Jenolan Caves

History of Caves House Hotel

Aesthetically, Historically & Socially Significant for Past, Present & Future Generations

In 1896, the grand hotel, Jenolan Caves House, was built, as a wilderness retreat for the wealthy1. It was designed in the Colonial Architect’s office, under the supervision of Colonel Walter Liberty Vernon (1846 – 1914).

The rambling, 4-storey hotel complex was designed in an ‘English Domestic Revival’ style, which was then being employed for the best hotels in Britain of the 1890s.2  The style has been called the ‘Sussex Wealden’ style and also the ‘Federation Arts & Crafts’ style.

It is characterized by craggy façade, picturesque gables, knobbly tile roof and deep recessed openings with multi-paned windows, giving the new building an instant air of old-age, charm and respectability

Caves House sits alongside Jenolan Caves, Australia’s most well-known limestone cave system and longest continually operating tourist attraction.

Caves House, along with all the buildings in the Jenolan Caves Karst Conservation Reserve, was added to the NSW State Heritage Register in 2004.

Considerable changes have been made to the buildings over the years, but today Caves House is rightly regarded as one of the finest large guest houses still functioning as tourist accommodation.

Caves House is regarded as an icon of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia.

Chisolms Restaurant in Caves House is also Heritage Listed

The Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon

Walter Liberty Vernon was born in Buckinghamshire, England. He was trained in England and emigrated to Australia in 1885. In 1890, he was appointed the Chief Government Architect (NSW).

“Throughout Vernon’s 21 years in this post, hundreds of building were designed and constructed by the Public works Department under his supervision, such as The Art Gallery of NSW, Mitchell Library and Sydney Central Railway Station. He employed a range of styles, but all reflecting his early training and English influences. Caves House appears to be his first public building employing an English vernacular revival style. Caves House can be seen as influenced by the large country houses in England such as Standen in Sussex, St. Alban’s Court in Kent, Avon Tyrell in Hampshire and Cragside in Northumberland. All are in the English vernacular revival style with its stress on homeliness and simplicity and whose advocates took care to base each building on the building customs and materials of the region in which it was built.”3

Jenolan Caves House was built from limestone quarried on site.

"Caves House itself was designed to appeal to the sophisticated, financially comfortable element of society, the intellectual and the curious. For such clientele the building offered a range of handsome public spaces, including the necessarily grand Dining Room, Billiards Room and Coffee Room, while exhibiting a diversity of accommodation to suit the varying means (and needs) of the patrons”4 .

Caves House was designed by Walter Liberty Vernon as a wilderness retreat for the wealthy.

Heritage Listing

To be listed on the NSW State Heritage Register, Jenolan Caves House was identified as meeting a range of cultural standards - aesthetic, historic and social, which make it significant for past, present or future generations.

Aesthetic significance

“Vernon was influenced by his British background, contemporary fashion and the ‘romance’ of Jenolan Caves. He designed a hotel “complex whose distinctive characteristics are its notional signature in the minds of the community, an instantly recognizable place. Caves House, indivisibly associated with the Caves themselves, is for most Australians, and certainly all those who have visited, a place of national identity, of a unique individual character ‘impossible’ to mistake. The surrounding landscape of Caves House, the craggy hills surrounding the creeks that give into the Grand Arch and form the Jenolan River, comprise a setting of the highest aesthetic value, and one which has attracted a unique, national identity, celebrated in literature, art and popular culture.5

Historic significance

Caves house “was developed through its association with one of the earlier-discovered, and earliest protected and celebrated, sites of natural environmental heritage in Australia (and the World).

"It was amongst the earliest, if not actually the earliest, of natural environment heritage sites within Australia to be developed for tourist visitation and by a Government authority, and, after setting the model for such developments in the new Nation, has survived to become the last of its ilk remaining under government management.

"Its principal component, the caves, have held an immense attraction for visitors across more than a century, based on their scientific, aesthetic and curiosity/spectacle value, through their accessibility have influenced scientific knowledge, aesthetic/cultural expression, and the community which has perceived, and perceives them still, as part of its national estate, common natural heritage, and national identity.

"Its built fabric and modifications to the natural setting of the place include a distinctive and architecturally-distinguished principal building, the work of an architect prominent and influential in the development of Australian architecture, employing locally innovative construction technology to address the problems of high standards of performance in an isolated setting.

"The provision of access to, and interpretation of, the Caves supported early and innovative engineering works such as Australia’s first hydro-electric generation plant, and possibly the first subterranean lighting installation, for recreational purposes, in the World. The physical evidence of this work survives.”6

Social Significance

“The Caves House Precinct is also a remarkable reflection of the social forces and influences in Australia – developing social homogeneity, and the relationship between ‘man’ and ‘Nature’, or Australians and the ‘bush’.

