Wellington City Libraries

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Heritage > Wellington's Architecture & Building Heritage

From the Libraries postcard collection

Government Buildings, Wellington, H. Plimmer, photographer, circa 1910.



The architecture of our city is a reflection of our history over the past 150 years. From simple wooden houses, to streamlined Art Deco housing blocks, to the curves and vibrant colours of post-modern architecture - in Wellington you can find examples of almost every major architectural style of the last 150 years.

Our city is also in a state of continual transition and transformation with different architectural styles coming into and falling out of fashion. Sometimes buildings which were at the cutting edge of design when they were constructed, look tired and dated only two or three decades later. Yet occasionally the same buildings become celebrated as a new generation begins to recognise them for their innovative architecture and heritage values.

Intersection of Lambton Quay, Hunter Street, and Featherston Street, Wellington, with the Mutual Life & Citizens Assurance Company Building. Footnote [1.]

Sometimes this recognition comes too late and it has resulted in our city losing many architectural treasures in the name of "progress". A cry of protest may arise as a developer's plans are revealed, but many buildings have been demolished without being publicly mourned. Some exist only as tantalising images in period photographs - leaving the viewer to wonder how different our city might have looked had they survived.

Some of our buildings may at first glance seem ordinary but on digging a little deeper, layers of social history gradually reveal themselves. Some can only be fully appreciated if they are viewed in context of the era in which they were built - what may seem normal to the point of banality today could have been a revolutionary shift in building design at the time.

At its best, architecture can be seen as public art - always on display for us to enjoy. Like other forms of art, changes in architectural styles can mirror how we have developed as a nation. Early Wellington architecture simply replicated what was happening in Britain and America. Slowly European and 'International' styles were added to the mix and gradually these different forms were adapted to our physical and social environment until a true 'vernacular' style of New Zealand architecture emerged.

Wellington City Libraries has a large and popular collection of material about Wellington's built heritage and architecture. Most of these are located at the Central Library, but branch libraries will have smaller collections of similar material.

Some of the books we have are quite rare or are in heavy demand, so they are only available as reference items on the 2nd floor of the Central library. Please ask at the enquiries desk if you need help in locating any of these resources.

General architectural history books

  • Wellington heritage building inventory 2001 / prepared for Wellington City Council by Boffa Miskell Limited with Chris Cochran
    Ref 720.993141 WEL
    Available only as a reference item, this two-volume set covers the history of over 300 of Wellington's non-residential heritage buildings. Volume 1 covers non-residential buildings scattered throughout Wellington while Volume 2 covers the history and buildings of five different heritage 'precincts' - Allen and Blair Streets, Clyde Quay, Courtenay Place, Cuba Street, and Shelly Bay. It is essential reading and should be the 'first stop' for anyone interested in our architectural heritage.
  • A history of New Zealand architecture / Peter Shaw ; photographs by Robin Morrison & Paul McCredie.
    720.9931 SHA
    Though this work is not specifically about Wellington, many of Wellington's great buildings are included. This book (now into its 3rd edition) is an excellent guide to how our architecture has developed and is a useful in assisting you to recognise the different styles and periods which surround us.
  • New Zealand architecture / by Martin Hill
    720.9931 HIL
    Published for High School students by the Department of Education in 1976, this book offers an excellent introduction to the development of New Zealand architecture. Though it was not specifically about Wellington, as the Schools Publication Branch of the Department of Education was based here, the Capital City seems to feature on almost every page! The emergence of a distinctive NZ style of architecture (termed "the new look") around the time this book was published means that this particular period is well examined.

Lambton Quay looking South, ca 1920 - 1925. Footnote [2.]

Victorian and Edwardian Era

Most of us think of this period when we hear the term "heritage building". As there was little quality building stone available in Wellington, almost all early-mid Victorian structures were built of wood. As such, relatively few of these buildings have survived in Wellington - unlike in Canterbury and Otago where stone was widely used. The bulk of our surviving buildings from this period were built after 1890 when concrete emerged as a 'new' permanent building material which could emulate the structural and aesthetic qualities of stone. The arrival of concrete also coincided with the end of the 1880's depression and a period of economic and population growth which was to continue through the Edwardian period until World War I.


Victorian & Edwardian era books

Old St Paul's:

Old St Paul's has become one of Wellington's most loved and studied buildings. The centre of Anglican worship in Wellington for 98 years, it is no longer used as a parish church, but is still in regular use for weddings, funerals, and concerts. Though it may seem extraordinary today, the wooden building came very close to being demolished in the early 1960s to make way for an office block. The building was finally offered to the Government in 1966 and restored. It is now recognised as a landmark in the history of heritage conservation in New Zealand.

(All the books below are classified at 726.65.)

General Victorian & Edwardian books:

