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University House and Garden

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University House Internal Courtyard

Place Identification Number


Site Category

Historical European Site

Site Type



Block 1, Section 39 Acton ACT.  Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 0200

ANU Heritage Classification




Australian National University

Heritage Listings

  • Royal Australian Institute of Architects: R024
  • ACT Heritage Register (Nominated)
  • Commonwealth Heritage List: Place ID – 105190
  • National Trust of Australia (ACT) Classification List: Classified


Professor Brian Lewis of Melbourne University was a consultant to the Building and Grounds Committee and prepared a master plan, for the University in 1947 that commenced the development program.  In the master plan University House featured as a large building for accommodation, Faculty Club, Schools of Social Sciences and Pacific Studies, library and administration offices.


Lewis consulted with Academic Advisers at the London School of Economics in January 1948 on University design issues.  The advisers and Lewis agreed that it was desirable to have the primary function of University House as a faculty club without the inclusion of research schools further agreeing that the character and construction of all buildings in the campus should be unpretentious without extravagance.  In April 1948 the Academic Advisory Committee met in Canberra with the Interim Council, with priority given for the development of University House, the Research Schools for Medicine and Physics and some houses for senior staff.  A revised plan for University House was presented and soon after agreed by the Council.


The site for University House was on the ridge and marked the edge of the new campus area.  A dromona green granite foundation stone for University House was laid by the Hon. J.J. Dedman, Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, in 1949.  The design ideal was to reflect the ancient collegiate system with the intention that all the teachers and students live in the community in University House.  The building was constructed by Howie Moffat under the direction of Lewis.


Frederick Ward was selected to design the furniture for the building and more than four thousand pieces of furniture were made to Ward's design.  He lightly stained the timbers allowing the variety of colours in the natural woods to complement the subtle colours of the soft coverings.


Grounds and gardens were developed under the direction of Lindsay Pryor, Superintendent of Parks and Gardens, who was a member of the Buildings and Grounds Committee.  Isolated eucalypts of the original vegetation were retained around the building.  Pryor suggested that planting material in the University be strictly limited in variety so that a simple and effective result is achieved.  He also recommended a number of species of eucalyptus be used.  Much of planting around University House, the Central Courtyard and the Fellows Garden was achieved by Pryor by on-site laying out with a minimum of detailed approval by the University or bureaucracies.  Pryor originally proposed formal rows of trees but this layout was modified to informal clumps of trees in lawns by the Master of the House, Dale Trendall.


It was proposed in the 1950s that University House would be a repository of modern art, and two major works, 'Relaxation' by Gerard Lewers, and the untitled floor of the entrance hall by Frank Hinder, were in place when University House was officially opened on 16 February 1954, by the Duke of Edinburgh.  Other artwork consists of the sculptures 'Conjugation' by Mark Grey-Smith on the front lawns and 'Swans in Flight', the Theaden Hancock Fountain, by Gerard Lewers in the Ladies Lounge Garden.  In 1972 Leonard French painted the mural 'Regeneration' on the end wall of the Hall.  In 1996 University House purchased the Leonard French series 'The Journey' consisting of ten panels that are installed on the walls of the hall.


University House was open for students in 1954 and for its first decade, residence at the House was compulsory for unmarried doctoral students.  The tariff included all meals and formal dinners were held each evening. Student numbers began to drop off during the 1970s and when Elliott was Master the formal Oxbridge influence had all but disappeared.  The cellar bar was built in the basement to cater for staff, students and visitors.  By 2001, University House was being run like a guest house/hotel with dining room dinners once a week.


The Masters of the House have been notable academics and have initiated minor changes to the building and grounds as required, and directed the acquisition of art.  The building has been the residence of people important in Australia's history.  For example, following his dismissal as Prime Minister in 1975, Gough Whitlam lived in University House for six months.

Physical Description

Although the origins of University House were firmly rooted in an older English tradition, in its form and detailing, the building was an outstanding example of modern and functional Australian design.  With the exception of additions to the secretarial wing in the 1960s and some minor internal alterations, the building today is much as Lewis left it.


