Government Life Insurance Head Office (Former)
50-64 Customhouse Quay, 9 Brandon Street And 2-6 Panama Street, Wellington
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 2
Private/No Public Access
28th June 1984
Extent of List Entry
Extent includes the land described as Lot 1 DP 10633 (CT WN439/159), Wellington Land District and the building known as Government Life Insurance Head Office (Former) thereon.
Lot 1 DP 10633 (CT WN439/159), Wellington Land District
The information below is from a report prepared by Karen Astwood, IPENZ Heritage Advisor and is reproduced with permission (© IPENZ, 10 Feb 2016):
Constructed between 1935 and 1939, Government Life Insurance Head Office (Former) is a prominent building on Wellington’s Customhouse Quay. It has historical and social importance because the site was associated with this insurance provider and its subsequent iteration, Tower Corporation, for over a century. The building was designed by important Government Architect John Thomas Mair (1876–1959). It also has architectural and technical significance because it represents the Public Works Department’s policy in the wake of the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake to lead by example in using international best practice in earthquake resistance for its new buildings.
The Government Life Insurance department was established in 1870. Life insurance was seen as a social necessity which the government was best placed to administer at the time, and the department’s services were an immediate success. In 1892 construction of its Wellington head office began in a block already occupied by the department. In March 1931, soon after the devastating Hawke’s Bay earthquake, the government decided to demolish the original brick Government Life building because it was seen as an earthquake risk.
However, the project took several years to begin in earnest. The ‘massive’ caisson foundations for the new eight storey building were being poured in August 1935. By June the following year much of the building’s steel frame was erected. This was reportedly the most steel used in a Wellington building to date. The framing method was said to be ‘of a type new to New Zealand, being a modification of the form of construction used by the foremost Japanese authorities on earthquake-resisting building design’.
Governor General Lord Galway (1882–1943) laid the foundation stone, visible on the corner of Customhouse Quay and Brandon Street, on 5 October 1936. However, it was not until April 1937 that the Evening Post reported the framework was ‘gradually disappearing as the concrete and stone-work creeps up from ground level.’
In March 1938 the scaffolding was coming down and at least one tenant - important shipping company Shaw, Savill and Albion - had set up offices in the ground floor. However, the department’s offices were only ready in August and even then the building’s main vestibule was not completed, the stairs finished with their marble and terrazzo, or the elevators installed. Many smaller government departments also had offices in the building.
The ‘cream shading of the superstructure and copper ornamentation above a grey stone base’ was described as being a combination of materials that ‘forces itself on the attention.’ On the roof was a decorative metal lighthouse, Government Life’s emblem. The motif also features in the entrance glasswork and the stairwell tiling has an abstract design referencing shafts of light. These finishing touches, including installation of stained glass salvaged from the previous building, were completed by mid-1939.
Government Life Insurance remained in the building when it became a separate statutory body in 1953 and in 1987 when it was renamed Tower Corporation. In the late 1980s the Ministry of Works did a significant refurbishment of the building. In 2006 McKee Fehl Constructors Limited completed structural upgrade work in the basement and carpark, as well as restoring the façade, vestibule and stairs, and enlarging the rooftop storey. It was during this period that the building became known as Chartered Accountants House. Foundation Life (NZ) purchased Tower’s life insurance business in 2014, and retain a tenancy in the building.
Mair, John Thomas
John Thomas Mair (1876-1959) was born in Invercargill and began his career with the New Zealand Railways on the staff of the Office Engineer, George Troup. In 1906 he travelled to the United States of America where he studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He then worked in the office of George B. Post in New York before travelling to England where he was admitted as an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He became a Fellow in 1940.
On his return to New Zealand he entered private practice, one of his first buildings being the Presbyterian First Church, Invercargill (1915), a prominent building of Romanesque character. He then practised in Wellington, carrying out largely domestic commissions.
In 1918 he was appointed Inspector of Military Hospitals by the Defence Department, and in 1920 he became architect to the Department of Education. Following the retirement of John Campbell in 1922, Mair was appointed Government Architect, a position which he held until his retirement in 1942. During this period he was responsible for a variety of buildings, including the Courthouse, Hamilton, the Post Office in High Street, Christchurch, Government Life Office and the Departmental Building, both in Wellington, and the Jean Batten Building, Auckland. Such buildings show a departure from tradition, with the emphasis on function, structure and volume as opposed to a stylistic treatment of the building fabric.
A Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, Mair was made a Life Member in 1942. His son John Lindsay Mair also practised as an architect.
Public Works Department
No biography is currently available for this construction professional
1935 - 1939
Structural upgrade of basement and carpark; restoration of façade, vestibule and stairs; rooftop additions.
Restoration of original entrance (removal of 1980s canopy)
16th March 2016
Report Written By
‘Impressive block,’ Evening Post, 10 February 1938, p.11
‘Government Life,’ Evening Post, 5 August 1938, p. 10
‘Scaffolding down,’ Evening Post, 30 March 1938, p.13.
‘History,’ Tower Insurance, accessed 1 December 2015, https://www.tower.co.nz/about-us/history
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.
A fully referenced upgrade report is available on request from the Central Region Office of Heritage New Zealand