Prime real estate
Some prime ministerial homes remain suspended in time, preserved as domestic wunderkammer, cabinets of curiosity that put on display the interplay between the thrum of power and the banality of everyday existence. But only a select few are captured for posterity; most are handed on like any other home, sold to the highest bidder, renovated, remodelled, and enjoyed by generations of families to come.
Joseph Lyons holds the dual honours of being Tasmania’s only PM, and the only PM to have two homes protected, preserved and open to the public as historical sites. Both are situated on the rugged Northern Coast of Tasmania: his birthplace, a mossy cottage at the foot of a rocky shoulder in Stanley, and Home Hill, the Devonport family home he made with his wife, who later became Senator Enid Lyons.
In the NSW central highlands town of Bathurst, famous for its eponymous V8 rally, another landmark holds its own in the regional tourism stakes: Ben Chifley’s Busby Street home, a public education centre rich with the ephemera and phantom pipe-smoke of a domestic life that spanned two wars and a great depression.
Nearly 4000 kilometres away, across the continent at Cottesloe Beach in Perth, Chifley’s predecessor and close confidant, John Curtin lived with his wife Elsie and children in a small bungalow a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean. Unlike the other prime ministerial homes, the Curtin Family Home – operated by the National Trust – offers some modern amenities, and you can even rent it out as a uniquely historical holiday house.
So what accounts for the varied fates of prime ministers’ homes - why are some preserved while others resume their anonymity, or even disappear?
Looking at the three PMs whose homes we have held onto, some similarities emerge. All three were incredibly popular with the electorate; all three were portrayed and remembered as stoic custodians in times of great upheaval – the depression, the war and the postwar reconstruction respectively; and all three were known for their approachability and common touch. These prime ministers were connected to their communities and it is those communities who have led the drive to preserve these prime ministerial homes as a reminder that the greatest leaders are those most in touch with their constituents’ daily, ordinary lives.
On the other hand, some historical homes don’t seem to make the grade, even when the abovementioned qualities are evident. Gough Whitlam’s birthplace, Ngara, in Melbourne’s inner-eastern suburb of Kew, was the subject of a major controversy in October 2014 when demolition works began despite objections from local residents. The Napthine government intervened with an interim protection order the day after Whitlam passed away, and several days after demolition had already begun. Interestingly, two neighbours’ homes in Kew – Robert Menzies’ and Billy Hughes’ – have been granted heritage protection.
Lyons, Curtin and Chifley all died quite suddenly, and were deeply mourned by their colleagues and the Australian public. Lyons and Curtin both died in office, and Chifley suffered a heart attack at the Kurrajong Hotel only a year and a half after his term as Prime Minister. Perhaps the reason behind the sudden interest in Whitlam’s birthplace in the weeks following his death is the same reason behind the preservation of these three Prime Ministers’ homes: an unwillingness to let go of whatever big ideas these leaders signified as public figures, or a desire to memorialise them, or both.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we haven’t converted any leaders’ houses to public institutions in recent memory – PMs in the 21st Century enjoy a longevity not afforded to the calamity-afflicted leaders of yesteryear. Julia Gillard’s Altona North home perhaps comes closest to a contemporary example. It was recently sold to the Wang family, a clan of Gillard supporters who have begun their own modest and private family museum replete with signed photographs, replica furniture and even a pair of prime ministerial ugg boots.
Other prime ministerial homes are also venturing onto the market. Edmund Barton’s Balgowlah estate, Calahla (now known as Whitehall), was recently sold, with an asking price of $3.3 million. Kevin Rudd’s colonial Queenslander in inner-Brisbane’s leafy Norman Park has also recently been up for sale.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the National Trust takes the conservation of Winston Churchill’s country home, Chartwell, so seriously that they have faithfully honoured his dying wish: to have a marmalade cat named ‘Jock’ permanently in residence, a kind of feline Doctor Who. Jock VI was recently adopted at Chartwell, last in the succession since Churchill’s death in 1966. Perhaps one day, many years from now when all of our sauce bottles have been shaken dry, the yet-to-be-established Rudd-Rein Family Home Museum will likewise keep Jasper and Abbey’s spirits alive.