The eastern annex was extended in 1960 to provide accommodation and meeting rooms.  These additions were designed by the University Architect, Bruce Litchfield, in association with the first University Architect, John Scollay. Internal modifications were made in 1974, 1976 and 1992 (kitchen).  Terrace roofing was altered/replaced in 1987 to provide shade and shelter.  A structural review in 1999 reported that the building had 'aged gracefully without the usual structural blemishes of its time'.


At the south-west corner is the lofty dining hall ‘for those almost ceremonial dinners which are a feature of collegiate life’.  All of the comforts sought by Hancock and others were there – small private dining rooms, a porter’s flat and rooms for ladies with gardens designed by Lindsay Pryor.  It was never a lavish building, but it offered its first occupants and visitors the chance of gracious living and dining in the young capital city.


The main building consists of a lobby, common room, refectory with adjoining kitchen, bar lounge and private dining rooms.  The three storey residential blocks have bed/study units arranged around common staircases.  The design cleverly encloses and provides environmental protection for the courtyard creating a pleasant and sheltered place of human scale with well related modulated building elements.  The external envelope is of rendered brickwork with base courses in face brickwork.  The eaves are timber lined, the low gabled roofs have glazed tiles, and copper down pipes and gutters.  The terraces are concrete.  Fenestration is in simple patterns, the windows having timber and steel frames with briquette sills.  Internally walls are of brick (generally rendered) and the floors are of parquetry in the public spaces.


Walls generally are in good condition, although some cracks are visible in the face brickwork adjacent to the south wing.  The painted finish to walls has been regularly maintained and is visually consistent, with a minor variation in texture to the eastern end of the south wing added later.  As noted elsewhere, the external walls were originally painted in a range of colours, but this is no longer the case and all walls are now a light cream colour.


Roof coverings generally appear sound.  The terracotta roof tiles to the accommodation wings appear to be in excellent condition.  There is a clear joint in the copper roofing where it was extended over the terrace, but there is no sign of failure in waterproofing in this area.  Eaves soffits in painted timber are clean and in good condition.  Copper gutters and downpipes are sound although the appearance of the down pipes has been damaged in some places by careless painting of adjacent wall surfaces.


Hotel rooms and suites in the north, west and east wings are served by eleven individual lobbies, accessible from concrete pathways within the central quadrangle.  The lobbies vary in size but are generally consistent in finish with face brick walls and painted plaster ceilings.  The external pierced screen wall to each lobby is in face brickwork externally and is painted on the inside face.  The screen wall is well constructed with minimal weathering to the outside to prevent rain entering the lobby area.  In the south wing of student accommodation, one of these pierced walls has been infilled with glass.


The original plans indicate that a covered porch was intended at the entrance to each lobby but these porches were not constructed.  The covered ways for access to the residential wings were not constructed in the initial works and have not been provided since. 


Floors to lobbies are in situ terrazzo, which is in original condition with brass dividing strips.  Some cracks are evident, and thresholds at entry points are often cracked or broken.  Stair treads are original precast terrazzo units in the same colour as the floors to the entrances and landings.


Stairs and balustrades are original, with painted steel decorative framing, and a continuous copper pipe handrail.


All rooms and suites present with a very high standard of maintenance and housekeeping. Internal doors close easily with original hardware and furniture.  Door frames are stained and polished timber, with painted timber architraves and skirtings.  Original key locks appear to function, but keys are generally missing.  Terrazzo thresholds to balconies are generally in good condition.


Windows to the north facing flats are framed in steel, but elsewhere are generally timber frames with double hung sashes on spiral balances.  Some sashes do not move as easily as they should.  The surface condition of frames, sashes and sill boards is generally excellent.  Original sash lifts and sash locks remain in most instances.  Where these have been altered at some time, they should be replaced with original fittings from other areas, so that only one type of fitting is found in any one room.  The original roller flyscreens have not operated for some time and have been supplanted by external hinged flyscreens in a lightweight aluminium frame.


The condition of the steel framed windows and doors to balconies in the north wing is not as good as could be expected.  Many original door fasteners are missing or damaged.  Paintwork generally does not reflect the care shown elsewhere, with paint runs and uneven cutting in throughout.  Awning and casement stays require careful cleaning and lubrication.  Missing door and sash furniture should be replaced with original designs.  The careful restoration of these original glazed units is important in reinforcing the image of the original design and provide a link to the steel framed fenestration of the central block, the entrance area and the hall.


