went on and social trends changed, the hotel hosted to a new breed of musician when it became the base for both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones when they played Belfast in the 1960s.

Front page headlines in the Belfast Telegraph recorded chaos in Royal Avenue following the Stones concert, when hundreds of fans gathered to catch a glimpse of their idols looking down from the upper windows of the hotel.

But by the early 1970s, with the growth of serious civil unrest in NI, many people were reluctant to stay in the heart of Belfast.

The Victorian building, which for so many years had dominated the hospitality industry of the province, was facing competition from a new generation of hotels being developed around the suburbs.

With the erection of a "ring of steel" around Belfast city centre in 1971, the Grand Central suffered a dramatic loss of revenue.

The owners of the business, the Grant family of Glasgow, battled valiantly to keep the operation going but faced the reality that it could not be made profitable.

The decision to close was made and the Grand Central ceased to trade as a hotel on 1st October 1971.

Many of the staff had been employed at the hotel long periods of time. Head Waiter David Watson had been working at the GC for 42 years.

Although many remembered it for its flair and decoration, the building had become an institution rather than a great luxury. For the second time, the entire contents of the hotel were auctioned and the building closed.

The GC's life was far from over, however, and in 1972 it became the home of several regiments of the British Army, responsible for security in Belfast city centre during the Troubles.

Some 500 troops were housed in the former bedrooms of the rich and famous. A massive anti-terrorist rocket metal mesh was erected around the perimeter of the building and the former bridal suite became the centre of army operations for almost ten years.

Inevitably the base became a target for terrorist attack and was bombed on numerous occasions in the mid-1970s, seriously damaging the fabric of the building, bringing the ornate interior plaster ceilings crashing down.

Following the departure of the army in the early 1980s, the hotel was in a sorry state of repair.

Massive cracks extended up the outside walls, whilst inside the floors were bare, with radiators lying in the corridors and graffiti covering the walls of what had been the troops' dormitories.

Feathers and dead pigeons were to be found in the attic bedrooms and the copper on the dome at the top of the building was missing. Little was left to remind anyone of what the hotel looked like in its heyday.

However, the old building was not finished yet. Following some cosmetic improvements, several shop units were opened on the ground floor, recalling some of the past glory of that part of Royal Avenue.

The time for change was beckoning, and in 1984 the entire site was purchased for redevelopment whereby the former hotel and another landmark building next door, the General Post Office, would be demolished, making way for an enormous shopping centre named Castle Court.

The next time you find yourself browsing in Debenhams or looking for the latest CD at the Virgin Megastore, take a moment to think about the magnificent building that stood there before, and of the many celebrities and dignitaries who passed through the revolving doors of what was the finest hotel in Ireland.