1 August 2008

History Lesson - The Patent Office

| Loose Brown
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Construction began on the Patent Office on the corner of National Circuit and King’s Avenue in 1939 and was completed in 1941. It is classified by the National Trust of Australia as ‘a significant public building for its time which contributes strongly to the King’s Avenue streetscape and forms an important contribution to the group of Canberra buildings termed, ‘Federal Style Architecture”.

The sandstone-faced building looks fairly staid from the outside, but it’s interior holds clues to its rich history. When the PM of the day Robert Menzies attended the opening ceremony, the Patent Office included a staff recreation room at roof level, which at one stage was extended to include a timber dance floor.

The building was very modern for its time and was crammed with high tech gear including ‘photostat’ equipment and dark rooms that were used by other Australian Government Departments. Despite this, there were problems finding enough oil to keep the heating system going during the wartime years and it was freezing.

Until 1963 the Supreme Court was housed on the ground floor of the building. It had a courtroom, a jury retiring room, rooms for judges and associates and even a small, dark cell to hold prisoners. All these things were removed during renovations in 1980, except for the cell, which remains behind a steel studded door in the basement.

The most famous of the prisoners held there were Frank Browne and newspaper proprietor Raymond Fitzpatrick who were charged before the House of Representatives with a breach of parliamentary privilege. More on them next week.

An interesting bit of trivia – the horrible concrete annex that was added to the building may be demolished when the Attorney-General’s Department moves out and into their new building at number 3 National Circuit next year – restoring the Patent Office to its original glory.

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The Old Patents Office (now known as Robert Garran Offices) is indeed a great place to work. I was there from 1986 till the mid nineties. There are, I believe, two remnant cells in the underground room.
One recent event that has been missed here is the famous barbecue. The Department commissioned a recreational facility to be constructed in the courtyard of the north building (the original part). This seemingly innocent action, combined with the desire to minimise disruption during working hours, (ie lots of OT for the builders), the need to crane almost every piece of construction material, and tool into the courtyard, again mostly after hours (even more OT), and the (this is the subjective part) an absolutely outrageous design, all combined with a slow news week, to create a lather of press excitement over the cost of this facility. I seem to remember it was in the order of two and a bit average suburban homes for the price of one bbq.

Interesting. Didn’t realise that building used to be the Patents Office.

Wasn’t there another building similar to this on the other side of the road where PM&C is now housed? I was surprised to see it knocked down. From memory that building looked like it would be a potential for heritage listing.

Apparently the new AGs building is already too small so some of may stay in the old part of the building as well in various other buildings they occupy around Barton.

They obviously didn’t know how to treat staff in those days – a nifty little dance floor, and a penthouse rec room!


Small, dark cells were obviously the vogue for prisoners too….


We’ve certainly come a long way in Canberra in forty years, thank goodness.

Great Post – keep em coming.

I once got a “guided tour” of Lindi Chamberlain’s cell at the old NT Supreme Court building in Darwin. It was specially built for her and set up like a sitting room.

Reading this, I was thinking it must have been the Robert Garran, where AGs is now. The bit facing King’s Ave is quite arresting, very art deco looking, with that massive door that is never opened (you access the building from the concrete bit behind).

It would be nice to see the concrete bit removed, although a bit wasteful as it’s not a bad building to work in. Maybe they could remove the bit stuck to the old building, the walkbridge, and leave the southern bit as a stand-alone building?

Great news – that annex building is hideous.

lionelvioletguyandslingsby9:51 am 02 Aug 08

Great stuff! Thanks.

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