Wellington architecture #3 – the evolution of Parliament.

When New Zealand’s capital, or Seat of Government as it was known then, moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1865 Parliament’s “House of Assembly” moved in to the existing Provincial Council Chambers.

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Photo: ATL – Swan, George Henry, 1833-1913. Provincial Council building, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-003739-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22494909

It was a convenient place to start but obviously not big enough. Additions to accommodate debating chambers for Upper and Lower Houses, committee rooms, the members’ restaurant (very important) and offices were added in stages until the original became part of a much bigger complex.

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Photo: ATL – Parliament Buildings, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-011625-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22795018

Restricted by Sydney Street on the left and Hill Street on the right, architects had to build over the back yard. Twenty years later, the side view from Sydney Street looked like a Gothic fantasy castle made in wood.

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In the 1890s, when the overflowing Parliamentary library demanded a new fireproof home, architect Thomas Turnbull went full circle and put his masonry extension in front of the original Provincial Council Chamber.

Pre 1907 postcard image of Parliament Buildings, Wellington.

It should have been a three storey building but political bickering over cost saw it redesigned by the Government’s architect with two storeys. Turnbull resigned from the project and asked for his name to be removed from the foundation stone. Fortunately, fireproof rooms and doors remained part of the design, despite budget cuts.

Parliament fire

On 11th December 1907, the tinder-dry wooden buildings burned down. The library and most of its contents survived, was rebuilt, and can still be seen today.

Parl library

The destruction of everything else disrupted Parliament for years to come and brought about a dramatic change in the landscape. The Governor abandoned his official residence, Government House (see previous post), and it became a “temporary” House of Assembly. An architectural competition for a new building was won by John Campbell – the Government’s own architect – with a grandiose design. The shallow gully that was Sydney Street was filled in and the site levelled to accomodate it. Construction began in 1912. And then came the Great War.

Work dragged on despite the lack of manpower available but when the war ended enthusiasm waned. An already small population had been decimated by conflict and the Spanish flu pandemic, materials became difficult to source, and the country was short of funds – again. Construction stopped in 1922 when the new House of Assembly was literally half the building it was meant to be. It has never been completed.

Parliament buildings, Wellington, New Zealand.

The building you see today is only half of the original concept, which is why the entrance steps are at the left instead of in the centre. The “Beehive” Executive Wing was added in the late 1960s to make a bold statement about “modern” New Zealand.

Whether or not you think these buildings “work” together is a matter of personal taste, but they have their own story to tell and represent three distinct periods in the architectural history of Wellington.

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Wellington architecture #2

From the Cyclopedia of New Zealand.

Government House, Wellington, is built on one of the most favoured sites in the City. The location is immediately between the Houses of Parliament, where the laws are made, and the Government Buildings [previous post], where they are administered. The grounds have an area of about six-and-a-half acres….. The House itself is a two-story edifice in the Italian style, 165 feet in length, and slightly less in depth, the top of the tower being eighty feet above the ground level.

Vintage postcard image of Old Government House, Wellington.

Government House up till 1868 was a very unpretentious affair, and only remarkable from other humble buildings of those days by the flagstaff and the two guns in front. Originally erected for and occupied by Colonel Wakefield, of the New Zealand Company, it became the first Government House on the removal of the Administration of the Colony [from Auckland] to Wellington [in 1865].

The present building was completed in 1871, and contains two spacious drawing rooms, which open out into each other, a dining-room, a ballroom, a billiard-room and conservatory, together with a full suite of offices for the Governor and his staff, and the Executive Council. There are upwards of twenty bedrooms, and the servants’ quarters are commodious, and arranged with all the conveniences modern ideas of comfort suggest. Ventilation has had due attention paid to it through-out, and gas and electricity are both laid on.

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An imposing view of Government House with shops on Lambton Quay in the foreground.

The stables are situated at the south-west corner of the grounds, and are built with loose-boxes ten feet square, brick floored, and with every convenience for feed, water, etc., for ten horses. There are two coachhouses, in which are kept five carriages, and adjoining are the cottages for the accommodation of the grooms and gardeners.

