Times have changed at Wrest Point.

As the world sank into the dark years of World War II, Tasmania's, and one of Australia's, finest hotels - Wrest Point Riviera - opened its doors in Hobart.

Those opening festivities were the culmination of the work of one man - Mr Arthur Drysdale, a prominent Hobart businessman and hotelier. Drysdale had a vision for a truly international class resort hotel in Hobart. A wealthy businessman and the owner of Hadleys Orient Hotel in central Hobart, he set his sights on a superb setting on the banks of the magnificent Derwent Estuary, now known internationally as Wrest Point.

Superb Setting

The first house was built at Wrest Point in 1808 by Thomas Chaffey, who had arrived in the infant colony of Van Diemens Land with a group of settlers from Norfolk Island in 1808. The site became known as Chaffeys Point. Chaffey's son William was the first to associate what was later to become Wrest Point with the hospitality for which it is now famous, building an inn on the site in 1839.

Just a few years later, in 1842, it became the venue for the Hobart Regatta. In 1845 William Chaffey sold five acres (two hectares) of land, where Wrest Point stands, to a prominent merchant David Dunkley, who built a substantial house.

Over the years various owners acquired and rebuilt the property.

In 1928 it was bought by one of Tasmania's wealthiest women, Mrs G. Minette Lucas, of Cressy, who set about planning a mansion as befitted her lavish lifestyle. Work on the 71 square house, using only the best available materials, began in 1930.

Shortly before its completion Mrs Lucas' husband, Major Lucas, died and she named the property Wrest Point after her husband's family property in England. Mrs Lucas' mansion was to remain intact for only a few short years.

It was bought in 1936 by Arthur Drysdale, who had set his mind on building Tasmania's most modern and prestigious hotel - the Wrest Point Riviera.

Some sections of the mansion were incorporated into the design of the new hotel, and the imposing gate posts fronting Sandy Bay Road are a reminder of the opulence of the house. Drysdale and his architects planned and built the Wrest Point Riviera Hotel on a nautical theme, reflecting the atmosphere of an ocean liner berthed in the Derwent.

By the time of the official opening on December 5, 1939 Australia was at war.

During that period much of the patronage came from Australian and American servicemen and it was at that time that Wrest Point first earned its reputation for providing international class entertainment, with a performance by Noel Coward.

Dramatic Impact

With Australia at peace and the Wrest Point Riviera flourishing, Drysdale sold the hotel to Australia's oldest hotel group, Federal Hotels, now The Federal Group, which continued to build on the solid foundations Drysdale had established.

The Federal Group would, in turn, in later years, impact as dramatically on Tasmania with the redevelopment of the Wrest Point Riviera into the Wrest Point Hotel Casino complex. Opened in 1939 as Australia's premier resort hotel, the Wrest Point complex has continued to thrive and expand.

Much has changed in the years since the opening of Wrest Point Riviera Hotel.

The early years of the Wrest Point Riviera Hotel represented a less adventurous era than today in terms of cuisine. The dinner menu for opening week was, by today's standards, basic - a choice of two soups, lobster mornay or vol au vent appetisers, a chicken casserole main course and desserts.

Values also change. a menu from the early 1950s shows chicken at 17/6d ($1.75), while lobster (crayfish) was a mere two thirds the price at 12/6d ($1.25).

The first 21 years of operation were marked with the addition of new accommodation, the motel style Riverview and Gardenview wings.

Realising the Potential

In the 1960s there were new visions for Wrest Point - moves were afoot to seek the first Australian casino licence. Those days are recalled by John Haddad, Managing Director of The Federal Group. Mr Haddad, then a young executive of the group, was given the task of securing a casino licence for Wrest Point, at that stage a somewhat old-fashioned and conservative hotel but then, as now, ideally sited on the banks of the beautiful Derwent Estuary.

"Wrest Point was the same as every other tourism place in Tasmania - five months of reasonably good business and seven months of practically no business," Mr Haddad recalls. "In fact it was called the 'off season', which I really objected to, because how could you ask people to come to Tasmania in something called the 'off season'?"

He says the hotel had to remain open year-round, so the seven months 'off season' would cost money. Anything that was made in the first five months was lost in the next seven months.

Tasmania had the most magnificent natural attractions and scenery, but was not drawing tourists. The State was largely unknown, and the company believed that a casino would be the catalyst that would ignite tourism and encourage the development of infrastructure that Tasmania lacked. We knew that if tourism worked for Tasmania then Wrest Point would work. We were an essential part of the tourism infrastructure.

"I think the vision of Federal at that time was extraordinary, there were no casinos in Australia and the only information we had about casinos was always Las Vegas. The Chairman decided we should try for a casino and suggested that I should go overseas to carefully study the operations in various countries. My job was to get a casino for Tasmania. I went overseas. I had to become an expert in six weeks, although in truth it is impossible to fully understand the complex casino operation in that period."

On his return from overseas, Mr Haddad met the then Tasmanian Premier, Mr Eric Reece, the Deputy Premier, the late Roy Fagan, and the Attorney-General, the late Mervyn Everett.

"That was the time I had to show that they believed in me and my company. I left that meeting feeling very comfortable. They said they would run with us, but that we had to prepare the way, convince everybody it would work and take all the risks."

After a referendum, which narrowly supported the establishment of a Tasmanian casino, Federal embarked on the major redevelopment of the property, the casino, the tower block and supporting facilities. "At that time there were no, or very few, real international hotels in Australia," Mr Haddad said. A driving force behind the development was the company Chairman, Mr Greg Farrell Snr, who saw the vision through to fruition.

Wrest Point Hotel Casino opened on February 10th 1973.

Major developments since then have included the opening of the Conference Centre in March 1984 and the Boardwalk at Wrest Point in March 1996.
 

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