"From its early exclusivity, reserved by inaccessibility and isolation for the enjoyment of the wealthy, the Precinct has evolved, through an accelerating pursuit of maximum accessibility for educational and recreational purposes.

"Encouraged by prevalent romantic and religious conceptions of the relationship between man and his environment, as much if not more than scientific curiosity and educational objectives, the fabric of the Precinct was developed so as to consolidate, in its visitors the conceptions behind its form and functional arrangement. Inherited by subsequent generations of visitors and management of differing philosophical subscriptions as well as social perspective, the Precinct has evolved until reaching a point of conflict within new concepts of man and the natural environment.

"In the contemporary context of concern for the integrity and fragility of natural resources such as the Caves and their setting, balanced with regard for the cultural importance of the modifications and the improvement wrought by earlier generations, Caves House Precinct assumes a landmark status in Australian environmental consciousness, emphasized by its popularity in the community.”


Caves House was seen as a health retreat in the mountains.

 Duke and Duchess of York in open car outside Caves House in 1927

Early Accommodation at Jenolan Caves

Caves were long known to local Aboriginal people, and were discovered by European settlers in 1838. From then, until 1880, sightseers could spend the night camping in the Grand Arch or Devil’s Coach House cave.

In 1867, Jeremiah Wilson, a local farmer, was appointed ‘Keeper of the Caves’. Visitors would write to Mr Wilson advising him of their intention to visit. Meeting them at Tarana train station, he would take them by buggy through Oberon and walk them down last the two miles into the Jenolan Valley, because the decent was too steep and unsuitable for a vehicle.

The night was spent camping in the Grand Arch – ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other. Smoke from their camp fires can still be seen on the stalactites in the Woolshed Chamber of the Imperial Cave. For entertainment a platform for dancing was erected in 1869, the floor of the Grand Arch being rocky and uneven.

In 1880, the Department of Mines, which managed the caves, provided Mr Wilson with materials to erect a building, 40 feet long by 14 feet wide and covered with corrugated iron. This first ‘Caves House’, white washed to provide sealing from the weather, contained 4 bedrooms and a dining room. The kitchen was separate, in case of fire - a common risk at the time.

In 1883, The Australian Town & Country Journal reported:
“It is evident that increase of accommodation at the caves is necessary, at least during holiday times. On examining the visitors' book from January 1 to March 20, 1883, the names of 158 visitors are entered, and during the few days we were there, inclusive of ourselves, the number increased fully 50 more, a well-known contributor to the Sydney papers being among the number. There should then be better accommodation.”8

In 1886, the fee for an overnight stay in this rough accommodation was only 8 shillings.9 Jeremiah Wilson was flooded by requests for accommodation. As the fame of the caves spread, visitors came in ever increasing numbers, especially when the roads into the valley were completed. The first Caves House quickly proved inadequate, and extensive building work was undertaken.

In 1887, a two-storey wooden building was erected where ‘Trails Bistro’ is today, catering for 30 visitors. The same year, Governor Lord Carrington, and his wife Cecelia traversed the new Six Foot Track from Katoomba. They spent 2 nights at Jenolan Caves, staying in the first Caves House.

In 1888, 1,829 visitors arrived, making further expansion necessary. So, in 1890, an additional structure was erected, alongside the original Caves House, replacing the 1879 kitchen.

Unfortunately, in 1895 fire destroyed the old dining room, kitchen and one of the 2-storey accommodation houses. Jeremiah Wilson was unable to rebuild, and his lease was resumed by the New South Wales Government.

Before Caves House, visitors could camp in the Grand Arch.

This was the first accommodation building at Jenolan Caves.

Early Caves House accommodation which burnt down

Emergence of the Grand Hotel

1896 to 1906 was marked by a strong government commitment to develop the caves as a resort for wealthy travelers and as a retreat from Sydney. Sir Sydney Smith, Minister for Mines, who ultimately controlled the affairs of Jenolan Caves, determined that any rebuilding would be of the highest standards.10

Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, designed the first wing of Caves House, built in 1897, which could then be reached by a new road from Katoomba via Hartley. The improvements cost the NSW Government £30,00011 which in today’s money would be approximately $4,101,345.32 (based on an average annual inflation rate of 3.9% over 111 years).

Vernon designed Caves House in an ‘Arts & Crafts’ style to reflect the romantic and picturesque associations of the caves, describing it as a “large comfortable hotel of the type best known in the tourist districts of England, Scotland and Ireland”12.

In 1897 the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Joseph Henry Maiden remodeled and terraced the slopes around Caves House, providing a setting of park-like gardens.


