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The Lobby: ideas for future use?

By Maryann Mussared - 7 April 2017 15

Front door of The Lobby

The Lobby is one of Canberra’s most iconic buildings, although on a lesser scale than the surrounding national institutions such the two Parliament Houses and the beautiful National Library of Australia. Located on national land, the National Capital Authority has responsibility for the building. Situated on King George Terrace, almost in the centre of the Parliamentary Triangle and overlooking the National Rose Garden, it is a building full of memories. Like many readers, I have been to weddings, book launches, poetry readings and memorable family get-togethers in the space. The Lobby was a restaurant and function centre for almost 50 years and was the choice of meeting place of political lobbyists with expense accounts, politicians, and senior Government officials, including the odd spook.

After finally closing its doors at the beginning of the year, the future of the Lobby remains uncertain. The Lobby stopped functioning as an a la carte restaurant some years ago, although the elegant, glass-walled building had been a popular venue for weddings and functions. The attached Pork Barrel café and bakery in the kiosk part of the building attracted a day-time crowd and was well-patronised but ceased trading at the same time as The Lobby. The National Capital Authority was approached for an update about the future of the building but did not provide any information about possible future uses. I have seen references to the building being heritage-listed and if this is the case, the building should remain intact, but with an indeterminate function. The sale of all fixtures and fittings early this year means an easy transition was limited for any potential entrepreneurial local restauranteur willing to try something a bit different. Perhaps someone else, even from interstate, cashed-up from another enterprise, may tackle the space and create something that will become a go-to destination. Parking had been cited as a possible problem for the venue, but with paid parking in the Parliamentary Triangle, and the National Library car park barely 200 metres away, parking is mostly readily available. So unless the National Capital Authority can negotiate a restaurant lease, consideration should be given to repurposing the building.

Side entrance to The Lobby

One idea discussed with interested parties could provide a possible solution to a long-standing issue. The ACT does not have a venue that could be described as a centre for indigenous culture for the traditional custodians and owners of the land. As The Lobby is on traditional land, surely there is room for at least a discussion that the land is returned to the traditional owners for cultural purposes. Its function could be a central repository for any collections of artefacts, or it could be easily converted into an art gallery for indigenous art, with a strong emphasis on local indigenous artists. The building is flooded with natural light and with a flexible track lighting system and moveable screens, the existing building could provide an excellent gallery space.

Today the Lobby is empty and looks slightly neglected

For the time being, The Lobby sadly stands empty and just a little overgrown. At least it is not boarded up, nor the windows covered in newspaper. As we have no indication of the future of the building, it is interesting to pause and reflect on The Lobby’s past. Until 1988, it was the closest restaurant to the Australian Parliament, other than the House dining room. After Parliament moving up the hill in 1988, it inevitably became less frequented as it was no longer a quick dash across King George Terrace, and as new lobbyists and MPs came into Canberra perhaps found other restaurants more to their liking.

The building was opened on 1 July 1968 by the then Federal Treasurer, a certain Mr McMahon. At the time, the Canberra Times commented it was ‘no mere hash house for coach parties’. It was anticipated it ‘would provide a sophisticated menu six nights a week’ and the décor had been ‘done by Lady (Marion) Hall Best’, interior decorator to the then rich and famous. The name was very appropriate as the restaurant was intended for lobbyists with expense accounts. The main diners were the politicians and bureaucrats who were being lobbied, although management did attempt to attract a local crowd when Parliament was not sitting. Sunday luncheons were offered as ‘a traditional Sunday dinner with ‘a grand 3-course luncheon of roast turkey or pork $3 (children $1-75), and Devonshire Tea served on Sunday afternoon’. By the end of 1969, there was a Dinner Dance each Friday night with music provided by the “Lobby Trio”.

Apparently, service got off to a roaring start, and the owners were reputed to have covered all expenses within the first six weeks. A refreshment kiosk soon opened to meet the needs of tourists who were more interested in a pie and sauce. At the time of opening, there was little in the way of fine dining competition with most restaurants contained in dining rooms in motels, although I hope this statement unleashes a flurry of comments and memories of other restaurants of the era.

So even though the future of The Lobby is still unknown, I wonder what personal views readers have about its future?

Photos by Maryann Mussared

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15 Responses to
The Lobby: ideas for future use?
Maryann Mussared 10:51 am 12 Apr 17

wildturkeycanoe said :

HiddenDragon said :

the idea of a gallery for indigenous arts and crafts does have some appeal.

