The Canberra landmark – once home to former PM Ben Chifley – celebrates its 90th birthday. By Catherine Marshall.

The Second World War was about to end when Joseph Benedict “Ben” Chifley became prime minister of Australia, yet he saw no reason to move from his humble room at Canberra’s Hotel Kurrajong into what was rightfully his official residence, The Lodge.

After all, he’d lived at the Kurrajong while working as a minister in John Curtin’s Labor government. And as the nation’s newly elected postwar PM, he was keen to demonstrate his working-class values. A sophisticated prime ministerial abode, set at a hygienic remove from the electorate, was not for him.

Hotel Kurrajong – known originally as Hostel No. 2 – was designed in 1924 by the Commonwealth’s chief architect, John Smith Murdoch, to accommodate parliamentarians sitting at what is now Old Parliament House. Chifley occupied a second-storey room with a linoleum floor and shared ablutions. 

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But his austere lifestyle wasn’t an affectation: historian Peter Dowling reports that, during the war years, Chifley neglected his meals so often that then prime minister John Curtin issued this mock security rule: One J. B. Chifley shall, while Commonwealth Defence powers prevail, eat one plate of soup, one helping of meat and vegetables and one dessert nightly at the Hotel Kurrajong.

Then and Now: Hotel Kurrajong Canberra

Chifley wouldn’t go hungry if he were to return to the hotel today: beautiful food and wine are plentiful in the New York-style Chifley’s Bar & Grill, nourishing both casual holiday-makers and the suited men and women (lobbyists, politicians?) who gather in the bar and out in the courtyard garden.

The space has undergone a sensitive refurbishment – Art Deco-patterned carpets, mirror-and-tile accents, pops of bright colour and a multiplicity of textures – but beneath it all, Chifley’s old home remains intact. Though a bathroom has been incorporated into his room, now called The Chifley Suite, the floor is still covered in linoleum – a nod to his populist ways.

The hotel, which turns 90 this year, will celebrate its birthday this month with a 1920s-themed party and Chifley himself might well attend. In 1951, he suffered a fatal heart attack in his room and some say his ghost still haunts the Hotel Kurrajong. 

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