Little-loved Lodge to reopen for Malcolm Turnbull after makeover

The official residence of prime ministers in the capital has not appealed to many of the country's leaders.

Bob Hawke enjoyed sunbaking naked on the lawn by his putting green; Paul Keating famously lost a furious fight with the heritage guardians when he wanted to install a $25,000 "Thai teak" – actually mahogany – dining table; prime ministers Ben Chifley, James Scullin and John Howard refused to live there and Tony Abbott never got the chance.

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Unable to sleep, John Curtin paced the grounds of the old residence at all hours, exhausting himself worrying about the course of World War II. Six weeks after Japan surrendered, he died in his bed upstairs, aged 60.

The Lodge, Canberra, has rarely been loved by its inhabitants. It was built in the mid-1920s as a temporary "cottage" for Australian prime ministers until a more suitable place could be constructed, and much of it was devoted to servants' quarters. In the 90 years since, no political leader has had the courage to do much about it, afraid of a voter backlash at the cost.

Prime minister's spouses have tried to put their own touches to it – Harold Holt's wife, Zara, caused a mighty uproar when she had dark wood panelling in the drawing room painted white; Tamie Fraser set up her writing desk in a corridor outside the main bedroom; Annita Keating (now Annita van Iersel) set about a refurnishing project and, short of living space, is said to have leased a separate flat to accommodate the family's wardrobe. Both Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, tall men, required oversized beds, which almost filled the Lodge's somewhat poky bedroom.

Many of the prime ministers' families have consoled themselves with pets. Both Paul Keating and Julia Gillard named their dogs Reuben. Dame Pattie Menzies furiously blamed the Commonwealth police commissioner, Ray Whitrod, for the death of her fluffy white cat after he persuaded her to allow a fierce German shepherd dog to roam the grounds as security.

Dame Pattie Menzies and her daughter Heather walk the grounds of The Lodge in January 1950.

Dame Pattie Menzies and her daughter, Heather, walk the grounds of The Lodge in January 1950. Photo: Fairfax Library

Now the old place has been renovated and its security upgraded, a process that made it uninhabitable for the entire period of Tony Abbott's prime ministership.

The cost? About $9 million.

To put the renovation price in a Canberra context you need only know that the most expensive house in Canberra sold last year for $3.7 million, a seven-bedroom mansion with everything. It was one of only two Canberra residences that went for more than $3 million. Both, much more accommodating than The Lodge, are in Forrest, Canberra's most desirable suburb, in quiet, extremely leafy streets.

A tour of The Lodge with Tamie Fraser in 1979.

A tour of The Lodge with Tamie Fraser in 1979. Photo: P. Pearson

The Lodge sits in Deakin alongside one of Canberra's busiest arteries, Adelaide Avenue, the sound of cars and trucks forever intruding.

Few guests have had to put up with it – The Lodge's dining room has always been too small for much serious entertaining. Foreign dignitaries are usually shuttled off to the vastly grander Governor-General's residence, Yarralumla, which sits by the lake surrounded by more than 40 splendid hectares.

Entertaining – such as the prime minister's Christmas party for the press gallery or a knees-up before the prime minister's annual First XI cricket match – usually involves a marquee on the lawn. Paul Keating wasn't keen on sharing his family's privacy – he ensured no marquee for drinking parties could be erected by having a Californian redwood planted smack in the middle of the lawn, though more glamorous garden parties and fundraisers were held.

John Howard cheers on the Socceroos in the 2006 World Cup. His guests at The Lodge were parliamentary colleagues Gary Nairn, left, and David Fawcett.

John Howard cheers on the Socceroos in the 2006 World Cup. His guests at The Lodge were parliamentary colleagues Gary Nairn, left, and David Fawcett. Photo: Andrew Quilty

John Howard had the redwood removed and the marquee parties returned, though press gallery shindigs appeared endangered one year when a photographer stripped to his underpants and leapt into the pool, earning the disapproval of Janette Howard. The pool was covered the following Christmas.

Though the Howards chose to live in Kirribilli House above Sydney's sparkling harbour, Mr Howard rattled around alone in The Lodge when he was in Canberra for parliamentary business. He sometimes invited favoured journalists over for a lamb roast, followed by a chat while he stirred the open fire in the little drawing room.

Bob Hawke, when he wasn't sunbaking naked, was keen on taking mates upstairs for a game of billiards that often went on until late in the night.

It remains to be learned what the Turnbulls will make of The Lodge. Even with its $9 million makeover, it will be a big step down from their vast waterfront home in Point Piper, Sydney, which is estimated to be worth about $25 million. And their lakeside penthouse apartment in Canberra, worth $2 million or so, has better views and appointments than the poor old Lodge.