Does not the National Gallery already have space allocated just for indigenous art? What about the Aboriginal Dreamings Gallery or the Burrunju Art Gallery? There is even a Canberra based online store for Aboriginal art. How about some new ideas instead of copy and paste attempts of existing businesses and if it is a business idea, something that isn’t going to rely on government funding to stay open?
The property is quite obviously going to be very expensive to purchase, rent or develop due to its location. If it has any kind of heritage status, making any changes to suit the 21st century or modifying the interior to suit an enterprise are going to be also quite costly, so a commercial idea will need to be something that draws large numbers and people are going to pay good money for. I can’t see another cafe or art gallery surviving for long.

Just to clarify the discussion about one option for The Lobby. It could be a gallery run as a co-operative selling the art and craft of local indigenous groups, and even that of different groups who pass through the nearby tent embassy. The National Gallery is a gallery museum and holds the national collection, and there are 12 wonderful gallery spaces set aside for the national indigenous collection. No matter how much money anyone has, the work is not for sale. For collectors who want to acquire work by artists represented at the NGA, the Aboriginal Dreaming Gallery has a good selection of recognised indigenous artists. Sadly for the new-look fly-in fly-out tourists, a visit there requires private transport. The same applies to the Burrunja Gallery on Yarramundi Reach. A possible combination of a museum-style display of regional indigenous artefacts for historical context, and sale of art and craft works is just one option, and yes, it would require support and funding to train people to upgrade the building and run the venture. There are people who think this option has potential in an area of high tourist concentration.

wildturkeycanoe 6:36 am 12 Apr 17

HiddenDragon said :

the idea of a gallery for indigenous arts and crafts does have some appeal.

Does not the National Gallery already have space allocated just for indigenous art? What about the Aboriginal Dreamings Gallery or the Burrunju Art Gallery? There is even a Canberra based online store for Aboriginal art. How about some new ideas instead of copy and paste attempts of existing businesses and if it is a business idea, something that isn’t going to rely on government funding to stay open?
The property is quite obviously going to be very expensive to purchase, rent or develop due to its location. If it has any kind of heritage status, making any changes to suit the 21st century or modifying the interior to suit an enterprise are going to be also quite costly, so a commercial idea will need to be something that draws large numbers and people are going to pay good money for. I can’t see another cafe or art gallery surviving for long.

Maryann Mussared 7:48 pm 10 Apr 17

HiddenDragon said :

In the apparent absence of private sector enthusiasim, a government (taxpayer funded/subsidised) option may be the most realistic use for the space – the idea of a gallery for indigenous arts and crafts does have some appeal. Perhaps a Bush Tukka Cafe would add to the appeal, and help to defray some of the costs.

Given there are already lots of cafes in the area (Old Parliament House, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Questacon and the very popular Bookplate at the National Library of Australia, a food and beverage outlet is probably not the best solution unless something very innovative materializes. I was interested to hear how many interested people I talked to while I was researching this article thought an indigenous art and craft gallery could be a possible solution. Certainly, with the attached kiosk there is the opportunity for a bush tucker (bush tukka) cafe. It could give Canberrans the opportunity to engage with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy with something other than politics. I love the idea of different clans coming into the capital during the year bringing art from their communities.

HiddenDragon 5:11 pm 10 Apr 17

In the apparent absence of private sector enthusiasim, a government (taxpayer funded/subsidised) option may be the most realistic use for the space – the idea of a gallery for indigenous arts and crafts does have some appeal. Perhaps a Bush Tukka Cafe would add to the appeal, and help to defray some of the costs.

dungfungus 10:09 am 10 Apr 17

wildturkeycanoe said :

If the NCA and the LDA are involved in any way, the block is already earmarked for a demolition and planners are busy doing up architect’s views of a ten storey high density, mixed use residential and commercial space with a tram running past. Not only that but it will be energy efficient, “Vibrant” and make Canberra more liveable!
Sarcasm intended, though I fear I may not be far off the truth.

I hope the NCA include demolition of the other structures in the immediate area that are used by self-appointed transients masquerading activists for indigenous sovereignty.

This has become a blot of the landscape which no one wants to talk about. It is not acknowledged on any map that I am aware of and I don’t believe it has any official status.

Some tourists I have met in the vicinity are totally mystified by it and I am at loss to explain what it is there for. It wouldn’t be tolerated in other other capital city in the world so let’s see something done about it.

It’s one place that a block of leaky high rise boxes would actually be preferable.

