Surrounded by fig trees stretching far up in the sky, the white two-story timber building with its detailed veranda stands out to most passers-bye. Known today as The Whitehouse, it is one of the most historically significant buildings on UNSW Kensington campus and keeps a story that most students and staff of UNSW do not know about. We have had a snoop around to find out more about the beloved venue and its past.
The exact opening date of The Whitehouse is unknown; however, several sources trace its beginnings back to the early days of the old Kensington Racecourse, which opened for pony racing in 1893. What we know as The Whitehouse today, was called the Jockey’s House back then; and was used as a space for the jockeys to change and prepare for the races. Together with the surrounding Figtree Theatre and Old Tote, the three buildings were all a part of the old racecourse until it closed in 1942.
During and after the Second World War, from around 1943 to 1948, Australian troops took over The Whitehouse and most of the surrounding buildings for their military operations, followed by The Whitehouse becoming a hostel for migrants coming to Australia after the war, from 1948 to 1950.
When the university – originally known as New South Wales University of Technology – was established in 1949, The Whitehouse and surrounding buildings changed ownership to become a part of the university’s campus not long after. According to an old student, Reg Malone, The Whitehouse was used at the time as the headquarters and military officer training unit for the New South Wales University of Technology Regiment, from 1954 to 1958 – and was painted in a dark chocolate shade.
The next inhabitants we have found is the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) from 1962 to 1988. They used the Old Tote Theatre to house their student productions, which changed name to Fig Tree Theatre in 1987 when it was returned to UNSW. Big names like Mel Gibson and Judy Davis were students at the time and would have walked through The Whitehouse that was used as NIDA’s offices.
Following NIDA, The Whitehouse became the new domain of the Communications Law Centre (CLC); an independent organisation dealing with legal and regulatory issues in media, from 1988 to 2005. With many previous occupants they decided to restore the building before moving in; which is most likely when it got its well-known white exterior back.
When the university decided to disestablish CLC in 2005, The Whitehouse was used in shorts stints first by the university’s Disability Support Services from 2006 to 2008, and then as a site office for Central Lecture Block in 2009.
After renovations in 2010, The Whitehouse re-opened in 2011 as the student-run café and bar that we know is as today. Facilitated by Arc @ UNSW, modern improvements were made to the building while keeping its historical charm, and it quickly became a go-to place for students and staff at UNSW to socialise and enjoy a beverage and a bite, which current Venue Manager Henry Gonzalez testifies to:
“Our customers love coming here because of the old charm and soul that this historical building has. The walls are filled over hundred years of history, and I think that appeals a lot to our audience, especially as other meeting places on campus are so very modern”.
Thank you to UNSW Archives for their help in supplying photos.