Wellington Town Hall
101 Wakefield Street, Wellington
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
Private/No Public Access
11th December 2003
Lots 2-14 DP 10801 Sec 1 SO 35243 & SO 35628
Located on the corner of Wakefield Street and Civic Square, Wellington.
This is Wellington's second town hall. The first, designed by Thomas Turnbull in 1875, was never completed and only one wing of the building, in Brandon Street, was ever built.
By the 1890s the city was growing quickly and the lack of a town hall, where a council administration and a venue for major public events could be combined in one place, was becoming a significant issue. The council set aside some land adjoining what became Jervois Quay, on a reclamation undertaken by Wellington City Corporation between 1886 and 1890. In 1900 the decision was made to build a town hall on this land, at an estimated cost of £50,000. A design competition was held and the winner was Joshua Charlesworth, a well known local architect and something of a specialist in grand Classical structures.
The foundation stone was laid by the Duke of York (later King George V) on 18 June 1901. Tenders were not called immediately and it was not until the following year that successful contractors - Paterson, Martin and Hunter - were selected. Work began in May 1902 and the building was completed in November 1904. The final cost exceeded £68,000. The purchase and installation of a pipe organ was let as a separate contract. This went to Norman and Beard of London at a price of £7,000 and the organ was installed in 1906.
When completed, the building included a clock tower over the main entrance, but there was no clock. John Blundell, proprietor of the Evening Post, donated one in 1922. Unfortunately, just 12 years later, the tower was taken down as a precaution after the 1931 Napier earthquake. The clock was eventually installed in the Central Fire Station (1939) and it remains there.
As part of the work undertaken in 1934, some of the building's other ornate exterior decoration was removed, including the balustraded parapet, pediments and grand entrance portico; the latter being replaced by a much smaller, squat structure, which was itself later removed. Then, in 1943-44, following the 1942 earthquake, the building was strengthened and the Corinthian capitals on the exterior removed and replaced with Tuscan detailing.
By the 1970s the building was facing demolition. The new Michael Fowler Centre was built extremely close to the main entrance of the older building, in clear anticipation of its removal. However, the Wellington Regional Committee of the NZHPT argued for the building's retention on historic and practical grounds. The WCC was persuaded to retain the building in 1983.
In 1989 a plan was unveiled to incorporate the Town Hall into a scheme to create a civic centre in the former Mercer Street and construct new council buildings, including a new library, to enclose the space. The Town Hall was refurbished and strengthened and new reception rooms built within the space occupied by the very fine Concert Chamber, which was demolished. The ornate ground floor toilets were also demolished, and the building's base on the north, or Civic Centre, side of the building was covered over. The work was designed by Works Consultancy. The building was reopened in 1992.
Over its life the building has been used for literally thousands of events. The main auditorium (and the concert chamber, until its demolition) has been used for a remarkably diverse range of activities, including boxing matches, fashion shows, debutante balls, rock concerts (including, most famously, The Beatles), orchestral performances and recitals, lectures, political rallies, protest meetings, flower shows, polling station, university degree conferrals etc. It continues to be in very regular use to this day.
Historical Significance or Value
The Wellington Town Hall has very great historical significance for its use, since 1904, for major civic events, as a venue for concerts, balls, shows and receptions, and as the office of the mayor. It is the oldest surviving purpose-built civic building in central Wellington and remains a key part of the council's inner-city infrastructure. The building's retention in 1979 after it was earmarked for demolition was an important milestone in heritage conservation in Wellington City.
The building is arguably the greatest design by Joshua Charlesworth, one of the pre-eminent Wellington architects around the turn of the last century. The building, once magnificent, retains some aesthetic value and is a key element in the Civic Centre, but the loss of several notable exterior and interior features means it no longer has the visual impact and authenticity it once did. In particular, the loss of the tower and portico and the building of the Michael Fowler Centre directly in front of the main entrance has robbed it of some of its grandeur and townscape value. The building's major glories today are the main auditorium, which is notable too for its impressive acoustics, and the main staircase.
The Wellington Town Hall has outstanding historical and cultural heritage significance, summarised as follows:
This building reflects important and representative aspects of New Zealand's history through its use as the capital city's town hall since 1904 and as the city's principal civic venue.