MareeTK 4:54 pm 09 Apr 17

This is all really sad. I haven’t lived in Canberra for three years and it is sad to see great places which should have excellent potential close down.

wildturkeycanoe 8:21 am 09 Apr 17

If the NCA and the LDA are involved in any way, the block is already earmarked for a demolition and planners are busy doing up architect’s views of a ten storey high density, mixed use residential and commercial space with a tram running past. Not only that but it will be energy efficient, “Vibrant” and make Canberra more liveable!
Sarcasm intended, though I fear I may not be far off the truth.

bronal 11:55 am 08 Apr 17

Mark_Dando said :

The problem with the Lobby is that it’s in Canberra’s dead heart, the Parliamentary Triangle, specifically the area south of King Edward Terrace.

The lakeside and the cultural institutions along it attract people, but away from there the Triangle is pretty barren. The lack of interest in this area is partly a consequence of moving Parliament up to Capital Hill and of the outsourcing of public service accommodation since the late 1970s. At the same time, no federal government has shown any interest until now in selling off parts of the Triangle (even for the leaseback of office accommodation). So, for example, the Finance Department has taken out a long term lease on Canberra Avenue, just as accessible to Parliament as the Triangle, but with shops and hotels nearby.

However, recent initiatives by both the ACT and federal governments respectively may have big implication for the future of the Parliamentary Triangle – firstly, extending the light rail across the lake to Woden, and secondly the sale of East and West blocks (which may be the first sale of real estate within the Triangle). Any extension of light rail is likely to take it through the Triangle. No sensible transport planner will route the light rail around the low-density western side of Capital Hill rather than the eastern side around Barton, and running it directly along Commonwealth Ave and then onto State Circle in an easterly direction would require a costly engineering solution, probably involving tunneling. Given this, the obvious route is through the Parliamentary Triangle towards the Kings Ave and State Circle intersection, and then around State Circle to Adelaide Ave. This would serve the cultural/tourist attractions and the increasingly dense employment and residential areas in Barton.

This route would provide an incentive for a federal financial contribution – as it would serve the national institutions and significantly increase the value of the surface car parks in the Triangle (as well as the area north of the Albert Hall currently occupied by a grandiose and little-used highway cloverleaf intersection that was apparently designed to serve a lakeside Parliament House).

Another advantage of this route is that the extension of light rail could be progressively opened – stage 2A to Kings Avenue and State Circle, and then 2B to Woden.

Under these circumstances the Lobby could be a great investment.

I don’t agree. The Lobby is in a prime, unique location for a top-flight restaurant. Patrons are hardly going to depend on public transport to get there and there is ample after-hours parking. If Ottoman can flourish in the middle of government buildings in Barton, then I’m sure the The Lobby could do the same in its location.

Maryann Mussared 11:28 am 08 Apr 17

Your comments are interesting and part of a broader conversation about what is going to happen with the route for Stage 2 of the light rail. The recently announced proposed sell-off of the old East and West block has taken many by surprise, although I think there have been murmurings for a while. I would be really interested to hear what the National Capital Authority has planned.

Mark_Dando said :

The problem with the Lobby is that it’s in Canberra’s dead heart, the Parliamentary Triangle, specifically the area south of King Edward Terrace.

The lakeside and the cultural institutions along it attract people, but away from there the Triangle is pretty barren. The lack of interest in this area is partly a consequence of moving Parliament up to Capital Hill and of the outsourcing of public service accommodation since the late 1970s. At the same time, no federal government has shown any interest until now in selling off parts of the Triangle (even for the leaseback of office accommodation). So, for example, the Finance Department has taken out a long term lease on Canberra Avenue, just as accessible to Parliament as the Triangle, but with shops and hotels nearby.

However, recent initiatives by both the ACT and federal governments respectively may have big implication for the future of the Parliamentary Triangle – firstly, extending the light rail across the lake to Woden, and secondly the sale of East and West blocks (which may be the first sale of real estate within the Triangle). Any extension of light rail is likely to take it through the Triangle. No sensible transport planner will route the light rail around the low-density western side of Capital Hill rather than the eastern side around Barton, and running it directly along Commonwealth Ave and then onto State Circle in an easterly direction would require a costly engineering solution, probably involving tunneling. Given this, the obvious route is through the Parliamentary Triangle towards the Kings Ave and State Circle intersection, and then around State Circle to Adelaide Ave. This would serve the cultural/tourist attractions and the increasingly dense employment and residential areas in Barton.

This route would provide an incentive for a federal financial contribution – as it would serve the national institutions and significantly increase the value of the surface car parks in the Triangle (as well as the area north of the Albert Hall currently occupied by a grandiose and little-used highway cloverleaf intersection that was apparently designed to serve a lakeside Parliament House).

Another advantage of this route is that the extension of light rail could be progressively opened – stage 2A to Kings Avenue and State Circle, and then 2B to Woden.