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This rear view taken in the 1870s shows Government House and grounds in the centre with part of the Parliament Buildings at left. A gate from Hill Street (foreground) leads down to Sydney Street. The stables are on the corner.

The out-of-door staff consists of two coachmen, and three gardeners. There is also a lodge at the main entrance, where a bombardier and three privates of the Permanent Artillery are constantly on duty, one being always on guard, and the squad being relieved at 9 a.m. every morning; there are also three of the same force always in attendance at Government House itself, one attending at the door, and the other two acting as messengers. The domestic servants consist of four employed in the kitchen, three housemaids, one schoolroom maid, two ladies’ maids, one butler, and a man and boy for odd jobs. The laundry is occupied by one of the permanent force who is employed on duty at the House.
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1897. [abridged]

Govt reserve

This photograph, copied from an old postcard, was taken sometime before 1897. Government House, at left, and the Parliament Buildings, right, are separated by the tree-lined Sydney Street, which no longer exists. I’ll explain why in my next post. The church tower in the background belongs to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Hill Street.

This fine old building lasted until 1968, by which time it hadn’t been used as a Governor’s residence for decades and was in very poor condition. It was demolished to make way for the new Executive Wing of Parliament, a controversial design by Sir Basil Spence, and a building more commonly known as the Beehive for obvious reasons.

Govt_Parl beehive

#3 on Monday.

Wellington architecture #1

Govt offices

The Government Buildings, built on newly-reclaimed land in 1876 and photographed by James Bragge soon afterwards. Wellington would continue to spread into the harbour for most of the next century.

To many, the gem of Lambton Quay, undoubtedly one of the finest structures the Dominion has to offer, is the Government Buildings, erected in 1876 to meet the needs of the rapidly growing civil service, a beautifully proportioned block somewhat resembling a wooden replica of Somerset House, and standing in grounds which, though limited, serve to enhance not only the building they surround but the whole northern end of the Quay. The building is constructed entirely of wood, and forms the largest permanent wooden structure in the world.

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c. 1902. The original “ugly” corrugated iron fence was replaced by railings, and the gardens improved, in the 1890s.

And what wood! A list of the materials used – a million feet of them – sounds like a building contractor’s dream. For the main block, the framework of Tasmanian hardwood, the weatherboards and interior of kauri, For the wings, added later [1897 and 1907], the framework of rimu, the piles of totara, the weatherboards and flooring of matai, the interior finishings of kauri – an epitome of all the most precious of New Zealand forest products. The thought comes uppermost: “What forests passed beneath the axe to rear its walls!”
‘The Streets of my City’, F.L. Irvine-Smith, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1948.

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The civil service had outgrown its old offices by 1990 and left them empty. In recognition of its status as a heritage building, government sponsored restoration and conservation began four years later. Most of the interior is now leased to the Victoria University School of Law but parts of it are open to the public and well worth a visit.

The city has grown around (and above) it as cities do, and it’s a little sad to see the old building, that used to dominate its surroundings, being overshadowed by modern office blocks.

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This is the first of three loosely connected posts about the New Zealand capital’s early architecture. Next – Government House, 1871.

Oxford Circus

Sepia postcard image of Oxford Circus, 1920s or 30s.

Oxford Circus, London. Junction of Regent Street and Oxford Street. One of the principal shopping centres of the world. Noted for its magnificent Buildings.

[Oxford Street] has seen in our time a marvellous transformation, for those who are not even old remember the day when men smiled at Mr. Selfridge coming from America and setting up his great shop at the wrong end of Oxford Street where nobody came. People come today in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, and all the world knows Selfridge’s, the greatest shop in England that has no need to put its name on it. Its massive row of stone columns stretches for 500 feet along the street. Its windows are one of London’s annual shows at Christmas, and in summer its roof is a daily delight.
‘London’, Arthur Mee, Hodder & Stoughton, 1937.

Postcard image of Oxford Circus from Regent Street c. 1930s.

Approaching Oxford Circus from Regent Street.

Drama on Lambton Quay

The photograph on this vintage postcard of Lambton Quay in Wellington was taken in the first nine months of 1906. The reason we know this will come later. First, let’s take a walk down the street.

