Historic Government Buildings

In its heyday New Zealand’s largest and grandest wooden building housed our entire public service. Come and see the building that looks like a stone palace, but is in fact made entirely from timber.

Government Buildings is located in the heart of Wellington's CBD, just a moment's walk from the Beehive and the railway station.

History 

Government Buildings, Wellington, 1876, Reference No. PAColl-1574-14. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Government Buildings, 1876

The Government Buildings is New Zealand’s largest and grandest wooden building. It is an outstanding example of New Zealand’s architectural heritage and one of the great wooden buildings of the world. 

It was built in 1876 - an important turning point in New Zealand’s political history. This was the year that provincial governments were abolished and a central government was established. This building was specifically designed to house New Zealand’s entire public service as a result of this change of government.  For 56 years it was also the home of Ministers’ offices and the Cabinet room.

Like many colonial buildings of the era, it was built to resemble an Italian stone palace. This was to convey strength and stability in a young country
undergoing rapid growth and change.  

Government Buildings, Lambton Quay, Wellington, decorated for the coronation of King George V, 24 Jun 1911, Reference No. 1/2-080607-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Government Buildings, decorated for the
coronation of King George V, 24 Jun 1911

To avoid being seen as extravagant, the new government chose to build in timber, as stone was too expensive.  The building may not have survived subsequent earthquakes had stone been used.

The building is also renowned for its extensive use of kauri, one of New Zealand’s premier native timbers.  This could never be replicated in any building now because our remaining kauri forests are under permanent protection.

Before too long, the public service had rapidly expanded beyond the building's capacity. By 1990, the last of the public service departments had moved out, concluding 114 years of government service.

DOC's work 

Stripping the paint from the Government Buildings during the restoration project in 1994-95.
Stripping paint from the Government
Buildings during the restoration project

Repainting the coat of arms during the Government Buildings restoration project in 1994-95.
Repainting the coat of arms during the
restoration project

Over the years, the building deteriorated into a very sad state - its beautiful interior timbers covered over, its staircase propped up on poles and enclosed, its exterior paintwork peeling and the grounds neglected.

The Department of Conservation managed a major restoration project, spanning 2 years over 1994-95. 

At its peak, over 200 carpenters were employed on this job. Many heritage trade specialists were utilised including some brought over specially from Italy.  Given the fragile nature of the wooden building, care was taken to ensure that no "hot work" such as welding was undertaken on site, so that fires would be avoided.

View a photo gallery of the restoration work.

Wherever possible, the building was restored to its 1876 appearance (including the 1907 extension).  Restoration features included:

  • Over 900 m³ of recycled kauri was used to supplement the remaining original timber
  • Verandahs which had been glazed over were restored to their original appearance
  • Previously enclosed staircases were opened up, strengthened and fully restored
  • Extensive interior ornate wooden panelling was restored
  • Replicas of the original chimneys were
    installed
  • Carpets were laid that replicated the
    original tread nail pattern on the stairs 

Many individual artefacts were carefully preserved or restored, including:

  • vintage water radiators
  • a 1921 "bird cage" lift
  • the original 1876 exterior clock
  • the coat of arms
  • a water-powered hydraulic lift

Where it was not possible to restore or exactly replicate original features, new materials were designed to the style of 1876.  

The surrounding gardens now contain examples of New Zealand flora including many rare species.

Most of the building is leased to the Victoria University School of Law. The public may view the displays on the ground floor and the Cabinet room on the first floor.


Further reading

Bowman, Ian. (1992) Government buildings conservation plan (Department of Conservation, Wellington Conservancy, NZ).

Kelly, Michael. (1996) The New Zealand Government Buildings past and future (Department of Conservation, Wellington Conservancy, NZ).


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