The House of Representatives is closed. Learn more

Through the ashes: The doors of Old Parliament House

  • Written byNina Enever
  • DateTue, 22 Feb 2022

On an abnormally cold morning in early February, a removal van pulls up at Old Parliament House.


Firefighters assess damage following the blaze at Old Parliament House on December 30 2021. Image: AAP

First Nations readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.

Following weeks of active protest activity, this could have prompted an immediate and urgent police response, or at least a stern eye from security staff.  But today, those who exited the van had come to restore. 

From the van, the conservation team emerge. They carry specialist tools, black protective gloves and rolls of foam wrap. They carry their equipment through the main museum to the front doors, past empty rooms and silent exhibitions. They set down their gear and take in the job before them. 

More than a century ago, a jarrah tree stood tall in the forests of south-west Western Australia. Along with its brothers, it was felled, transported, and cut into boards. These boards then lay in a timberyard, waiting. Soon enough, they were selected and shipped to a Sydney workshop. They were measured, cut, and stacked in four layers. Windows were installed, then brass handles and push panels were added. Decorative beading was fitted around the perimeter. They were sealed, varnished and polished to gleaming red-brown before being transported to Canberra. There, for decades to come, they would serve proudly as the front doors to Australia’s Parliament.  

The centrepiece of Parliament House  

The front doors of Old Parliament House were designed in 1924 by Commonwealth Chief Architect, John Smith Murdoch.  

Western Australian jarrah was chosen for the doors due to its weather resistance. Even in the 1920s, Canberra was known as a city of extremes, with icy winters and scorching summers requiring buildings that could endure all conditions.  

Jarrah’s density makes it naturally fire-resistant. Though Mr Murdoch didn’t know it at the time, his choice of wood would later help protect the building from being engulfed by flames some 95 years later. 

The doors were originally manufactured and installed by H & E Sidgreaves Ltd, a family business operating out of a busy studio in Redfern, Sydney.  

Brand new and shining red-brown in 1927, the front doors stood proudly as the Duke and Duchess of York officially opened the Provisional Parliament House. Dame Nellie Melba heralded their first official opening with ‘God Save the King’ delivered in her signature operatic soprano.  

Nellie Melba opening Old Parliament House

Dame Nellie Melba sings God Save the King at the Parliament House opening ceremony, 9 May 1927. Image: National Library of Australia

That same day, the first of many politicians to enter those front doors would participate in the first parliamentary sitting to take place in the brand-new Parliament House.

Soon after the conservators arrive, journalists follow. They have come to capture a historic moment: the complete removal of the doors of Old Parliament House. Camera operators and reporters jostle for the best view, microphones and cameras poised for action. There is a sense of excited uncertainty in the air. No one speaks as the conservators begin to unscrew the hinges.  

Image description

Dorothy Tangney and Enid Lyons walk through the doors of Parliament House in 1943 as its first female politicians. Image: Australian War Memorial

If doors had eyes 

Since their installation, the doors have witnessed countless historic events, with consequences that have rippled throughout the decades and continue to shape our nation today. 

Throughout World War II, members of Robert Menzies’ War Cabinet would filter in and out of the front doors after meetings that extended into the early hours. 

In 1943, they swung wide open to welcome the first women elected to Federal Parliament, Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney.  

The doors were treated to a thorough clean and polish in 1954 ahead of Queen Elizabeth II’s first royal tour of Australia. Photographs from the day show the Queen in her coronation gown ascending the front steps towards the doors.

In 1971, Neville Bonner made history when he walked through the doors as Australia’s first Indigenous Federal Parliamentarian. Bonner’s debut came less than 10 years after Indigenous Australians were granted the right to vote. 

Just a year later in 1972, four men wedged a beach umbrella into the Parkes Place lawn directly opposite the so-called 'Provisional' Parliament House. Over five decades, the doors would watch as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy became the world’s longest-running protest for Indigenous land rights.  

