It's arguably our city's most admired building. Opened in 1927 as Australia's provisional Parliament House, the "wedding cake", as it is often referred to, ended up being our nation's seat of power for more than 60 years before the politicians moved up to their bigger and less intimate behemoth on Capital Hill.
Prime Minister's peephole
Down the rabit warren of corridors that lead to the old prime minister's suite are a number of well-preserved and very cramped 1970s-style offices. Hidden in the wall of one of these, the office which belonged to the PM's principal private secretary, is a spy hole into the PM's office.
There are stories that Bob Hawke, our last PM to occupy this less than luxurious office, would cover up his side of the hole (hidden in the bookshelf so his official visitors couldn't see it) when he didn't want his staffers to know what he was up to. Maxwell Smart, eat your heart out.
On the main floor of the house behind the Senate Chamber is a door with the number M43 stamped on it. From the outside this door looks like all the others in the house. However, it's actually a false door, which when opened leads to a large walk-in safe.
After 12 years of being locked up (apparently no one could find the key), in 2000, staff finally decided it was time to crack open the secret safe. Amid much anticipation, while a locksmith picked the lock, a small number of select OPH staff gathered around to see what it might contain.
Secret documents? Not quite. It was an anti-climax as the safe only contained two boxes – one containing a pile of Christmas decorations and the other, somewhat ironically, full of red tape.
Politicians aren't immune to being called names, some being labelled with less endearing monikers than others.
For example, Wilson "Iron Bar" Tuckey (member 1980-2010) was so-named after being convicted of assault after striking a man with a length of steel cable while a publican in Western Australia in 1967. And how could you forget Kim "Bomber" Beazley, so-named after his boyish enthusiasm for military hardware.
Two people who worked in OPH who probably thought their nicknames would remain secret to the public were Bob Hawke's two official drivers from the mid-1980s. However, if you look closely above the leather bench waiting area where the drivers sat when on call, you'll notice a pigeon hole still marked with a typed sticker divulging their nicknames – "Precious" and "Gorgeous".
Oh, how cute. I'm yet to unearth the drivers' real names. If they are still in Canberra, I'd love to hear from them, anonymity not assured.
Hidden hidey hole
One politician better known for his nickname than his real name was Jack McEwen (PM, 1967) who was coined "Black Jack" by Robert Menzies (PM 1939-41 and 1949-66) for his dark and sombre personality.
To avoid his political adversaries, especially his arch rival William McMahon (PM, 1971-72), "Black Jack", when deputy prime minister, apparently took matters into his own hands and arranged for a secret door to be installed into a cupboard where he could hide.
According to political lore, if "Black Jack" didn't want to see someone, he would simply ask his staff to report, "Sorry he's not in the office" and then he'd surreptitiously sneak into the bolthole which also had a hidden exit into Kings Hall. The bolthole is still there (but access from his old office is now bricked in) and is now used by maintenance staff to store cleaning products.
Apart from the politicians, OPH's other main occupants were the press who worked in poky offices on the building's roof.
Always in search of a scoop, the press developed their own hidey holes from where to spy on politicians. During renovations undertaken post-1988 that involved the removal of some of the press offices located on the roof, a false cavity was found in the ceiling of the leader of the opposition's office.
Inside the hiding hole, a small table with legs sawn off, a couple of chairs and a number of broken audio cassettes were also discovered. Some believe it may have been used by the press (or others?) to covertly listen in to the deliberations in the office.
The office, last used by John Howard, is located in the corridor behind the House of Representatives Chamber and is open to the public.
Not surprisingly, another room allegedly bugged through the ceiling was the Cabinet Room, a sound-proof stronghold where decisions of the highest level were made.
On an overnight investigation of the building in 2007, several ghost investigators fled from this room's inner sanctum after being spooked by lights from an unknown source. Were they the ghosts of politicians past, or maybe the spirits of jilted journos still trying to get that scoop?
Interestingly, the corridor outside the office is to this day avoided by some security guards, who in the dead of the night, hear the sound of phantom shuffling feet on the carpet.
Some members of the press had less technical, but just as innovative, ways to discover government secrets, such as journalist Alan Reid who apparently would conceal himself in in the toilet block adjacent to the Cabinet Room, waiting for ministers to answer a call of nature.