Lambton Quay 1906

On the left of the picture, at the corner of Grey Street, is the New Zealand Insurance Company building which shares the block with other financial institutions. At the extreme right, you can just see the Wellington Auctioneering Company next to Miss Roach’s fruit shop in “an old dilapidated one-story wooden structure – a survival of past days.” Then we have in turn the Trocadero Hotel and Restaurant, the three-storey wooden Commercial Hotel, Whitcombe and Tombs – book seller, printer and stationer – and, in the middle distance, the new imposing facade of the Bank of New South Wales, built “at a cost of upwards of £50,000” and only occupied since the beginning of the year. That gives us our starting point for a date.

The end point for this scene came on 22nd October 1906 when, at 3.25 a.m., a fire was discovered at the back of the Auctioneering Company building. By a cruel coincidence, the main water supply pipe to the city had burst ten minutes earlier, leaving the fire brigade to cope with a secondary low-pressure system. When the firemen turned on their hoses, the water could reach no higher than twelve feet.

The height handicap and a rising wind contributed to the peculiar nature of the inferno that followed. Sparks and glowing embers from the old wooden building spread to the roof of the Trocadero, set it alight, and burned from the top down, which gave the boarders time to escape; some with hastily packed suitcases, others with only the clothes they wore. The pattern was repeated with the Commercial Hotel next door and so on down the street.

The Evening Post tells us about one cool customer at the Commercial ….. “several of the early spectators were astonished to see dimly through an upstairs room a man moving about. In a second or two he calmly got out of the window, having the appearance of being dressed for business. No sooner had he alighted on the balcony than the flames burst out of the window with such force that had they caught him they would have swept him over. The spectators howled at him “Look out,” but by this time the danger was over. He calmly got on to the verandah of the Trocadero, and descended to the street by a ladder which had been adjusted for him.”

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The N. Z. Insurance building in the 1870s.
Photo: J. Bragge

Sparks were carried across the street to the roof of the New Zealand Insurance building which started to smoulder. A fireman was sent up a ladder to deal with it “but the hose could not even weep a tear, and the man had to come down.” While the brigade concentrated on the main blaze, fire crept along the Insurance building roof. Eventually the entire block was lost except for one brick structure saved by the heroic efforts of its occupants.

“The march of the flames was irresistible” and by 5.30 a.m. everything in the photograph up to and including the bank was on fire. A Post reporter thought “Whitcombe and Tombs’s presented a particularly magnificent appearance. The fire, commencing from above, gradually devoured floor after floor in its descent, and then, with a sudden roar, it burst open the big iron shutters on the ground floor and swept in a bright red mass right across the road. The pressure from within was so great that the iron shutters stood out over the footpath almost horizontally, while the furnace within belched its flames for some moments, and then, as the pressure lessened, they closed down again and the fire went on with its work inside.”

By 8.30 the fire’s progress had been checked and it was brought under control, thanks to a change in the wind and several volunteer bucket brigades on rooftops. The Post reported “Roughly, fifteen business premises were destroyed, and probably over one hundred different firms and companies occupying offices in the various buildings are outcasts today.” Incredibly, there were no fatalities.

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Lambton Quay with the Insurance building on the corner of Grey Street at centre. The heat from the fire was so intense that the metal poles supporting the tram wires were bent and twisted. Photo: Muir & Moodie.

Recovery
Building in wood meant that fire was a constant danger in early Wellington. There had been many similar disasters in its short history but the damage was repaired each time. By the end of December 1907, every building had been replaced and improved. The new Commercial Hotel had four storeys – built in brick. By that time, of course, the Parliament Buildings had burned down. But that’s a story for another day.

Photo sources: Colour – a card in my collection posted, oddly, in 1911. Someone must have been selling off old stock.
B+W – Te Papa museum.
All quotes are from The Evening Post newspaper at paperspast.

Ancestral Bones

The town of Esher, in the English county of Sussex, is known today as a commuter town on the outer reaches of London’s suburban sprawl but in 1902 it was described by Charles Harper as “a pretty village” and a “charmingly rural place, with a humble old church behind an old coaching inn, and a new church, not at all humble, across the way.”

