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There’s something quite charming about the Imperial at Clifton pub, a 30-kilometre drive south of Sydney.
Clifton is a small coastal hamlet perched on the Illawarra escarpment, and it is the period building on Lawrence Hargrave Drive, combined with the Pacific Ocean 30 metres below, that creates an adrenalin rush. It couldn’t be experienced in all its glory before the Sea Cliff Bridge was installed in 2005, following a landslide years before.
Imperial at Clifton hotel has had an award-winning makeover.
“For years, the Imperial at Clifton was literally cut off, as there was only one road for access,” says architect David Welsh, director of Welsh + Major, who worked closely with the City of Wollongong and heritage architects Urbis in reimagining the 1911 building that sits next to the Royal National Park.
Originally, an old pub sat on the site – a timber building from 1884 that catered for local miners. That was demolished, and in 1911, Edmund Resch, whose fame can be traced to the beer of the same name, came into the picture.
Resch’s loosely Federation-style façade is still relatively intact in the yellowish orange tiles cladding the front entrance.
However, over the years, there have been a number of additions, including 1920s tiled walls inside and out, together with other Art Deco motifs. The front balcony has also been denuded after a number of storms.
While Welsh + Major was keen to create new balconies, it preferred not to provide a pastiche design – with new timber struts simply creating the simple outline of what existed.
“Whatever we did to the original building had to be in keeping with the proportion of the past, while still moving the place forward,” says Welsh, who received the 2023 Australian Institute of Architects NSW Award for Heritage Architecture – Creative Adaption – for the project.
The brief for Welsh + Major was to re-establish the hotel for locals and tourists travelling along the scenic coastal road.
The hotel boasts sweeping ocean views.
There is now a series of bars and dining areas spread over the three levels, with a protected outdoor area at ground level that benefits from ocean views.
The architects retained as much of the original fabric of the building as possible and refashioned the bar front in the long room using offcuts of timber. The turned timber staircase was also retained, although some posts had long disappeared. “It’s a bit like a smile with teeth missing,” says Welsh, who included toughened glass behind the turned balustrades for security.
There was also a need to provide a new concrete and steel staircase at the core, separating the past from the present.
While about three-quarters of the Imperial at Clifton is from the early 20th century, the remainder, a masonry extension, is clearly contemporary – with staggered translucent glass walls on one side and triple-hung windows on the other that frame two of the dining areas. Decked out with Thonet chairs, these areas are simple and recessive to the worn brick walls.
The addition of steel lights, embedded with ball-sized crystal glass, in the original part of the building, adds a contemporary feel. New timber floors and ceilings boosted the casual ambience.
From the point of arrival, one is not sure what is original and what has been added. For example, the exposed timber beams below the front verandah are slightly worn with a patina that suggests they might be 100 years old. However, they were an addition made by Welsh + Major in a gesture that was in keeping with the spirit of the hotel.
“With projects like these, there’s a fine balance between retaining elements from the past and moving things forward in a contemporary, yet respectful manner,” says Welsh. “After all, the heritage building was one of the main reasons our clients purchased it in the first place,” he says.
While there may not be a guest room to be found, being only a short distance from the Clifton town centre makes it attractive for an audience searching for great architecture in a stunning landscape.
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