A key element of the Kingston Hotel's uniqueness is that it is a traditional Australian pub in a territory where even now there are few establishments which could make that claim and pass the 'pub test'. The ACT licensing scene has always differed from the states as it has a thriving club culture (many having roots in migrant communities and sporting groups) and more recently night clubs and hipster craft beer and cocktail bars. Visitors often lament the lack of 'real' pubs.
Both the Kingston and Civic hotels were Toohey's hotels. They were privately owned and purpose built primarily as drinking establishments in the form of a traditional Australian pub.
The Kingston Hotel's architects were Messrs Scott, Green and Scott and Canberra architects Messrs Malcolm Moir and J.A.V. Nisbett. Alex Spears and Sons Ltd. of Sydney built the hotel for Tooheys Limited during 1935/36. Moir and his second wife Heather Sutherland designed many buildings in Canberra, including the nearby Capitol Theatre in Manuka, which they also managed.
Contemporary newspaper articles described the original hotel in detail.
Some notable features at the time were:
- Built on an X design, aimed at providing the maximum amount of sunlight for each bedroom
- All bedrooms had central heating and hot and cold water
- A new type of thermostatically controlled beer cooler
- The blue tiled roof was a much admired landmark
The bricks used to construct the Kingo were at the time unique in the Federal Capital Territory. When the Canberra Brickworks resumed production in about 1934 its manager, Sid Oldfield experimented successfully with the production of light coloured bricks. In 1935 he won the Toohey's contract for the production of 300,000 cream-coloured bricks for their new hotels in Kingston and Civic.
Architects thought this colour was very suitable for buildings in Canberra because the reddish-brown colour of the ground caused structures of dark shades (the ubiquitous red bricks) to merge completely into the background. The use of cream-coloured bricks in the construction of the Kingston Hotel was a first for Canberra and set a precedent for many more buildings.
Extensions and improvements
Once the hotel opened patronage quickly boomed and the hotel needed extending. The first extension to the hotel was around late 1939 or early 1940 when an additional two-storey wing was added on the western side - in the same style as the original building. Extensive renovations were carried out in the early 1950s, including extending some of the wings. The drive-in bottle shop was built in 1962. Major renovations were carried out after Tooheys sold the hotel in 1982. These renovations resulted in the hotel broadly as it is today.
The Kingston Hotel offered a range of innovative dining facilities long before restaurants and outdoor cafés became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. These included outdoor beer gardens, Emma's Bistro, the West China Restaurant, and the ground-breaking Maddies Nightclub. The Maddies name lives on as the bistro. Since the 1990s, one of the Kingo's greatest claims to fame has been the steak bar with its indoor barbecue and extensive wine list.
The use of cream-coloured bricks in the construction of the Kingston Hotel was a first for Canberra and set a precedent for many more buildings.
Pubs are great gathering places and the Kingo is no exception. It is well known as a place where people from diverse walks of life meet and mingle. In its early days the Kingo was strongly patronised in the cold winter months because it was one of the few Canberra public buildings with central heating, not found in any Canberra housing at the time.
Queen Elizabeth II visited Canberra from February 13-18, 1954 as part of her first visit to Australia. Those dignitaries accommodated at the Kingston Hotel during her visit included the Director General of Aviation, Air Marshall Sir Richard Williams and Lady Williams, and Bishop Strong, an Englishman who was Bishop of New Guinea.
Many social and business contacts were made for at the Kingo. Patrons and those attending meetings at the Kingo in the early 1950s make up almost a who's who of local builders and traders, with a wide range of business and community interests. Various business and community groups held their regular committee meetings at the Kingo, such as the Kingston Traders Association and the Federal Golf Club.
Dances were popular fund-raising events. In the 1950s, the Junior Chamber of Commerce and pre-school associations were among many groups that organised dances.
Well-known guests added variety and included the internationally famous Austrian opera tenor, Richard Tauber, and the political journalist, Reg Leonard. Visiting cricket teams, including in the 1950s the Prime Minister's XI, stayed or dined at the Kingo.
The hotel has had a long association with the press. Journalist Peter Luck wrote in 1966:
"It is to the public bar of the Kingston Hotel, always called the 'Kingo', that pressmen are called by trade unionists to hear 'insider stories'. Industrial coups and countercoups are plotted here with fingers in pools of beer."
A very special celebration of a nationally important event was held recently when members of the ALP celebrated the passing by federal parliament of same sex marriage legislation. The ACT Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, sent an Instagram picture of federal shadow minister Penny Wong and himself celebrating the historic event.
This is part 2 of a three-part series on the Kingston Hotel. Next time: the Petrov Affair and the 36 Faceless Men.
- Nick Swain is president of the Canberra & District Historical Society. For information about the group or to join, visit canberrahistory.org.au The society's nomination of the Kingo to the ACT Heritage List is currently being considered.
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