Wellington Free Ambulance Building (Former)

5-9 Cable Street And Jervois Quay, Wellington

  • Wellington Free Ambulance Building (Former).
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Chris Horwell. Date: 19/06/2017.
  • Wellington Free Ambulance Building (Former).
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand.
  • The Wellington Free Ambulance Building (Former) c.1930s. Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: 1/2-099992-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23228068.
    Copyright: No Known Copyright Restrictions. Taken By: Unknown.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 3644 Date Entered 15th February 1990


City/District Council

Wellington City


Wellington Region

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 337194 (CT 152549, 197698), Wellington Land District


The Wellington Free Ambulance Building in Cable Street, Wellington, was the first purpose built ambulance building in New Zealand.

New Zealand's first ambulances were 'Ashford litters', large wooden stretchers on which patients were wheeled by hand to the nearest hospital. Wellington's first Ashford litter was purchased in 1895 and was housed at the Brandon Street Fire Station. From 1900, horse-drawn ambulances began to replace the Ashford litter. Just three ambulances, housed outside Queen's wharf and the Wellington hospital, serviced the entire Wellington region for several years. The vehicles were privately owned and payment was required before patients were transported to hospital. Following an incident in which an ambulance could not be found to assist the victim of a serious traffic accident on Lambton Quay, Charles Norwood (1871-1966), then Mayor of the city, initiated the creation of a free and efficient ambulance service. Based closely on Australian ambulance facilities, the Wellington Free Ambulance service began operating from the old Naval Hall (Wellington Rowing Club Building) in 1927 with a total of five ambulances, two of which were personally donated by Norwood.

The cold and bleak Naval Hall soon proved unsatisfactory. In 1932 Norwood commissioned prominent Wellington architect William Turnbull (1868-1941) to design a new 'highly distinctive, modern and functional' building to house the service. Turnbull's original plan was for a brick building built in the Classical style. After the 1931 Napier earthquake, Turnbull altered his plans, designing a building in the modern, inexpensive Art Deco style used extensively during the rebuilding of Napier. The Cable Street site, then occupied by the Wellington Rowing Club boat-shed, was leased from the Wellington City Council for 50 years at the peppercorn rental of £56 per year. Erected by Alfred Lemmon and paid for through public donations, the total cost of the completed building came to £16,369. In 1933 the Wellington Free Ambulance building was officially opened by Charles Norwood. Solidly constructed of reinforced concrete, the white building's clean, uncluttered appearance and decorative vertical lines are identifiably Art Deco in character. Inside, the majority of the ground floor was designed to house and service up to 10 ambulances, which exited the building through double doors opening onto Cable Street. A skylight allowed natural light to enter the garage area. Upper storeys were built on either side of the skylight to accommodate the superintendent's flat, a board room and other facilities, giving the side of the building an unusual upright 'U' shape.

The building housed the Wellington Free Ambulance Service for 61 years. Fundraising by the Ladies Auxiliary and support from local businessmen such as Charles Odlin, original owner of the adjoining Odlins building, allowed the service to expand to cover the wider Wellington region. True to Norwood's original vision, the service remained free of charge. In 1994, plans by Lambton Harbour Mangement to redevelop the Wellington waterfront prompted a decision to vacate the building and the move to new premises in Thorndon. The service continues to operate from its new location. The Wellington Free Ambulance building was then leased and managed as a bar until 1998. During this time, plans to demolish and later to move the Wellington Free Ambulance were promoted by Lambton Harbour Management, who wished to build a hotel on the site. These plans were abandoned in 2001 following strong public opposition, and protection for the historic building was secured.

The Wellington Free Ambulance building is of national, historical significance as the first purpose-built ambulance building in New Zealand. It symbolises the end of the era of the inefficient, privately owned ambulance system in the Wellington region and the blossoming of New Zealand's first free ambulance service into a permanent institution. The concept of a free ambulance service was an innovative idea and one of lasting importance. Erected and maintained through public donations, the stand-alone nature of the building reflects the independence of the Free Ambulance Service it housed. The station is also significant for its technological and architectural qualities. Solidly constructed in the Art Deco style commonly adopted after the Napier earthquake, the station points to contemporary concerns about building strength and stability. Firmly associated with the 1930s, the modern style reflects the advanced nature of the service it housed and heightens awareness of the building's history. Considered a fine example of Art Deco and located on one of Wellington's main roads, the building is of importance for its substantial townscape value. Its association with Mayor Charles Norwood and architect William Turnbull add to the local value of the building. The Wellington Free Ambulance building has played a significant role in the history of Wellington's health services and its rescue from demolition indicates the high public esteem in which it is held.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Turnbull, William (1868-1941)

William Turnbull (1868-1941) entered the architectural office of his father Thomas (1825-1907) in 1882, and received a professional education from him. In 1890, William visited Melbourne and Sydney and was engaged in the office of J A Gordon, a Melbourne architect who at that time was engaged in the design of several major commercial buildings including the Melbourne (now Victoria) Markets.

In 1891 William returned to Wellington and was admitted into partnership in the firm of Thomas Turnbull and Son. This was one of the foremost architectural practices in the city at the turn of the century and it continued after Thomas Turnbull's death in 1907.

William became a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1906, designing many important early twentieth century buildings in Wellington such as 12 Boulcott Street (1902), Turnbull House (1918), and the Wellington Free Ambulance Building (1932). The range and variety of his adaptation of architectural styles show him to be fully versed in virtually every contemporary architectural style and to have special skills and flair for masonry design.

Additional informationopen/close

Notable Features

The original door and window architraves, geometric floor tiling, art deco mouldings, segmented window heads above interior doors on the east face

Square columns and pilasters with traneated ceiling, stylised Corintian capitals, original art deco lightshades and wall switch fittings, mouldings on scotia in main room

Art Deco decorative detailing including plaster friezes and decorative capitals


Construction Dates

Original Construction
1933 -

1940 -
Two offices formed by closing in open air balconies at south end

1964 -
Casualty room on ground floor gutted and rebuilt using voluntary labour; superintendent's office doorway closed, ceiling lowered, fireplace covered

1986 -
Superintendent's flat remodelled; sound proof control room created, some internal partitioning of garage / workshop area

1998 -
Fittings removed from interior including mezzanine floor, grand staircase and three bars

1999 -
Seats installed for use as a theatre

Completion Date

5th December 2002

Report Written By

Rebecca O'Brien

Information Sources

Beasley, 1995

A. Beasley, 'Borne Free; the Wellington Free Ambulance 1927-1994,' Wellington, 1995

Wright St Clair, 1985

R E Wright St Clair (ed), St John in New Zealand - A History of the Most Venerable Order, Millwood Press, Wellington, 1985

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central Region office.

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.