Caves House immediately become a popular honeymoon destination for ‘society’ couples. For examples, see:
Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Oct 1898, page 7
Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Nov 1898, page 7
Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 1899, page 7
Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Oct 1899, page 11
Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan 1900, page 7

In 1898, The Australian Town and Country Journal provided a glowing description and photographs of the new Caves House:

“For some time the Government has had under consideration the improvement of the accommodation for visitors to these well-known caves, and the Government Architect, having taken the matter in hand, has designed a building which not only gives the accommodation required, but also adds considerably to the artistic effect of the surroundings. The first portion of this scheme is now completed, and it may be of advantage to the general public to know that, under the new lessee (Mr. Harry Smith), visitors can be assured of as comfortable accommodation at Jenolan Caves as in the best hotels in Sydney. The new building adjoins, and is temporarily attached to, one portion of the original hotel, which it is intended to leave standing for some little time. This new portion contains a dining-room that will seat sixty visitors, a commodious billiard-room, and, together with the existing building, has bedroom accommodation for between forty and fifty visitors. It is fitted with the newest appliances as regarding cooking and sanitary arrangements, having a never-failing supply of pure water running constantly through the services; and it is intended to use the electric light throughout the building in conjunction with that now in the Caves as soon as the necessary additional plant can be laid down. The building presents a striking and picturesque appearance, both from its unique position in a gully at the foot of the hills, which rise from the hotel about 1700ft to the up lands, and its close proximity to the Grand Archway to the main caves.

“Some interest is attached to the material used in the erection of the building. It was found that the cost of conveyance of such heavy materials as bricks or stone to this remote place must be reduced to the smallest possible limits, and as the Roads and Bridges Branch had just completed a very handsome bridgeway and approach to the Grand Arch from Mount Victoria, built entirely of the mountain limestone of the locality, Mr. Vernon determined to apply the same material to the new hotel. The building is therefore erected in coursed pitch-faced mountain limestone, and is understood to be the only building of its kind in the colony. The red roofing completes its general picturesque appearance, and the whole reminds the visitor forcibly of those comfortable and well-known tourist hotels in the Highlands of Scotland, the Lake district of England, and the west coast of Ireland.

“The grounds, although necessarily very limited in extent, on account of the steep declivities surrounding the hotel, are now being completed, and amongst the trees (of which some choice specimens are already well grown), there are small rustic, detached buildings for post-office purposes, cyclists, sale of photographs, etc., and generally with the idea of adding to the comfort of visitors. It has been generally the custom for those desirous of seeing these Caves to make the visit as short as possible, but as the advantages of the new building are better known, and the hidden beauties of a romantic neighborhood are more opened up, Jenolan will become a gathering ground for those who wish to spend a week or fortnight's holiday in comfortable quarters and unique surroundings.”13

In October 1900, The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, stated, “The accommodation is equal to the best Australian hotels, but much more reasonable.”14

In 1907, a second wing, also designed by Vernon, was added to Caves House, with subsequent wings in 1914 (60 extra rooms) and 1923, probably also designed by Vernon, but supervised by George McCrae15. Numerous service buildings were also constructed in the hamlet during the period, reflecting a move towards day trips as well as overnight stayers. The magnificent grand dining room (now Chisolm’s Restaurant) was completed in 1923.

A 1915, NSW Government guide book, written by Oliver Trickett (who first surveyed the Caves System) gave a fulsome description of Caves House:

“This building is of attractive appearance, solidly built of the Caves lime stone. It contains a dining room capable of seating 120 guests and has a detached billiard –room. There are hot and cold water bath – rooms, and an ample water supply from two reservoirs a short distance up the camp creek. A bathing place is also available in the Jenolan River, below the Grand Archway, at the Fish Hatchery.

"The Caves House is surrounded by tastefully laid –out gardens and is reached by first class roads constructed by the government at very large expense.

Visitors may rely on being as comfortably housed as at any resort for holiday makers in the mountains.”

Newspaper Articles from 1917 to 1947

1965-1989 was a period of strong growth in visitor numbers with consequent further renovations and building programs to keep up with demand.

Jenolan Caves House Today

Now, Caves House offers accommodation for all needs and budgets, from historic guesthouse rooms to modern, motel-style rooms in the Mountains Lodge (which was added in 1986).

Caves House features a café, bar, atmospheric function rooms and magnificent grand dining room, now Chisolm’s Restaurant.

Caves House - a great hotel for all needs and budgets

1 Robert Moore, The Caves House Precinct, Jenolan Caves Reserve: conservation Plan Volume 1, NSW Dept of Public Works, Architectural Divistion, Public Building Branch, 1988, page 14.
2 same as above, page 40

Robert Moore, The Caves House Precinct, Jenolan Caves Reserve: conservation Plan Volume 1, NSW Dept of Public Works, Architectural Divistion, Public Building Branch, 1988, Section 14
4 Same as above, page 43.

5 Robert Moore, The Caves House Precinct, Jenolan Caves Reserve: conservation Plan Volume 1, NSW Dept of Public Works, Architectural Divistion, Public Building Branch, 1988, pages 66-67 
6 same as above, pages 67-68
7 same as above, page 68

4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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