If the walls of the Empire Hotel building in lower Thames St could talk, they would have plenty of tales to tell.
The Oamaru stone building, now the Empire Backpackers, turns 150 this year.
Originally built for Edward Hudson and opened in October 1867, the Empire had 25 guest rooms on the first floor and eight bathrooms that faced the ocean.
The ground floor had a dining room, bar and parlour, as well as rooms for the proprietors.
In Historic North Otago, published in 1990, Syd Muirhead described the Empire in detail.
“The ground floor basement contained the kitchen, scullery, pantry and store rooms for the kegs and bottles etc, on the second floor (from the rear) or street level was in the front, the public bar and behind the dining room was a small servery (with a dumb waiter connected to the basement kitchen) and across the passage from the dining room, the guests’ sitting room and the proprietor’s living rooms.
“Upstairs on the third floor were the bedrooms and at the east end the ablution block, the full width of the building. At the rear of the building were the hotel’s livery and bait stables, where travellers could shelter their hacks or their horse teams overnight.
“There were two lofts above the loose boxes for storing straw, chaff and oats and many a penniless itinerant traveller or tramp found free bed and lodging in those lofts.”
After the introduction of prohibition in 1905, the Empire became a boarding house.
When it was renovated in the 1920s, it was discovered the building’s joists – which can still be seen today – were from a local shipwreck.
It was initially believed the joists were built from wood salvaged from the Star of Tasmania, but that claim, made by a local newspaper, was found to be inaccurate as that ship was wrecked in 1868 – about a year after the Empire’s construction.
The building was remodelled in 1925 to allow the front portion to be used for a store with frontages facing lower Thames St.
Since then, it has been home to Allan Rudduck’s hairdressing salon, a health food store and a second-hand shop, before it became a backpackers in 2001.
Empire Backpackers manager Lavleen Kaur said people from all over the world stayed there, and often marvelled at the building’s interesting history.
“It’s a really good place for a backpackers. Most of the people really like it because it’s historic and because it’s certainly got an aura. A lot of people think it’s a supernatural aura, but I disagree.”
A ramp can still be seen in the basement which would have had barrels of alcohol rolled down it to be stored.
Today, those barrels and kegs have been replaced by furniture, a table and chairs and a pool table.
Miss Kaur said the busiest period for the 13-room backpackers was between September and May.
About three-quarters of those who stayed there were from Germany. Other common nationalities were French, British, American, Israeli and Russian.
Another unique aspect of the building, owned by Bruce Gibson, is that it still has machinery in place dating back from when Oamaru’s economy was water-powered.
A British-made turbine is built into the back wall of the old kitchen. It would have been installed after the 1880 public water supply became generally available as a source of energy.