Old Canberra House
Place Identification Number
Historical European Site
Block 1, Section 35 Acton ACT. Lennox Crossing, Australian National University, Acton, ACT 0200
ANU Heritage Classification
Australian National University
Commissioned by King O'Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs, and desigend by John Smith Murdoch, the Commonwealth's first architect, Old Canberra House was constructed between October 1912 and December 1913. It was built as the Residence (or 'Residency') of the Administrator of the Federal Territory, Colonel David Miller, and was the first substantial brick house constructed in the new Territory. Miller and his wife occupied the Residence until a Royal Commission on the development of the Capital instigated his retirement in June 1917. The tennis court and surrounding gardens were planned and formed in 1914 by Thomas 'Charles' Weston, Canberra's first gardener (see Register entry AC0005); a small weatherboard garage had also been constructed to the nrothwest and a small hut 'for a gas plant' had been erected on the site by December 1913.
From 1921 to 1930 Old Canberra House was headquarters of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee (FCAC) and the Federal Capital Commission (FCC). These committees set the scene for a golden age of development in the Capital, despite having to contend with the economic shortfalls as a result of the First World War and ensuing economic depression of the early 1930s. The executive members were experts in architecture, town planning, engineering or departmental administration and were known to have held a number of meetings in Old Canberra House. Some, such as Colonel P.T. Owen, the Director-General of Works, and Sir John Butters, Chairman of the FCC, resided in the building on a more permanent basis (Butters' son was also born on the premises). Together, these two groups carried out the works necessary for the opening of the Provisional Houses of Parliament (Old Parliament House) and the Institute of Anatomy (today's National Film & Sound Archives), extensions to the hospital at Acton, the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings in Civic, hundreds of public servants' houses and workers' cottages, the hostels Canberra and Ainslie and extensions to the school at Telopea. They also saw to extensions of the water and sewerage reticulation systems, electricity supply and the formation of roads, avenues and parks and gardens. It is likely that the gardener's cottage (see Register entry AC0002), vegetable garden and fowlyard were established to the west of the garage in the mid-1920s, after Weston departed the Capital.
From 1931 to 1935 the building and grounds were rented to the official representative of the British government, Ernest T. Crutchley. He was to prepare the building for the first four British High Commissioners, who were in residence from 1936 to 1952. Upon Crutchley's request, extensive alterations were undertaken in 1935. These included the construction of an L-shaped drawing room (the smaller side of the L having been a sun room originally), the enlarging of the dining room, and the addition of a study by pushing out the bow window of the old drawing room and extending that part of the house. Alterations were also made to cater for a servants' sitting room at the back of the house, with a boiler room and laundry. A small hut for the chauffeur was erected in 1937, with the existing weatherboard chauffeur's cottage built in October 1938 (see Register entry AC0003). Two servants' bedrooms were also added to the main building at the time, with the servants' sitting room on the ground floor enlarged.
On being granted its first perpetual lease in 1953, the ANU took over the building and officially named it Old Canberra House. It was to examine a number of possible uses before leasing the premises to the Commonwealth Club in February 1956. The Commonwealth Club offers exclusive memberships to a distinguished clientele. By the time they had departed in June 1965 the Club had spent more than £10,500 on alterations to Old Canberra House. Of note, these included the addition of a one-storey billiard room to the north of the building and alterations to the kitchen, verandahs and lavatories to cater for commercial purposes.
On 7 February 1966 the ANU Staff Centre opened in Old Canberra House. It retained the bar set-up as installed by the Commonwealth Club and provided snack lunches and evening meals in the dining room. Temporary accommodation was offered to University guests in the bedrooms upstairs, with management or staff occupying the chauffeur's cottage and other outbuildings. In some respects the Staff Centre operated as an amenity provided by the University, in others it operated on behalf of its members. Despite the fact that it was a financial liability (close to $300,000 in arrears by 1987) and that the building was not desigend for such purposes, the Centre was nevertheless a resounding social success. In 1967 membership was opened to the entire campus community; the first University Staff Club in Australia to do so. The University attached two pre-fabricated units to the outside of the original kitchen in 1972 to provide for a larger kitchen and servery area. These intrusive elements were removed in 1999. In 1981 a new billiard room was erected to the rear and the driveway was changed to provide safer access for the RSA Family Day Care, who were occupying the gardener's cottage. The roof of Old Canberra House was replaced shortly before major renovations were undertaken in 1983 to accommodate the Federation of College Academics on the first floor.