In 1975, along with the rest of Australia, the doors looked on as Gough Whitlam delivered his now-iconic dismissal speech from the front steps.  

By the 1980s, this Provisional Parliament House was host to almost 2,000 into a building designed for a few hundred. Construction of the new and permanent Parliament House was completed in 1988. In June that year, the doors closed on the last parliamentary session to be held at what is now known as Australia’s Old Parliament House. 

Slowly at first, then all at once, the doors are off. No one breathes as the slabs of burnt jarrah carefully shrouded in sheets of protective wrap, leaving shadows of ash on the conservators’ gloves. The doors, unrecognisable in their moving wrap are placed onto a heavy-duty cargo trolley and wheeled through the silent museum to the plain white van waiting outside. The only clue that a historic moment is taking place is the presence of news cameras filming the van as it drives away, on the road from Canberra to Sydney.  

Gough Whitlam

Gough Whitlam addresses the media at the main entrance to Old Parliament House after his dismissal in 1975. Image: National Museum Australia

A new purpose for Old Parliament House 

But these doors were not designed to be closed. Starting with early drafts, the Provisional Parliament House was envisioned as open space for citizens and leaders alike to meet, discuss and debate.

Bob Hawke opens MoAD

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke officially opens the Museum of Australian Democracy on May 9, 2009. Image: MoAD

After a decades-long debate over the building’s purpose, the doors to Old Parliament House would be thrown open once again in 2009 at the opening of the Museum of Australian Democracy. Visitors were free to enter not just the front doors, but to explore the Prime Minister’s office or parliamentary chambers. 

Damaged doors Lean Timms

The front doors at Old Parliament House await repair in January 2022, following devastating fire damage. Image: Lean Timms

At the end of 2021, there was a fire at the entrance to Old Parliament House. The fire quickly spread to the portico, front steps and doors, causing major damage throughout the museum. The portico was completely destroyed and at first inspection, many considered the doors to have met the same fate. As the smoke dissipated, it became clear that the doors remained at their post. They were blackened and scorched with gaping wounds instead of windows, but still standing tall.   

Repairing near century old doors is not a simple task. No quick lick of paint or spritz of superglue will fix the damage done in December. The most crucial step of the long path to restoration is taking precise measurements of the remains of the doors. This will undoubtedly prove extremely difficult, as the doors are only partially intact.  

From the ashes…  

The key to the doors’ survival lies in their design. The front doors were originally created not from a single solid piece of wood, but from four separate layers laminated together. It was this artful construction that ultimately saved the doors from being completely burnt away on December 30, 2021. The outermost layer that has looked out towards Mt Ainslie for over 90 years acted as a sacrifice, burning away almost entirely but protecting the layers concealed safely behind it. 

Though initially thought lost forever, the brass doorknobs and push panels were excavated from the ashes. These fittings are damaged but not unsalvageable. The doors will need new glass, new decorative finishings and a new top layer of wood. But the original jarrah core will remain.

Doorknobs Alex Ellinghausen

The blackened jarrah and charred bronze of the front doors of Old Parliament House. Image: Alex Ellinghausen

A further challenge is sourcing similarly aged wood to replace what has been reduced to ashes. Jarrah is not a rare variety of timber, but jarrah from the 1920s may be more challenging to locate. Affixing brand new wood to the remaining panels would eventually result in distortion as the layers age at different rates. 

It is unclear what other difficulties conservators will face as they continue the restoration of this historic object.  

…a new beginning 

Today, almost 100 years after their construction, the doors find themselves in another Sydney workshop. Once again, they lie in wait.  

For now, Old Parliament House is fronted by scaffolding. A metal barrier has been installed where the doors stood guard for almost 100 years. For doors that have seen so much history already, this chapter will one day be part of their story.

Doug Rogan Alex Ellinghausen

Doug Rogan from International Conservation Services wraps a door for transport. Image: Alex Ellinghausen


Nina Enever was the Senior Media and Communications Officer at MoAD.