All bathrooms contain a pedestal toilet, wall basin and a full-length bathtub.  Terrazzo floors with covered skirtings and flush wall tiling are original, as are a medicine cabinets and wall mounted light fittings.  Some minor changes and additions have been made with new taps, hairdryer, etc.  Overall the condition is excellent, although replacement from time to time of toilet pans, hand basins and towel rails has been haphazard and has damaged the appearance of the original wall tiling and terrazzo floors in most rooms.


The bathrooms in the flats are tiles flush with the smooth rendered walls over.  When basins have been replaced, different tiles have been inserted.  A single light is provided in each bathroom over a mirror face cabinet recessed into the walls.  All original taps have been replaced and additional grab-rails added in non-matching stainless steel.  A shower curtain has been installed over each bath instead of the glass screen originally detailed by Lewis.  Flush valves and venting to toilet pans is in good condition.


An unusual feature of the bathroom design is the use of flushing valves to toilet pans and p-trap sewer outlets which drop through service ducts or adjoining cupboard spaces.  There is accordingly no major penetration of bathroom floor slabs for plumbing and no service access required from rooms below.  A disadvantage of this design is that none of the bathrooms have floor wastes to cope with unexpected plumbing failures.  Ross Hohnen recalled that he signed a document accepting responsibility on behalf of the University for any damage caused by the absence of overflows.


All rooms in the north, east and west wings have an original external balcony.  Balcony floors are finished in concrete, trowelled to a square pattern with a continuous border.  Balconies to the east and west wings have rainwater collected in an open sump with a copper pipe through the balustrade wall connected directly to an adjacent downpipe.  All balcony floors have been coated with a paving paint in a bright red colour which is neatly finished against adjacent surfaces.  Loose furniture on the balconies does not appear to have damaged this finish.


Balconies in the east and west wings have a single skin rendered brickwork balustrade finished at the top with an unpainted red brick capping.  The capping brick overhangs the rendered walling and slopes slightly to discharge water.  There is evidence in some areas that the capping brick has separated from its bedding. 


The reception, administration and public facilities are contained in the long curved single storey building which completes the quadrangle of University House.  This part of the building is in remarkably original condition with some minor rearrangement of functions.  As noted elsewhere, on the glazed north wall the original roof has been extended to cover the full width of the long terrace and air conditioning has been provided to all these rooms.


The entrance to the reception area from the forecourt and the wide sandstone steps are in good condition.  The floor of the reception hall is in original condition with some patching of the terrazzo.


The common room is basically in its original state with parquetry flooring and a raked ceiling following the steel roof framing.


University House is a complex building with a number of major and minor facilities which support the primary accommodation functions and public rooms of the House.  The hall, foyer and vestibule are basically in original condition and have been well maintained.  There is some wear on parquetry floors but walls and ceilings appear sound.  The original ceiling light fittings remain in the foyer.


The garden wing has four levels of mixed use and occupancy with the upper two floors used as offices and in practically original condition.  The ground floor level contains Boffins restaurant and the Foyer to the Hall.  At the basement level, the wing is contiguous with the cellar bar, café and retail areas under the kitchen.  The original structure and partition walls appear sound.  The basement level has a low floor to slab soffit height but ceiling heights elsewhere are generous.  Non-original mechanical systems include various packaged air conditioning installations and exhausts.


The landscaping of University House consists of plantings around the building and the enclosed and semi-enclosed garden spaces; the Quadrangle Garden, the Fellows Garden and the Ladies Lounge Garden.  The Quadrangle Garden is simply planted. The major feature is the reflecting pool which extends in a curve against the terrace paving and the groups of trees Betula sp. (Birch), Liquidamber styracaflua, Platanus orientalis (Planes) and two specimens of Gingko biloba (Maidenhair fern trees).  The ginkos, planted in 1953, are the oldest known surviving trees of the species in Canberra.  The female of the pair fruited for the first time in 1985.  Other notable trees are the Tilia europea on the lawns to the south of the Great Hall.  Also on the southern lawn is a commemorative English Oak, Quercus robur planted by Australia's distinguished academic Sir Keith Hancock, grown from an acorn brought by him from Cambridge.  It commemorates an association between the Australian National University and Cambridge, England.