Long-time doyen of the Press Gallery, Laurie Oakes, wrote in The Herald Sun in 2007, "Reid … would settle himself in a cubicle, lift his legs up out of sight, and sit there for hours listening and making notes".
Talk about politics being a dirty business.
Contrary to popular folklore, there are no secret tunnels beneath OPH linking it to The Lodge, the PMs official residence.
A possible source for this myth is that OPH did have a system of tunnels of sorts – not for people but for documents. There was a network of lamson tubes within OPH, including one tube that led three kilometres away to the Government Printing Office in Kingston.
The tubes enabled the rapid carriage of documents, including Hansard, with either compressed air or suction/vacuum.You can still see the tube stations at the entrance to both the chambers.
If you stand in the centre of the grand Kings Hall and look towards the main entrance, just above the top of the stairwell there's a blank cartouche, with six tassels at the centre of the clerestory windows.
It's appearance, which this column reported in 2011 vaguely resembles a freemason's apron, has led to speculation that the building's architect, John Smith Murdoch, a member of the Masonic order, included the feature as a lasting symbol of his key role in the development of the building.
However, plans for the building held by the National Archives of Australia indicate that Murdoch's original design allowed for the coat of arms of Australia to be etched into this cartouche, and was to overlook a giant map of Australia at the other end of the hall. This could explain the six tassels (representing the six states).
However, a late change in plans resulted in the map being replaced with a statue of King George V. Some believe that it would have been inappropriate for the coat of arms to be "looking down" on the statue of our ruling monarch and so the cartouche was never completed.
Politicians and the press aren't the only people whose work took them inside the hallowed halls of OPH. Senior public servants were often called upon to sit in on meetings or clarify advice provided.
One career bureaucrat who spent many hours in OPH was Treasury Official David Borthwick. Borthwick, now retired, especially remembers one late-night meeting in the mid-1980s where he plucked up enough courage to interrupt Expenditure Review Committee deliberations chaired by Bob Hawke, prime minister at the time.
"I could see that they were going to make what I thought was a wrong decision based on incorrect information," he recalls. "So I decided to speak up." As Borthwick spoke, he saw Paul Keating, the then treasurer, "gripping the edge of the table and his knuckles going very white".
Borthwick recalls, "At that stage I started breaking out in perspiration and not looking at him. About 15 minutes later Keating asked to see me outside.
"Keating got me in the corridor and my back was against the wall, pressed against this water heater and he stood about half a metre from me and let fly with his typically colourful Keating language," says Borthwick. "Keating knew what was being decided was wrong, but he was setting a trap to spring on his colleagues and I'd prematurely sprung it."
Talk about getting "into hot water".
Top-Secret Tour: If you want to discover more secrets of Old Parliament House, join one of my After Dark Tours. Launching on Thursday April 26 as part of the Canberra & Region Heritage Festival and then monthly until September. $59pp, bookings essential: www.moadoph.gov.au/events/top-secret-tour/
Did You Know? When prime minister Malcolm Fraser apparently requested bullet-proof screens be removed from the windows of his office so he could open the windows (which overlook a public road and carpark) to let in more fresh air. How times have changed.
Got a tip? If you have a closely-guarded secret about this Canberra landmark and want to get it off your chest, please let me know. email@example.com or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.
WHERE IN THE REGION?
Clue: This town is just as well known for its historic "wind" mill as for its out-of-place elephant.
Degree of difficulty: Easy - Medium
Congratulations to Alice Scott of Wamboin who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo, sent in by John M. Chapuis as the old pay phone area at the small retail complex just off Fraser Road, at the Royal Military College, Duntroon.
Scott just beat David Hanzl to the prize. Hanzl remembers "using those phones back in the late 1980s as a staff cadet," adding, the area is "now sadly bricked up as virtually no one uses fixed phones anymore".
The clue related to the so-called "Seven Wonders of Duntroon", a number of curious features scattered around the college, including a bell that never tolls (a relic from the days when the Campbell family ran the Duntroon Estate as a farm) and a set of stairs that lead to nowhere (according to local legend, any cadet who uses the stairs won't graduate).
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday April 21, 2018 will win a double pass to Dendy.