From 1987 the ANU Staff Centre was run as an extension of University House. The bar remained open on the ground floor and was described as an organised restaurant, functions and social centre. By the end of 1991 the sitting room had been leased to Outbound Travel and the entire first floor had been let to the Communication Research Institute of Australia (CRIA). In May 1997 Old Canberra House became the temporary home of the high-profile Managing Business in Asia (MBA) Program, before the Humanities Research Centre (HRC) and the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research (CCR) occupied the building in 1999.
The grounds contain many trees planted under the direction of T.C. Weston and demonstrate his design ideas for gardens of important residences. British High Commissioner Earnest Crutchley noted that many of the trees had been planted by 'quite famous hands... including W.M. (Billy) Hughes, the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York and Lady Denman: The grounds also include a 'chauffeur’s cottage' and the new WEH Stanner Building. The buildings are linked by a courtyard which references connections the site has with Ngunnawal people; it contains a major sculptural piece by Fiona Foley.
In 2009 the Crawford Schoolw as constructed at Old Canberra House, bridging the WEH Stanner Building, and Canebrra House itself. As part of the development, the Chauffeur's Cottage and garden shed were tranferred to the east of the gardener's cottage and a number of highly significant cypress trees were removed. The new building, an expansive Z-shaped structure, provides consolidated accommodation for staff and students of the School, surrounding a revitalised courtyard forming a mini-campus at the south end of Liversidge Street.
Old Canberra House is a two-storey structure with roughcast walls and a steep roof. It blends stylistic features of the Mediterranean Revival and Californian bungalow (the roughcast walls), Victorian Arts and Crafts (steep roof and exposed after tails), Public Victorian (bar-less windows), Queen Anne (roof gablets) and Italianate (bay window incorporating the chimney). A small but important 'Australian' contribution is the louvred venting at the gablets, providing the signature of J.S. Murdoch, with his Scottish and Queensland experience. The same motif is used at 16 Lennox Crossing, also attributed to Murdoch.
The mix combines a dignified composition, improved with the benefits of a visually magnificent site, and spacious grounds which, with the tennis court, echo the character of upper crust living in the earliest days of the new Federal Territory.
Many of the architectural features are used in other Acton buildings, and other later developments in the new city (e.g. Reid), so it is an important influence in the development of Canberra architecture.
The red-brick base, double-hung windows, raked eaves with bearded board linings, quad gutter, ovolo beading, deletion of the fascia, 'egg-crate' wall vents and red brick steps are all features used in government housing of the next fifteen years. It is reasonable to assume that the original roof tiles (recently replaced) were smaller, flat, English patter such as those that survive on the tennis shelter. The chimneys are roughcast, with an ovolo and ogee string at the top.
The 1935 extensions, provided for the occupation by the UK High Commission, changed the character of the exterior considerably. Two bay windows were removed, and the entrance was remodelled. This phase has since been altered internally to provide dining facilities for the ANU staff. At some stage, the external dentils have been removed, stripping the original building of some of its original character.
The eastern extension obscures the bay window and chimney, and is a single storey structure that once housed the billiard table (now the Seminar Room). The boxed eaves are idiosyncratic. the windows are paired, but retain the double-hung approach to the fenestration. The 'Moderne', horizontal glazing bars are arresting departures from the simple original window style.
Further eastern extensions are a double storey, and provide large ground floor dining rooms. These are generally sympathetic in mass, but the original fenestration details are not followed.
Internally, much of the original character survives. Joinery doors, architraves and skirtings are timber (oak?) with shellac finish. The paneling in the foyer and ample joinery around the fireplace combine with the dressed and exposed ceiling joists to provide a British character to the interior. The ceiling panels between the joists are trimmed with an ovolo bead.
The original fireplace in the foyer has bullnose face blocks, with a generous timber (English oak?) surround with tapered, square pillars with a slight entasis. There are ovolo dentils, and rounded brackets echoing the shape of the window horns. The motif has also been used at the verandah of 16 Lennox Crossing. There is a marble hearth kerb, and glazed ceramic tiles finish the hearth.
