25 July 2016

Ninety years on, but the the ghosts still linger at Hotel Kurrajong

On the weekend just passed, Hotel Kurrajong celebrated an illustrious milestone – its 90th birthday. While now one of Canberra’s premier hotels, it has had its share of drama, politics and death.

Hotel Kurrajong under construction 1926
Hotel Kurrajong under construction 1926
Image Source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection HMSS 0415 Brackenberg Family Photographs
Originally designed as the second of two hostels for politicians and statesmen during Parliamentary sitting weeks, Hotel Kurrajong was opened in 1926. It was designed by Commonwealth Architect, John Smith Murdoch, who also designed Old Parliament House, and named after Kurrajong Hill, now known as Capital Hill.

From its opening, the hotel has had an impressive guest list for functions, dinners, conferences and special events. Many members of the press, as well as Commonwealth and State officials stayed there for the opening of  Old Parliament House in May 1927. It was favoured by Labor politicians (Liberal politicians tended to stay at Hostel No. 1, now the Hyatt Hotel).

One evening, after a Labor electoral victory, non-partisan guests complained about the exuberant singing of ‘The Red Flag,’ in the hotels rooms. Hotel Kurrajong was so favoured by well known party members that Caucus meetings could have been held during mealtimes.

Hotel Kurrajong in the 1930s
Hotel Kurrajong in the 1930s
Image Source: ACT Heritage Library image 003635
However, it was one particular Labor politician that gave the hotel its most notorious incident. Ben Chifley lived at Hotel Kurrajong in Room 205 for eleven years. When he became Prime Minister in 1945, he refused to live in the Lodge, despite it being the official residence, and instead continued to live in his room. He was often spotted on the porch of the Hotel, filling his pipe and smoking. He walked to and from Old Parliament House every day. 

Chifley was known for skipping his meals, so much so, that during the war, John Curtin once issued a mock National Security Regulation to 'eat one plate of soup, one helping of meat and vegetables and one dessert nightly at the Hotel Kurrajong’ (Purchase et al. p. 60).

Hotel Kurrajong Dinner Menu 1 January 1927
Hotel Kurrajong Dinner Menu 1 January 1927
Source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection  HMSS 0009 Hilda Jackson Papers
Chifley stayed in the Kurrajong in Room 205 until his fatal heart attack on 13 July 1951. That evening, instead of attending the Golden Jubilee Ball at the then Parliament House, he stayed behind to work in his hotel room. There have been claims his ghost can sometimes be seen in the hotel, dressed in a grey suit, pointing towards Old Parliament House.
Hotel Kurrajong, March 1951
Hotel Kurrajong, March 1951
Source: ACT Heritage Library image 009218
Hotel Kurrajong was staffed by locals from the Canberra district, and became home to a wide variety of people. Due to housing shortages, many incoming families stayed in Hotel Kurrajong before more permanent homes could be built. Some children, including Doug Anthony (future Deputy Prime Minister), were babysat by hotel staff, and recollect having snow fights in the grounds and playing hockey in the hallways. 

Brochure advertising the Kurrajong Hotel in the 1960s
Brochure advertising the Kurrajong Hotel in the 1960s
Source: ACT Heritage Library Collection
The hotel went into a period of decline in the 1970’s due to risings costs, lower patronage and inflation. It closed in 1978, but was leased by the ACT government in 1993 for refurbishment. Room 205 was restored to what it had been during Chifley’s lifetime. 

The Kurrajong is now in private hands as a functioning hotel.

For additional history of the Hotel Kurrajong, why not visit the ACT Heritage library and peruse some of the books in the collection that  include political machinations and accounts by Canberra locals. We suggest Canberra’s Early Hotels: A Pint-sized History by Shirley Purchase (ed.); The Ghost Poetry Project by Nathan Curnow; and The Memories Linger On by Alan Foskett. 

Suggested books containing information about Hotel Kurrajong
Suggested books containing information about Hotel Kurrajong

Historical photographs can be found through Images ACT