It has been associated with events and people of importance by hosting significant artists and concerts over a long period and through the near continuous occupation of the building by the Mayor of Wellington.
There is a high public appreciation for this building, evidenced by the outcry over its proposed demolition in the early 1980s, and by the continued affection held for the building by Wellingtonians.
The building displays design and technical accomplishment, particularly in the design and construction of the main auditorium.
The building is part of a wider historical and cultural landscape, through its role in forming part of one side of the Civic Centre and by being one of a number of historic and landmark buildings in the area in and around the Civic Centre, including the City Gallery, Library, Michael Fowler Centre, City Administration Building, and others.
Charlesworth (1861-1925) was born in Yorkshire and the first record of his practice in Wellington was in the New Zealand Post Office Directory of 1885-87.
He won a competition for the design of the Home for the Aged and Needy in June, 1887, and in the same year won another for the design of the Nelson Town Hall. Charlesworth set up practice in Wellington in his early twenties, designing many institutional buildings and showing command of the revival styles of architecture.
His work includes the Wellington Town Hall (1901), Brancepeth Station Homestead addition, Wairarapa (1905), Te Aro Post Office (1908), St Hilda's Church, Upper Hutt (1909), and seventeen branch banks for the Bank of New Zealand, situated throughout the country (1907-17).
Charlesworth was elected a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects in 1905, and became a life member of the Institute. He was its vice-president in 1909-10, and was the first chairman of a society of architects which was formed in 1912. Charlesworth also belonged to the Yorkshire Society in Wellington and was its president for many years.
Paterson, Martin and Hunter
No biography is currently available for this construction professional
This is a three storey, square, brick and cement mortar structure sitting on concrete strip foundations on concrete piles. External embellishments such as columns, pilasters, cornices, windows pediments and capitals, were moulded in concrete. The building's west elevation abuts the council's Administration Building and is not visible, while the building's base on the north elevation was covered over after the ground level was raised during work on the Civic Centre in 1990-92.
The building's style was once ornately Classical, but regular removal of exterior decoration and prominent extrusions has reduced the building to the point where it has been described as “Stripped Classical by attrition”. This aptly describes the building's somewhat denuded state today, but despite lacking grandeur it still retains a giant order of columns and pilasters - once Corinthian, now Tuscan - over the three stories. Corinthian columns still remain though on the western side of the Wakefield Street elevation. Between, there are square headed windows on the ground floor, with triangular pediments over major entry points, pedimented heads over the second storey windows and square headed windows on the third floor (in that portion away from the main auditorium). Fibreglass dentils were fixed beneath the cornice c.1991 to replace those removed earlier. The main entrance is still on the east elevation, facing the Michael Fowler Centre.
The interior is dominated by the main auditorium, which has a main floor and a U-shaped mezzanine, supported beneath by cast iron columns. Behind the stage is the pipe organ and choir seats. The richly decorated ceiling has rectangular lacunars, with Wunderlich zinc circular and rectangular mouldings set within. The cornice is curved, with arched windows - almost clerestory in function - separated by pilasters with Corinthian capitals. The entry doors are capped with triangular pediments.
The eastern end of the building has a reception / conference centre on the third floor and the mayoral rooms are on the second floor. All are reached by a magnificent sweeping staircase.
1902 - 1904
Clock tower, portico, large parapet pediments and balustrades demolished. Portico replaced by lower, smaller structure
1943 - 1944
Building strengthened and most Corinthian capitals removed and replaced in Tuscan style
1991 - 1992
Building refurbished and strengthened. Concert chamber demolished and replaced by conference / reception rooms. Ground floor toilets demolished. Base of building on north elevation covered.
Brick and concrete
11th December 2003
Report Written By
D. Kernohan and T. Kellaway, Wellington's Old Buildings, Wellington, 1995
New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)
New Zealand Historic Places Trust
W. Toomath, 'Wellington Town Hall', Newsletter of the Wellington Regional Committee of the NZHPT, vol.2, no.2, September 1979
J. Siers, A Town Hall for the 21st Century, Wellington, 1992
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the Central Region of the NZHPT
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.