Zeitblick - Series
A HillAc Production

City, My City - Series One
By Peter Wells

Part 2
Old Government Buildings

Many years have passed since I last entered Old Government Buildings at the top end of Lambton Quay in the heart of old Wellington and a short walk from the Thistle Inn. I am here again now, some 35 years later, to refresh my memory, to re-new the experience and to research this story. The atmosphere is much different now than it was all those years ago. Back then its corridors and rooms were stuffy with the atmosphere of civil service offices. The building has now been fully restored and its creaking floorboards and paint-peeled walls are fresh and new again. Today it is occupied by the Law Faculty of Victoria University of Wellington and carries the crisp smell of learning where the fresh legal minds of future New Zealand are developed. It is the largest wooden building in the Southern Hemisphere and the second largest in the world, the largest being Daibutsu-den part of the Todaiji Temple Complex in the city of Nara, Japan.

Old Government Buildings from the corner of Molesworth Street
and Lambton Quay, near the High Court. Reproduced by kind
permission of Geoff Mew and the Wellington Branch of the
New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

This imposing structure is located in the midst of Wellington’s legal district and is appropriately situated between buildings which house the High Court and Court of Appeal/Supreme Court on one side and the District Court and old High Court Building on the other. Older than all of them, it was designed by Colonial Architect William Clayton and completed in 1876 at a cost of £39,000. Built entirely of wood, native New Zealand timber had been used in its construction throughout including an internal cladding of kauri, New Zealand's giant forest tree. With this construction in mind, smoking was wisely banned from the moment the building was first opened.

Constructed on reclaimed land, specifically recovered from the sea for the purpose, Government Buildings was built in Italian Renaissance style. The practice of building in wood became wide-spread in Wellington following the destructive earthquakes of 1848 and particularly 1855. Indeed, prior to the quake of 1855, Baron von Alzdorf built what he believed was an indestructible hotel of brick stating that "...this is the way to build against earthquakes; no shock will destroy that." Unfortunately the hotel was to become the instrument of his death from the 1855 'quake.

By 1990 the last of the civil servants had departed Government Buildings and sadly much of the interior of this noble building had been painted over, its exterior paint-work was faded and peeling and its grounds were sadly neglected. The New Zealand Government approved a restoration project, to be managed by the Department of Conservation, to bring the building back to its original condition. Where possible, original materials were used such as re-cycled kauri or where necessary other materials were used to replicate original components. The restored building was re-opened in 1995 and named the "Old Government Buildings Historic Reserve." With due care and the protection of a Category One Protection Order, Old Government Buildings will surely be with us for another 130 years.

© Peter Wells, Wellington, New Zealand

BB-0201-10x12; G - Two horse drawn cabs outside Old Government Buildings,
Lambton Quay, Wellington. Photograph taken circa 1880 by the Burton Brothers.
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand,
must be obtained before any re-use of this image.