  • Wellington through a Victorian lens / by William Main.
    779 MAI
    This is a wonderfully evocative book with many stunning photographs. It gives a very good impression of how inner-city Wellington looked until the turn of last century.
  • Styles of Sham and Genuine Simplicity : Timber Buildings in Wellington to the 1880s, by Chris Cochran, in The Making of Wellington, 1800-1914 / edited by David Hamer and Roberta Nicholls
    992.141 MAK
    Contained within a book of collected essays on the history of early Wellington, this academic 'paper' describes in fascinating detail the period when timber was the primary material used for inner-city buildings until its replacement by masonry in the late 19th century.
  • Four cottages : Newsletter / New Zealand Historic Places Trust. v. 2 no. 3
    728.37 FOU
    Describes and gives the history of four of the oldest surviving houses in Wellington - the Nairn Street cottage, the Spinks cottage, the Waiora cottage, and the Pilot's cottage.
  • Wellington's old buildings : a photographic guide to old buildings in central Wellington / David Kernohan with the assistance of Marilyn McHaffie and Jim Gard'ner ; photographs by Tony Kellaway ; sketches by John Gray.
    720.993141 KER
    Written by a former lecturer in architecture at Victoria University, this 'pocket' guide is a great introduction to many of the older buildings in the central city. It would be an ideal tool to assist you in a self-guided walking tour. Many of the buildings in the guide have been restored since it was published in 1994 - a reflection of our changing attitude to heritage buildings.
  • Early Wellington churches / Charles Fearnley ; edited by Julie Bremner.
    726 FEA
    Charles Fearnley (1915 - 198?) was a Wellington based architect, photographer, and writer. He was also a pioneer in recognising the importance of Wellington's architectural heritage long before it was fashionable to do so. This book is a fascinating and well researched study into some of Wellington's most loved churches including Old St Paul's, St John's and St Peter's on Willis Street and the Crematorium Chapel at Kaori Cemetery.
  • Vintage Wellington; photographs of the earlier buildings of Wellington, by Charles Fearnley
    720.993141 FEA
    Published in 1970, this book is based around a collection of photographs taken by the author over a decade. Unlike many other photographers, Fearnley made the effort to go beyond the usual familiar 'picture postcard' scenes and to photograph the old working-class and industrial areas of Wellington. It is a remarkable document which shows just how much of old Wellington survived until relatively recent times - but also how much we have lost since then.
  • The New Zealand Government Buildings past and future / written by Michael Kelly ; photography by Tony Kellaway
    725.11 KEL
    Michael Kelly is one of New Zealand's best known architectural historians and in this book he details some of the transformations which this important heritage building has undergone over the decades. Once run-down and disused after years of Government Department use, this piece of NZ architectural heritage (one of the largest wooden buildings in the world) was restored back to its former glory in a massive project managed by the Department of Conservation in the mid-1990s.
  • Cityscapes / David McGill, Grant Tilly
    720.993141 MACG
    A series of 22 'vignettes' of elderly buildings which were originally published in the Evening Post in the mid 1970s. Rather than offering a simple architectural analysis, David McGill gives a potted social history of the buildings. If buildings could talk - these are the sort of stories they would tell. Accompanying the text is a series of beautifully executed 'pen and ink' drawings by the renowned actor, Grant Tilly. Sadly many of these buildings have now been demolished.

Art Deco and Interwar period

Prudential Assurance building, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Footnote [3.]

World War I was to dramatically alter the social, political, and cultural order of the world. In turn this influenced what was happening in the fields of art and design and was to have an important effect on the development of new architectural styles in New Zealand. Following the 1930s depression the Government began to emerge as a major instigator of new large-scale building projects. Innovative Art Deco design concepts started to arrive from the United States (the most famous local example being the buildings designed for the 1939-40 Centennial Exhibition held at Rongotai) though these were primarily concerned with appearance and aesthetics rather than structure or engineering.


Art Deco & Interwar period books

  • Heritage trail : art deco : Wellington's 1930s buildings / [author: Michael Kelly].
    919.3141 KEL
    Though primarily written to assist you in a self-guided tour of Wellington Art Deco heritage, it offers a good general history to the rise of this distinctive architectural style in the capital. An updated edition was published in 2004.
  • Zeal and crusade : the modern movement in Wellington / edited by John Wilson.
    720.9931 ZEA
    This series of collected essays is one of the best introductions to the rise of modernism and the 'International Style' in Wellington. Though it covers both the pre and post-war periods, the 1930s through to the end of WWII is particularly well covered with chapters on the Centennial Exhibition buildings, the State Fire Insurance building (now the Wellington headquarters Te Puni Kokiri), and two of the Department of Housing's largest and most important projects - the Berhampore and Dixon Street Flats.
  • Wellington Railway Station, New Zealand / New Zealand Railways.
    Published in 1938 to commemorate the completion of one of the largest buildings constructed in New Zealand during the 1930s, this guide shows just how little of this landmark structure has changed over the years.
  • New Zealand Displayed : Anscombe's Exhibition Design, by William Toomath & Maori Buildings for the Centennial, by Bernard Kernot, in Creating a national spirit : celebrating New Zealand's centennial / edited by William Renwick.
    993.1 CRE
    Two 'papers' from a fascinating collection of essays looking at the history of the 1939-1940 Centennial Exhibition. The first essay examines the stunning architectural forms created by one of New Zealand's greatest Art Deco architects, Edmund Anscombe. The second examines the development of the buildings and carvings that made up the "Maori Court" at the exhibition and how they were viewed by Pakeha and Maori.

Postwar period, Modernism and the rise of the Vernacular

Photographic montage of proposed design by Ernst Plischke of Massey House, Lambton Quay, c.1951. Footnote [4.]

As we develop as a nation, we have started to recognise our heritage buildings 'young'. Some may be confused when the term "heritage building" is applied to what many might perceive to be a relatively new structure. However by recognising of some of our new landmark buildings earlier, we can be better assured that future generations will be able to enjoy them as we do today.


Postwar and modern architecture books


  1. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Permission must be obtained before any re-use of this image. Reference number: 1/1-018110; G. back
  2. From the Wellington City Libraries Postcard Collection. back
  3. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Permission must be obtained before any re-use of this image. Reference number: 1/1-015619; F. back
  4. Private collection. Not to be reproduced. back

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