Inside the official home of our Prime Ministers

Glimpse inside the official homes of our Prime Ministers – Kirribilli House and The Lodge.

As our Nation remembers one of its great leaders and shares tributes of his life, National Trust of Australia (Queensland) Advocacy Manager, Jane Alexander, shares her experiences of what it’s like to glimpse inside the official homes of our Prime Ministers – Kirribilli House and The Lodge. Read the full article here.

Before joining the National Trust of Australia (Queensland), Jane Alexander was the owner and director of a heritage and archaeological consultancy, undertaking projects on Australia’s east coast from Cairns in the north to Portland on Victoria’s south-west coast.

‘I have been incredibly lucky to work on some amazing heritage sites,’ Jane says, as one of her proudest achievements was to win several projects working on the ‘Official Establishments’. The ‘Official Establishments’ are the two homes that the government maintains for the incumbent Prime Minister – Kirribilli House in Sydney and The Lodge in Canberra. They are listed on the Commonwealth Heritage Register as places of heritage significance.

‘Both houses are far more modest that you would expect,’ Jane says, ‘They really do feel like homes – they’re not grand or opulent at all.’ Jane explains, ‘It was honestly a dream come true to be able to assist the managers of two heritage places that are so important to Australia’s history.’ Jane’s company initially won contracts to provide conservation advice for Kirribilli House, advice such as improvements to fireplaces and heat retention. ‘Kirribilli House was so cold in winter – my goodness, it was like an ice block! We came in and assisted in finding heating solutions that would make the late 1800s sandstone home warm in winter without damaging heritage fabric.’

Jane’s company then went on to pull an international team of experts together to assess the roof at Kirribilli House. Working with Peter Phillips architect and petrography specialists in the United Kingdom, her team spent weeks trawling through archives to establish the source of the building’s original slate. ‘It was great – we were pretty confident through our archival research that we had found the original slate quarry, near Goulburn in NSW. So we sweet-talked the current owners and spent a lovely day at their farm crawling around piles of discarded slate from the old quarry.’ But a hunch is not enough to give definitive advice to the government, so Jane’s team went further, as she explains, ‘When we arrived at The Lodge, the security guards weren’t too pleased that we wanted to go into the roof space – they had to accompany us at all times and the roof is not spacious, and these were big boys. The further we all crawled in between the rafters, the more uncomfortable they became. I’m sure they thought we were very strange when we starting shouting happily at discovering shard of old slate in rafters.’

The following year, Jane’s team was commissioned to undertake an archival recording of both buildings. ‘This was THE project – it sounds quite straight forward – undertake a photographic recording of the building. But it meant that we spent days and days recorded every aspect of the interior and exterior.’ And that, Jane says, is when it became special, because you see every aspect of the house in detail. Her team had been working together for a few years on the houses by now, and spending this amount of time allowed for reflection. ‘You can’t help but be awed when you think about the people who have walked through the rooms that you are in, who have slept in the beds, eaten at the tables and laughed on the lawns. It is an amazing part of our country’s history that very few people get to see or interact with.’

‘I remember standing in a dressing room which was attached to a bedroom that Prime Minister Curtin had used and came to the realisation that this was the room Curtin dressed in on the day he gave his, “Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship” speech during World War 2. It’s an incredibly grounding moment where these great political figures are humanised. I wondered, “Was he practising the speech as he dressed? Was he nervous like I am before speaking, trying to work out which word to emphasise? Did the magnitude of the coming special relationship and its effects on Australian foreign policy leave him daunted?”’

Jane also worked on the Official Establishments while Australia had its first female Prime Minister. ‘We had to develop new policies for the houses and this situation hadn’t been anticipated in earlier projects. It had always been assumed there would be a first wife who would decorate the home and personalise it,’ Jane explains, ‘but of course, Prime Minister Gillard was busy running the country, so we had to re-think how we developed policies if the incumbent wasn’t overly involved in the appearance or hands-on conservation without the personal touch. Should we be recommending design parameters or should we simply be leaving the house as is? Generally, each incumbent leaves a fingerprint, a personal touch that influences how they turn an official establishment into their family home. It was a whole new game – much the same as if a family with young children moved in now, because the house would have to adapt to accommodate a young family and lots of little sticky fingers – and it hasn’t had to do that for a long time!’

Jane’s favourite part? ‘It personalised politics for me and gave me an appreciation for how much the incumbent and their family have to sacrifice and adapt for life in the public eye. It is very hard to have a personal life when security, contractors and staff are all around, ALL the time. Witnessing the importance of making a place your home, despite all of this, was eye-opening.’ And the funniest moment? ‘Definitely some of the photos in the archives. My favourite was one of Bob Hawke on Boxing Day in his red Speedos, having a BBQ with family and friends on the lawns of The Lodge. I’m not sure that the carefully curated images of our politicians now would allow for that, but they’re great photos!’