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.

Parl buildings_S

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.

Govt offices 4

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

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.

Feathered Friends

New Zealand journalist Pat Lawlor (1893 – 1976) remembers the old days in Wellington, with prompts from his childhood diary.

May 30 1905….. Heard Mrs _____’s cockatwo swearing…..

It is in no spirit of charity that I leave out the name of the owner of the swearing cockatoo; and there were not ‘two’ of them as suggested by my diary entry. The plain truth is that the name of Mrs_____ is written in pencil, smudged with the years and unreadable. I would surmise that the worthy owner wished at times that the shrill declarations of her pet, when in anger born, were smudged or entirely obliterated.

cockatooThe famous cockatoo, white in colour and assertive in mien, was brought up in a bar-room, where he learnt his ABC (with an accent on the B), and was later acquired by the owner of a crockery shop…… On fine days cocky’s cage would be placed on the edge of the footpath, and it was then that he really performed if small boys annoyed him. I hope I was not one of them but I do know that whenever I was in the vicinity I always stopped to listen to him – just in case.

Mr L. C. Smith, who has many wonderful memories of Wellington, relates that once when Mrs_____ was in hospital a police sergeant from the station nearby agreed to look after the bird. When the Inspector of Police arrived one day, cocky took violent objection to him and poured out a torrent of the kind of abuse that is generally written on paper and handed to the magistrate. The inspector was shocked. He averred that capital punishment was too good for the bird. Another day the cockatoo mimicked the growl of a passing dog, who, resentful, tried to get at cocky through the wire cage. Mr Smith declares that it took two policemen to separate the screeching, swearing cockatoo and the snarling bulldog.

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December 4 1905…… Saw the penguin at Hurcombes swallow a fish and not be sick…..

Hurcomb the fishmonger in Cuba Street could have given points to a modern display merchant. There was always something doing at his shop. In this case it was his penguin, who, in between other displays, was on duty at the front door, wandering occasionally on to the footpath. Every now and then Hurcomb would appear and give him a fish which would disappear in one neat swallow, causing me to wonder why he was not sick.
‘More Wellington Days’, Pat Lawlor. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd; 1962.

Lawlor didn’t mention the type of penguin Mr. Hurcomb fed but it was probably a little blue, found all around the New Zealand coast including Wellington harbour.

A road sign near Wellington airport warning of penguins crossing.

This warning sign is only a few hundred metres from the end of Wellington’s airport runway. Why does the penguin cross the road? To get to its nest burrow on the other side.

Here’s a quote from New Zealand Bird’s On Line
“As their name suggests, the little penguin is the smallest species of penguin. They are also the most common penguin found around all coasts of New Zealand’s mainland and many of the surrounding islands. Primarily nocturnal on land, they are sometimes found close to human settlements and often nest under and around coastal buildings, keeping the owners awake at night with their noisy vocal displays. They live up to their scientific name ‘Eudyptula’ meaning “good little diver”, as they are excellent pursuit hunters in shallow waters.”

Follow the link to this excellent site for more information and some excessively cute photographs.

Cockatoo photo credit: lwolfartist DSC04118 via photopin (license)

The Evans Bay Slip

The Wellington Patent Slip at Evans Bay, near today’s international airport, was an important feature of the harbour’s industrial shoreline for a hundred years.

Patent slip vintage

This postcard from the early 1900s was printed, and presumably hand coloured, in Berlin and the colourist, never having seen the place, was overly generous with the blue ink. The area around the ship was, of course, dry land and not water.

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1897, noted –
“The Patent Slip, owned by a private company, is situated in Evans Bay, about three miles by road and two-and-a-half miles by water from the Queen’s Wharf, and can take vessels up to 2,000 tons not exceeding 300 feet in length or having a greater draught forward than sixteen feet when about to be slipped. The ways are laid to a gradient of one in twenty-three, are 1,070 feet in length, and have a depth at high water of 32 feet at the outer end. The Slip Company own appliances for repairing both wooden and iron vessels, and have machine tools for effecting the smaller class of repairs to iron vessels, but large repairs have to be sent to the foundries in the City. The Company charges for vessels over 200 tons register 1s[hilling] per ton on the gross tonnage for the first day, and 6d. [sixpence] per ton per diem thereafter”.

Although the company was founded in 1871 preparation of the site, especially laying the rails under water at the outer end, took two years. The divers were sometimes swept off their feet in strong currents.

Patent slip Huia

Typical of small coastal steamers in the 19th century, the s.s. Huia (1878-1927) had a reputation for being difficult to steer in some conditions and went aground more than once. This photograph might have been taken at the Patent Slip in June 1907 after she stranded for 20 minutes on Long Point, Kapiti Island, on her regular run from Wanganui to Wellington. A leak was traced to a cracked plate on her port side.

In 1897, as the Cyclopedia explained, the Patent Slip “as a settlement” consisted of “a few cottages……occupied by the engineer in charge and some of the men who are employed” there. Eventually, the city suburbs spread out to engulf it and by mid 20th century coastal shipping had begun to die away under pressure from road, rail and air transport. In 1972 the slip – then under the control of the Harbour Board – didn’t have enough trade to stay in business and was closed. Now the site is preserved alongside Wellington’s most scenic route “around the bays” from the city to Miramar. Unfortunately, due to its low profile, many tourists probably drive past it without noticing.

The site of Wellington's Patent Slip, Evans Bay, (1871-1972).

The track of the original slipway is marked by wooden poles that feature panels explaining the site’s history. The huge cogged wheel at left was part of the steam driven winding gear that hauled vessels out of the water with chains. The chain locker below was 10 metres [about 30 feet] deep.

Patent slip_2

This second slipway, opened in 1922, lies alongside Wellington’s scenic “round the bays” drive.

Interesting trivia – One of the company directors in 1897 was Harold Beauchamp, father of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield.

Jail break

An extract from a letter written from Wellington, New Zealand, 24 April 1843, when the settlement was just three years old.

Wellington has been in a state of great excitement for the last few days.
On Wednesday last six convicts who had been sentenced the previous day to ten years’ transportation, broke out of gaol and took possession of a boat lying on the beach.

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Wellington courthouse on the right c. 1843.

They were half-way across the harbour before anybody went after them. It was blowing a tremendous gale from the N.W., and it soon became dark ; many of the boats returned the same night, but the sheriff [police magistrate] meeting with a small schooner entering the harbour, pressed her in the Queen’s name, and went in pursuit of the prisoners. He returned unsuccessful on Friday morning ; but in the evening everybody was agreeably surprised by the arrival of some Mauris [Maori] in a canoe with the six prisoners.

It appears that the prisoners were wrecked on a reef near Palliser Bay, and got ashore in a most extraordinary manner, each man having from twenty to thirty pounds of irons about his legs. They wandered about the beach in quest of another boat, but they soon fell in with the Mauris, by whom they were captured, and who had been informed of the escape of the convicts by some of the constables. The Mauris behaved well, and will receive £5 for each of the prisoners. It was a daring thing to break out of the gaol in a town where there are 5,000 inhabitants in broad daylight.
‘The New Zealand Journal’, London, 30th September 1843.

Image details – [Brees, Samuel Charles] 1810-1865 :Courts of Justice, Wellington [ca 1843]
Reference Number: B-031-009 http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=4577