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The old church of St. George in Esher, parts of which date to the 16th century.

“The old church of Esher”, he writes, “long since disused and kept locked and given over to spiders and dust, has a Royal Pew, built for the use of the Princess Charlotte and the Claremont household in 1816. It is a huge structure, in comparison with the size of the little church, and designed in the worst possible classic taste; wearing, indeed, more the appearance of an opera-box than anything else.

The authorities (whoever they may be) charge a shilling for viewing this derelict church. It is distinctly not worth the money, because the architecture is contemptible, and all the interesting monuments have been removed to the modern building, on a quite different site, across the road. …..

The reflections conjured up by an inspection of Esher old church are sad indeed, and the details of it not a little horrible to a sensitive person. There is an early nineteenth-century bone-house or above-ground vault attached to the little building, in which have been stored coffins innumerable. The coffins are gone, but many of the bony relics of poor humanity may be seen in the dusty semi-obscurity of an open archway, lying strewn among rakes and shovels. To these, when the present writer was inspecting the place, entered a fox-terrier, emerging presently with the thigh-bone of some rude forefather of the hamlet in his mouth. “Drop it!” said the churchwarden, fetching the dog a blow with his walking-stick. The dog “dropped it” accordingly, and went off, and the churchwarden kicked the bone away. I made some comment, I know not what, and the churchwarden volunteered the information that the village urchins had been used to play with these poor relics. “They’re nearly all gone now,” said he. “They used to break the windows with ’em.” And then we changed the subject for a better.
Charles G. Harper. ‘Cycle Rides Around London’, 1902.

photo from wikimedia

Note: Follow the Royal Pew link to see the present condition of the old church.

The Legend of Holyrood

Edwardian Valentine's postcard of Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh.

Valentine’s Series postcard printed after 1903 from a photograph believed to be c. 1878.
Caption: The Abbey and Palace of Holyrood
Was founded by David I, in the 12th Century. It has seen many changes, having been partly destroyed by Edward II, in 1321; burnt by Richard II, in 1385; restored by Abbot Crawford at [the] end of [the] 15th Century; demolished by the English in 1547; and sacked by a mob in 1688. What little remains of the original structure was put into order in 1816. Suggestions have been recently made for the restoration of the Chapel Royal, but it is feared that this is now unpracticable.

From ‘The History of the Abbey, Palace, and Chapel-Royal of Holyrood House’, Mrs John Petrie, Second Edition, 1821.

This monastery of Sanctae Crucis, or Holyrood, was founded by David I of Scotland, A. D. 1128, and, like most other religious establishments of the dark ages, originated in superstition. The account generally given is, that it was established by that Monarch, to perpetuate the memory of a miraculous interposition of heaven, said to have been manifested in his favour. This event is narrated by the historians of those times, with all their usual enthusiasm when treating of such subjects.

“The King,” say they, “while hunting in the forest of Drumselch, one of the royal forests, which surrounded the rocks and hills to the east of the city of Edinburgh, on Rood-day, or exaltation of the cross, was attacked by a stag, and would in all probability have fallen a sacrifice to the enraged animal, which overbore both him and his horse, (as his attendants were left at a considerable distance behind,) when lo! an arm, wreathed in a dark cloud, and displaying a cross of the most dazzling brilliancy, was interposed between them, and the affrighted animal fled to the recesses of the forest in the greatest confusion. This having put an end to the chase, the Monarch repaired to the Castle of Edinburgh; where, during the night, in a dream, he was advised, as an act of gratitude for his deliverance, to erect an Abbey, or house for Canons regular, upon the spot where this miraculous interposition had taken place.”

In obedience to this visionary command, the King endowed this monastery for Canons regular of the Augustine order, a colony of whom he brought from an abbey of the same kind at St. Andrews, and dedicated his new establishment to the honour of the said Cross.

It’s worth mentioning again, in case you missed it, that this book was published in Edinburgh by Hay, Gall and Co., forMrs John Petrie, No. 1 Abbey, and sold by her at the Chapel Royal, for behoof of herself and family.” An early 19th century example of self-publishing and business enterprise by a woman.