8 March 2024

100 years on, Canberra's Grand Old Lady accommodates a century of memories

| Sally Hopman
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Early Canberra postcard showing Hotel Canberra

An early Canberra postcard, circa 1930s, showing the then Hotel Canberra, with Albert Hall in the background. It was first known as Hostel No 1. Photo: File.

It was proposed for the Canberra landscape in 1921. Known as Hostel No.1, it was designed to accommodate 200 parliamentarians, dignitaries and other VIPs pretty much across the road from where the centre of the new capital’s power was to rise – Parliament House.

But it was not to be like any other building. It was, according to Commonwealth architect John Smith Murdoch, a place for privacy – due to the nature of the work many of its VIPs were involved with – and home-like for the many who had been drafted to Canberra, some from across the country – and their families.

The influence of Beaux-Arts, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin also featured in the design.

On 10 December, 1924, it officially opened as a government hostel. It was later to become a home-away-from-home for everyone from rock stars to presidents, and even royalty – the Duke and Duchess of York, who were to become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, stayed there.

Hyatt Hotel Canberra

Hyatt Hotel Canberra as she is today – the capital’s grand old lady who celebrates her 100th birthday this year. Photo: Hyatt Hotels.

From day one it became the centre of the new city’s social scene. (The sale and purchase of alcohol was banned in the Territory until 1928 – but was allowed in dining rooms, cafes – and hotels.)

During the Depression years, the unique layout of the hotel was criticised for economic inefficiency. Murdoch’s design of 10 single and two-storey pavilions, set in a large garden linked by enclosed glazed verandahs to a central administration and dining block, was deemed hardly practical for the time.

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But apparently it was vastly suitable – and cheaper – for a Prime Minister, with Joseph Scullin and his wife choosing to live there rather than at The Lodge.

But it was not simply used for accommodation. Apparently the first guest in 1924 was one W.G. Duffield, who set up the Commonwealth Solar Observatory in one wing until it was moved to Mt Stromlo in 1927. And, at one time, it was the only building in Canberra with a lock-up, so it often held alleged offenders before and during trials, and occasionally juries.

Leased to Tooheys from 1935 to 1975, in 1974 the government said the hotel’s lease would not be renewed and the hotel closed on 13 May, 1974.

Aerial view of early city of Canberra

How the Hotel Canberra looked from above back in the 1920s. Photo: Canberra and District Historical Society.

From 1974 until 1983, when the Commonwealth Government decided to restore the Hotel Canberra, it housed a number of government offices, including Hansard.

The newly restored hotel was reopened on 23 July, 1988, by former Prime Ministers John Gorton and Gough Whitlam, complete with its pavilions stripped back to their original features and the linking verandahs restored. The gardens were reconstructed from old sketches, and Hyatt International Hotels were appointed managers.

During the restoration process, a trove of old hotel records were uncovered and donated to the National Library of Australia. A call-out to the public at the time, for any souvenirs of the hotel, also proved successful, with many of them used to help recreate the interior design and fittings.

Five men on building site with spades

They were called The Mudlarks – workers helping to build what was to become the Hyatt Hotel back in 1925. Photo: Canberra and District Historical Society.

Hyatt Hotel Canberra general manager Adam Myott said the hotel had a special place in the heart of Canberrans, and its guests, past and present.

“I think our guests feel quite sentimental about the property,” he said.

“There’s definitely a sense of pride among Canberrans – it’s very much a part of our history and a part of our personal lives too. I hear stories of graduations, celebrations, weddings and events – often over generations.

“It is as much a destination of special occasion as it is a home-away-from-home. I think people love to feel that sense of grandeur and cultured excellence that a stay here offers. It’s an opportunity to fall in love with hotels all over again.”

Mr Myott said plans were underway to celebrate the centenary this year, including a roaring 20s cocktail party in October.

A bespoke Canberra Earl Grey tea has been commissioned through The Tea Centre and guests will also be treated to special accommodation packages to mark the centenary.

There are also plans for a new website to tell stories from the hotel’s past and present, ensuring its legacy lives on.

Do you have a Hyatt Hotel Canberra memory?

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Ask me about memories of Beauchamp House and I could contribute something useful. Hotel Canberra? Not so much.

Everyone probably thinks the Jarrah floor in the entry areas and tea lounge etc. are original. They aren’t! The real original is down underneath the new one. Even the original mistakes were replicated in the new floor…

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