The skirting has a flat fillet and an Edwardian curve. The architraves have a bevelled central fillet, with a tiny elliptical curve within the smaller fillets on both sides. Joiner doors are six-paneled, with the central pair slightly shorter than the two others. The panels have a delicate inlay bead. The original art nouveau brass door hardware is a major feature of the interior design and pre-dates more than a decade the Prime Minister's Lodge (1926) and Calthorpe's House (1927).
The 1935 extension has fluted cornices, and this theme is extended into the reveals of the large openings. The kitchen is modern and the entrance vestibule has been fitted with modern display cases. Most fireplaces have been blocked up and are no longer in operation. The original mantles remain, though have been painted over in instances.
The Old Canberra House complex consists of Old Canberra House, chauffeur's cottage, garden shed, gardener's cottage and tennis pavilion and court. A wooden garage, constructed c1912, once stood just to the south of the garden shed. This building was demolished in 2001 in line with works to the central courtyard and the construction of the W.E.H Stanner Building to the north.
Sequential Summary of Use
Statements of Significance
CHL Criteria A: The place has significant heritage value because of the place’s importance in the course, or pattern, of Australia’s natural or cultural history:
The Acton Conservation Area is important for the significant role it played as the administrative, residential and social centre of Canberra, from 1911 to the 1920s, prior to the construction of the city to the plan by Walter Burley Griffin. A number of firsts for the new city are sited within the Acton Conservation Area including a diplomatic mission, housed in Old Canberra House. Old Canberra House, erected in 1913, is individually significant as the home of the first Administrator of the Federal Capital Territory and is associated with the early development of Canberra. It also provided accommodation for the first diplomatic mission in Australia, the High Commission for the United Kingdom from 1932-53.
All buildings, roads, tracks, vegetation and planning dating from Acton's initial construction phase, including Old Canberra House and remnant indigenous vegetation.
CHL Criteria D: The place has significant heritage value because of the place’s importance in demonstrating the principal characteristics of:
(i) a class of Australia’s natural or cultural places; or
(ii) a class of Australia’s natural or cultural environments:
The Acton Conservation Area demonstrates the provision of accommodation according to socio economic status. High-level public servants and married officers were accommodated high on the ridge in Old Canberra House.
Old Canberra House.
CHL Criteria H: The place has significant heritage value because of the place’s special association with the life or works of a person, or group of persons, of importance in Australia’s natural or cultural history:
The Acton Conservation Area is demonstrably associated with architects J.S. Murdoch, Commonwealth Architect, and H.M. Rolland (1912-1927), resident architect in 1912; Colonel Miller, First Administrator of the Federal Territory (1912-1916); and C.R. Casboulte, executive architect to the Federal Capital Commission.
Architectural design evident in Old Canberra House.
ACT Heritage List Criteria C: It is important as evidence of a distinctive way of life, taste, tradition, religion, land use, custom, process, design or function that is no longer practiced, is in danger of being lost or is of exceptional interest:
The precinct is sufficiently intact to allow appreciation of how the establishment functioned in the early days of Canberra.
The outbuildings are important survivors that demonstrate the staffing of the household of the Residence.
ACT Heritage List Criteria G: It has strong or special associations with a person, group, event, development or cultural phase in local or national history:
Old Canberra House has significance as the home of the first Administrator of the Federal Capital Territory, predating the Griffin Plan for Canberra. It was later the home of Sir John Butters, chairman of the FCC. It is the setting for many FCAC meetings.
The house was designed by J.S. Murdoch, Commonwealth Architect for the FCAC.
The house served for 20 years as the first High Commission for the United Kingdom in Australia.
The grounds contain many trees planted under the direction of Charles Thomas Weston and demonstrate his design ideas for gardens to important residences.
Ratcliffe and Armes (1993): Australian National University Heritage Study: Volumes 1 and 2.
Works and Activities
Development works for the new Crawford School are due to be completed in early 2010. Upon completion the areas of significant remnant grasslands are to be re-instituted, and heritage interpretation installed in the area.
Cross-References to Other Records
AC0004 – Old Canberra House Garden Shed
Links to External Agencies
ANUgreen is the University's environmental management office, part of the Facilities and Services Division
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