Sequential Summary of Use

1954 to present: Student Accommodation and Faculty Club.

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 place is significant as the first major building constructed at the Australian National University and since 1954 has played an important role as residential and social centre for the University and Canberra.  Its planning reflects the British influence on the planning for the National University with the 'faculty club' concept collegiate system for residential students.



The whole building including its grounds, courtyards and planning layout.


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 House is very representative of the modern architectural residential style influenced by British architectural schools.  It is a fine example of a university college of the Oxford-Cambridge model of the collegiate system in the contemporary design style idiom.  The contemporary design style is exemplified in the integration of the building, landscaping, furniture, fittings and art work.  These many elements have been well maintained and remain intact.


The Gingko biloba (Maidenhair fern trees) in the central courtyard are the oldest known surviving trees of the species in Canberra.  The group of Tilia europea (Linden) on the southern lawns are regarded as notable tree specimens.



The style and planning of the buildings and landscaping plus the integration of the furniture, fittings and art work.  The Maidenhair fern trees in the central courtyard and the Linden on the southern lawns are also significant attributes.


CHL Criteria E: The place has importance in exhibiting particular aesthetic characteristics valued by a community or cultural group:

The features specific to the architectural style, such as the bagged and painted brickwork, crisp window patterning, clear building profile, a firm control of materials and detailing, and the use of plain wall surfaces devoid of ornamentation, collectively create a simple, strong aesthetic quality.  Complementing the building's external architectural presence is the restrained landscaped treatment of the spaces between the building wings, with trees in species groups and lawns areas integrated with water and sculptures to create tranquil outdoor spaces for academic repose and a setting for the architecture.  The sweep of the curved terrace reinforced by the sweep of curved reflecting pool, interfacing between the building and courtyard garden, is the strong central design feature of the complex and has successful aesthetic merit.


Internal features of Frederick Ward furniture, timber panelling, parquetry and period fittings such as the residential bathrooms, all contribute to a harmonious aesthetic.  The art work of sculptures 'Relaxation' and 'Swans in Flight' by Gerard Lewers, 'Conjugation' by Mark Grey Smith, the entrance hall floor by Frank Hinders, and the mural 'Regeneration' by Leonard French are features of importance that contribute to the aesthetic value of the place.



The external architectural detailing and landscape treatments noted above, plus the Fred Ward furniture, sculptures, artworks, fixtures and fittings noted above.


CHL Criteria F: The place has importance in demonstrating a high degree of creative or technical achievement at a particular period:

University House is an outstanding example of mid-twentieth century modern architecture in Australia, and is one of the largest such examples in the National Capital.  Its design achievement is demonstrated by the highly successful integration of building, landscaping, art, finishes and furniture representative of contemporary, mid twentieth century style.  Being constructed in a time of financial austerity, University House further reflects design achievement in its imaginative use of everyday materials and finishes such as rendered walls, timber and steel window frames, terracotta roof tiles and terrazzo paving to produce a most pleasantly resolved architectural design.  The Great Hall, the curved terrace, reflecting pool, quadrangle garden, and the furniture are major design features.


The design provides efficient accommodation for its purpose and is a valid response to the requirements of an academic residential building and university 'faculty club'.  The feature of basement service tunnels and vertical riser shafts has allowed the continued functioning of building services and the operation of an attractive living and working environment.


The design successfully incorporates the expectation to display contemporary Australian art and be a repository of Australian culture.  The architectural and interior design merit of the building has been recognised by a major award for architectural design achievement in 1953, and an ACT architectural award for maintaining integrity for 25 years.



The successful integration of building, landscaping, art, finishes and furniture within a mid twentieth century design idiom.  The imaginative use of everyday materials and finishes.  The design of the building including service tunnels and riser shafts for services.  Particularly significant attributes include the Great Hall, the curved terrace, reflecting pool, quadrangle garden and the furniture.


CHL Criteria G: The place's strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons:

University House is a well-known building in Canberra and is valued by the academic and general community for its associations the earliest years of the Australian National University.  Its design was influenced by some of Australia's most prominent academic, scientific and educational figures including H.C. Coombs, Mr. Charles Daly and Sir Robert Garran.



