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Bill Shorten, Daniel Andrews and Stev Bracks drinking a beer at the John Curtin Hotel
AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The John Curtin Hotel is a home for Melbourne’s musicians, activists and unionists. Shutting it down is a loss for our cultural heritage

News the prominent live music venue The John Curtin Hotel is up for sale, with the current lease expiring at the end of this year, has been met with grief and outrage by the Melbourne music community.

In their announcement on social media, the long-term leaseholders of this much-loved venue said the building had been put up for sale by the estate of the recently deceased former owner and is expected to be sold to developers.

Built in the 1860s and originally trading as The Lygon Hotel, for decades the John Curtin Hotel has been a crucial space for Melbourne’s musicians and as a meeting place for activist, socialist and unionist traditions.

Buildings like this hold a special place in the unofficial heritage of our cities. Its loss would not only be a blow to Melbourne’s current arts and political scene, but also our shared cultural heritage.

This unofficial heritage function of the Curtin, curated by participants in its own cultural and political setting, is difficult to capture – and would be near impossible to reproduce if lost.

A political watering hole

Pushing through its heavy double doors from the noise of Lygon Street, punters at the John Curtin Hotel are immediately met with the smell of beer and the timber and leather of its iconic booths.

Posters of local punk bands are stuck alongside framed portraits of prominent Labor luminaries, including its titular wartime PM.

The sound of musicians thrashing onstage upstairs mixes with the soul and funk records spun by front bar DJs and the conversations of nearby union representatives, students and other activists.

The venue has a “lived-in” feeling: somewhere with character and history close to its working-class roots.

Sitting directly opposite the Victorian Trades Hall – established in 1859 and “the birthplace of organised labour in Australia” – the John Curtin Hotel represents an architectural style typical of inner-urban public houses in the late Victorian era.

In 1887, the Working Men’s College opened close to the hotel, offering night-classes to working class men. To this day, the venue continues to host students and academics from RMIT, serving as a melting pot for musical, intellectual and activist cultures.

Renamed after prime minister John Curtin in 1953, many ALP prime ministers and premiers have shared a pint there, most notably Bob Hawke who used the venue as a de facto office in his early career.

More recently, the Curtin hosted the after party for the “Yes” marriage equality campaign, which was driven by Trades Hall and culminated in a huge street-party between the two venues on the day of the result’s announcement.

A place for musicians to cut their teeth

Climbing the centre staircase to the Curtin’s upstairs bandroom, punters encounter the volume of the performance well before they can see the band.

Entering directly onto the venue’s dance floor in full view of the stage, the bandroom wraps around its stairwell: a wide, L-shaped room, with the stage at its top and the bar off to the side. The venue’s disco ball, DIY lighting and sweaty, dark atmosphere lend it an immediate appeal, and the space is a favourite among local musicians.

Band rooms like this are an important element of the live music circuit, and are hard to replace once gone. Current indie darlings Big Thief played here on their first Australian tour. Local acts like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard cut their teeth at the venue.

One of the few dedicated music venues in Carlton, the Curtin Hotel is that rare small live music space that acts as stepping-stone for local and international up-and-comers, and a social hub for the local music scene.

How we capture cultural memories

Discussions have begun as to whether the Victorian state government, the unions, or a combination of both could step in and buy the freehold outright.

The Curtin Hotel represents much more than its current purpose as a music venue, eatery and drinking hole for those of Melbourne’s political left. Its heritage value lies not just in the building, but in what the building represents: the stories of those who have passed through its doors over the years, from students, musicians and academics, to trade unionists, activists and prime ministers.

The age of the building, its specific layout and modifications that have happened over the years, and its location create a unique character which can only truly be understood in person.

Buildings have a unique role to play in anchoring our cultural memories. As a tangible connection to the past – and a continuing focal point for the communities connected to the site today – the Curtin enables new stories to be told that are grounded in a sense of place.

Memories and histories will remain. New band rooms may emerge. But if the building is lost, the particular embodied experience of the Curtin and its layers of complex past will be lost, too.

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