Turnbull House, Wellington City
Image: Gouldy | Creative Commons


Turnbull House is one of Wellington's finest historic buildings and is the birthplace of New Zealand's national library. It is currently closed pending earthquake strengthening.

One of Wellington City's finest heritage buildings Turnbull House provides a welcome contrast in scale, colour and texture to the modern office buildings that surround it.


This stately house was built as the private residence of Alexander Turnbull and to house his extensive collection of books, maps, and documents. These formed the nucleus of New Zealand's national library collection. 

Three large rooms were designed to house his collection. In 1920 these rooms were opened to the public to display Turnbull's library and remained so until 1973 when the library was moved. The rooms have been accessible to the public since Turnbull's death in 1918 with only a period of closure in 1955-57 for the strengthening and refurbishment of the building.

The building's architectural style is a combination of:

  • Scottish Baronial - steep gables
  • Queen Anne – warm red brickwork contrasted with white timber window frames, sashes divided into small panes, homeliness and simplicity
  • Medieval – two storey-high bay windows with parapets

Turnbull House today. Image: R Suisted.
Turnbull House today

Thomas Turnbull – architect

Turnbull House was designed by a famous architectural firm of the era – Thomas Turnbull and Son –with Alexander Turnbull taking an active part in designing the building. Thomas Turnbull's (no relation to Alexander) firm designed many other prominent Wellington buildings including:

  • St John's Church, Willis Street, 1885
  • Parliamentary Building, 1899
  • Head Office of the Bank of New Zealand, 1901 (now Old Bank Arcade)
  • Antrim House, 1904
  • Wellington Free Ambulance Building, 1932

Turnbull's library

Plans drawn by Thomas Turnbull for the residence of Alexander Turnbull in 1916. Thomas Turnbull & Son :Residence Bowen Street for A H Turnbull Esq[uir]e. February 8th 1916. Reference No. Plans-80-0665. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Plans for Turnbull House drawn by the 
architect in 1916

Business man Alexander Turnbull became well known as an avid collector of books, paintings, historical letters, maps and artefacts. He began his collection at the age of 17. During his 30s a family inheritance enabled him to expand his collection, which grew to become New Zealand's largest private library with over 55,000 items. His Milton, New Zealand and Pacific collections in particular were considered to be of international standing.

A bookplate created for Alexander Turnbull by C. Praetorius in 1910. Reference No. BOOKPLATES-Graham-NZ-Turnbull-1910-01. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
A bookplate created for Alexander 
Turnbull in 1910

Turnbull died in 1918 and bequeathed his library to the nation in the hope that it would become the 'nucleus of a New Zealand National Collection'.

The library inevitably outgrew its home in Turnbull House as bequests, donations and purchases continued to expand Turnbull's collection beyond his death. In 1973 the library was moved temporarily to a site on the Terrace while awaiting the establishment of its new home in the National Library of New Zealand in 1987. The library remains intact today and is regarded as the most important collection of material relating to New Zealand culture and history.

The Alexander Turnbull Library was officially opened in 1920 and remained there until 1973 when it was moved to its current location in the National Library of New Zealand building located on Molesworth Street. Today the Alexander Turnbull Library collection is regarded as New Zealand's largest collection of early printed books and fine printing with a collection policy to cover every period and aspect of our history.

Turnbull House now has a number of roles. It is used extensively by community groups as a popular place to meet within the Wellington CBD and is also a popular location for wedding receptions. It can also cater for corporate groups by providing rooms for training, conferences and seminars.


Comprehensive restoration work was undertaken in 1994 by DOC to restore the house to its former glory. This included re-roofing and restoring architectural features that had been removed, along with ensuring the building is fire resistant.

Getting there

Public transport is just a few metres away with handy parking along The Terrace and at the wharf. Turnbull House is in the heart of Wellington City. It is located on Bowen Street, right opposite the Beehive and just a short walk from the Lambton Quay shops.

Related link

Alexander Turnbull Library

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