The building's integrity and the fact that it has seen little change since its establishment.


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:

University House has a significant association with its designer Brian Lewis, Professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne.  It has an association with Australian artists Gerald Lewers, Mark Grey-Smith, Frank Hinder and Leonard French, and furniture designer Fred Ward, being a repository of their important works.  An association with Cambridge University, England, is commemorated by an English Oak planted by Sir Keith Hancock.



The building's design as evidence of the work of Brian Lewis, plus the sculpture and art work of Gerald Lewers, Mark Grey-Smith, Frank Hinder and Leonard French.  Also, the furniture and fittings designed by Fred Ward and the English Oak planted by Sir Keith Hancock.


ACT Heritage List Criteria A: It demonstrates a high degree of technical or creative achievement (or both), by showing qualities of innovation, discovery, invention or an exceptionally fine level of application of existing techniques or approaches:

University House is significant for its architectural design departing from pre-War traditions.  The building and courtyard combine to achieve a high aesthetic standard.


ACT Heritage List Criteria B: It exhibits outstanding design ort aesthetic qualities valued by a community or a cultural group:

It is significant in its role in the development of the University as a residential facility, meeting place and academic centre.  This role was important in the development of the new Capital City.


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 practised, is in danger of being lost or is of exceptional interest:

University House is significant for its architectural design departing from pre-War traditions.  The building and courtyard combine to achieve a high aesthetic standard.


ACT Heritage List Criteria D: It is highly valued by the community or a cultural group for reasons of strong or special religious, spiritual, cultural, educational or social associations:

It is significant in its role in the development of the University as a residential facility, meeting place and academic centre.  This role was important in the development of the new Capital City.


ACT Heritage List Criteria F: It is a notable example of a kind of place or object and demonstrates the main characteristics of that kind:

It is significant in its role in the development of the University as a residential facility, meeting place and academic centre.  This role was important in the development of the new Capital City.


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:

It is significant in its role in the development of the University as a residential facility, meeting place and academic centre.  This role was important in the development of the new Capital City.

Conservation Documents

  • Pegrum and Associates (2001): University House The Australian National University: Conservation Management Plan.
  • Ratcliffe and Armes (1993): Australian National University Heritage Study: Volumes 1 and 2.


Consultation Requirements

  • Department of Environment and Water Resources
  • National Capital Authority
  • ACT Heritage
  • National Trust of Australia (ACT)

Works and Activities

Work OrderActionDate
0723-237 Call-OUT. ACTFB isolated circuit 16 08-01-07
0723-248 CALL-OUT. 31/12/06. Fire panel fault. 08-01-07
0723-1502 Fire Ext/Hose Reel 6 monthly maint service 24-01-07
0723-1703 Fire Hydrant 6 Monthly Service 29-01-07
0723-1909 Monthly Lift Service 2007. Kone D/W 30-01-07
0723-1912 Monthly Lift Service 2007. Otis D/W. Kitchen GF. 30-01-07
0723-1913 Monthly Lift Service 2007. Otis D/W. Kitchen LGF. 30-01-07
0723-1948 Gas Boiler Service Annual 30-01-07
0723-2542 Fellows Garden Feasibility Studies 02-02-07
0723-2989 Fire Panel Fault 12-02-07
0723-3366 Replace smoke detector 20-02-07
0723-3504 Fire tech to check fire panel 21-02-07
0723-3531 Move object for degree conferral 21-02-07
0723-3677 6 Monthly Statuatory Fire Door check Z1 22-02-07
0723-4841 Make safe after storm damage 03-03-07
0723-5614 Unblock drain on Liversidge st at Uni house 21-03-07
0723-5930 Emergency Lights 6 Monthly Service 29-03-07
0723-11194 Fire Ext/Hose Reel 6 monthly maint service 09-07-07
0723-11792 Fire Hydrant 6 Monthly Service 16-07-07

Cross-References to Other Records

AC0037 – Toad Hall

Links to External Agencies

Commonwealth Heritage List – University House and Garden

ACT Heritage Register 

Royal Australian Institute of Architects Register of Significant Twentieth Century Buildings

National Trust of Australia (ACT)