Under these circumstances the Lobby could be a great investment.

Maryann Mussared 11:22 am 08 Apr 17

John Moulis said :

Looks like another iconic restaurant in Canberra lost forever. I often look up at Black Mountain Tower and think about when we operated The Tower Restaurant. A class act, one of the top restaurants in Australia, known world wide. Now nobody wants to operate it, the space sits idle.

Now The Lobby Restaurant, the place which was synonymous with Canberra and its political and government role has suffered the same fate. I know you can’t run a business on sentimentality but surely someone can step forward and return it to its golden era.

I hope other readers have memories of some of the wonderful restaurants that are long gone.
I have always been a huge fan of the Black Mountain Tower, the revolving restaurant and the cafe in their day, and really miss going there. On a clear sunny day, my family had to drag me out of the place after lunch as I always wanted to stay for another coffee and another ‘revolution’ of the wonderful view. I am sick of restaurants that have panoramic views of suburban shopping centre carparks. I suppose it isn’t the restauranteurs’ fault if there are no better alternative spaces available. I had hoped the National Capital Authority would at least answer my questions about any possible thoughts for the future, but despite my efforts, I had no response.

John Moulis 8:20 am 08 Apr 17

Looks like another iconic restaurant in Canberra lost forever. I often look up at Black Mountain Tower and think about when we operated The Tower Restaurant. A class act, one of the top restaurants in Australia, known world wide. Now nobody wants to operate it, the space sits idle.

Now The Lobby Restaurant, the place which was synonymous with Canberra and its political and government role has suffered the same fate. I know you can’t run a business on sentimentality but surely someone can step forward and return it to its golden era.

dungfungus 10:00 pm 07 Apr 17

Blen_Carmichael said :

“As The Lobby is on traditional land, surely there is room for at least a discussion…”

The whole of the ACT – not to mention the entire continent – is on traditional land. I’m not sure what this adds to the argument.

For the purposes of the story, it is a bit more traditional than all other land.

Mark_Dando 3:39 pm 07 Apr 17

The problem with the Lobby is that it’s in Canberra’s dead heart, the Parliamentary Triangle, specifically the area south of King Edward Terrace.

The lakeside and the cultural institutions along it attract people, but away from there the Triangle is pretty barren. The lack of interest in this area is partly a consequence of moving Parliament up to Capital Hill and of the outsourcing of public service accommodation since the late 1970s. At the same time, no federal government has shown any interest until now in selling off parts of the Triangle (even for the leaseback of office accommodation). So, for example, the Finance Department has taken out a long term lease on Canberra Avenue, just as accessible to Parliament as the Triangle, but with shops and hotels nearby.

However, recent initiatives by both the ACT and federal governments respectively may have big implication for the future of the Parliamentary Triangle – firstly, extending the light rail across the lake to Woden, and secondly the sale of East and West blocks (which may be the first sale of real estate within the Triangle). Any extension of light rail is likely to take it through the Triangle. No sensible transport planner will route the light rail around the low-density western side of Capital Hill rather than the eastern side around Barton, and running it directly along Commonwealth Ave and then onto State Circle in an easterly direction would require a costly engineering solution, probably involving tunneling. Given this, the obvious route is through the Parliamentary Triangle towards the Kings Ave and State Circle intersection, and then around State Circle to Adelaide Ave. This would serve the cultural/tourist attractions and the increasingly dense employment and residential areas in Barton.

This route would provide an incentive for a federal financial contribution – as it would serve the national institutions and significantly increase the value of the surface car parks in the Triangle (as well as the area north of the Albert Hall currently occupied by a grandiose and little-used highway cloverleaf intersection that was apparently designed to serve a lakeside Parliament House).

Another advantage of this route is that the extension of light rail could be progressively opened – stage 2A to Kings Avenue and State Circle, and then 2B to Woden.

Under these circumstances the Lobby could be a great investment.

Blen_Carmichael 1:50 pm 07 Apr 17

“As The Lobby is on traditional land, surely there is room for at least a discussion…”

The whole of the ACT – not to mention the entire continent – is on traditional land. I’m not sure what this adds to the argument.

Mark Parton 12:03 pm 07 Apr 17

I walked to the launch of the CEO Sleepout yesterday at OPH, strolled right past the lobby…and sighed a big sigh. I thought many of the same things as you Maryann. I couldn’t help but walk up to the window and peer in. I’ve had some great days and nights in that place. It’s almost a magical building and can’t just be left to decay. I’d love to see another private operator in there but as we know it’s a very competitive scene. Looking forward to seeing ideas in here.

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