In its heyday New Zealand’s largest and grandest wooden building housed our entire public service.
Government Buildings, 1876
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. 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, 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.
It 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.
Stripping paint from the Government Buildings during the restoration project
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.
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.