Government Buildings (Former)
55 Lambton Quay, Wellington
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
2nd July 1982
Extent of List Entry
Extent of registration includes the land described as Sec 1 SO 37161 (NZ Gazette 1993, p. 3015), Wellington Land Districtand the building known as Government Buildings (Former) thereon, and its fittings and fixtures.
Sec 1 SO 37161 (NZ Gazette 1993, p. 3015), Wellington Land District
Government Buildings, completed in 1876, is a remarkable example of timber construction and one of New Zealand's most important historic buildings.
Proposals for the building were conceived in the early 1870s by the Fox ministry to house a centralised public service, both for the administration of the government's ambitious programme of public works and immigration and in anticipation of the abolition of provincial government. The building was designed by New Zealand's first and only Colonial Architect, William Clayton - Treasurer Julius Vogel's father-in-law - in the Classically-derived Italian Renaissance revival style, much in favour for government buildings throughout the British Empire. Tenders were originally called in both concrete and timber. The sheer cost of concrete was such that eventually it was decided to build in timber alone, but to mimic stone construction. The successful contractors were Scoular and Archibald.
Despite shortages in timber, and considerable cost overruns, the building was finished in 22 months, a remarkable achievement at the time. When it opened, the building, easily the largest in the country, housed all Wellington-based civil servants and ministers of the Crown. The building included two staircases, eight vaults, 143 rooms, 126 fireplaces, 22 chimneys, two hydraulic lifts, 64 toilets, eight verandahs and seven porticos. Government ministers used the building during Parliament's recess until 1921. The Executive Council met in the building until 1948. The building was extended twice, in 1897 and 1907, with additions to the wings.
The first department left the building within a short period and eventually, over time, every government department vacated until the Education Department became the sole occupant in 1975. During the first century of its history the building was greatly altered, with the addition of internal partitions, props, linings and paint obscuring its original interior appearance. The building was surrounded on two sides by large outbuildings. Limited restoration began in the early 1980s but by 1990 the building was empty. The government decided to restore the building in earnest and work began in 1994 under the management of the Department of Conservation, which became the building's owners. The work, painstaking and time consuming, cost $25 million and was completed early in 1996. The Law Faculty of Victoria University signed a 50-year tenancy that year and became its new occupants.
Today the building still resembles its original appearance in many ways. It is H shaped in plan, symmetrical around its main axis. Timber framed and clad with rusticated weatherboards, it is four storeys in height with a corrugated iron roof surmounted by chimneys, reinstated during the 1994-96 restoration. The original totara piles are now concrete. Rooms are linked by corridors and there are now four staircases. Many original features were replicated in the building during the restoration, including fireplaces (purely decorative), plaster and timber mouldings, porticos, gates and fences.
Government Buildings is celebrated as one of New Zealand's most important historic buildings, and as an icon of Wellington City. It was built entirely of timber, an astonishing achievement in the 1870s, and remains probably the world's largest timber office building. It was Colonial Architect William Clayton's finest achievement. Government Buildings was constructed to house almost the entire Wellington-based public service, and its completion coincided with the end of provincial government in New Zealand. Its restoration in 1994-96 was a landmark in government-initiated heritage conservation. The restored building is a key feature in the Government Centre Conservation Area, an historic reserve in its own right, and a popular tourist destination.
Clayton, William Henry
Born in Tasmania, Clayton (1823-1877) travelled to Europe with his family in 1842. He studied architecture in Brussells and was then articled to Sir John Rennie, engineer to the Admiralty, in London. He returned to Tasmania in 1848 and worked in private practice until he was appointed Government Surveyor in 1852.
He resumed private practice in 1855 and was involved with surveying in the Launceston area. In 1857 he was elected an alderman on the Launceston Municipal Council. By the time Clayton immigrated to Dunedin in 1863 he had been responsible for the design of many buildings including churches, banks, a mechanics' institute, a theatre, steam and water mills, breweries, bridges, mansions and villas, in addition to being a land surveyor and road engineer.
In 1864 he entered partnership with William Mason. Mason and Clayton were responsible for some important buildings in Dunedin including All Saints Church (1865) and The Exchange (former Post Office) (1865) as well as the Colonial Museum, Wellington (1865). These were two of the most prominent architects of their day in New Zealand.
In 1869 Clayton became the first and only Colonial Architect and was responsible for the design of Post and Telegraph offices, courthouses, customhouses, Government department offices and ministerial residences. His acknowledged masterpiece is Government Buildings, Wellington (1876) a stone-simulated wooden building and the largest timber framed building in the Southern Hemisphere.
Clayton was a prolific and highly accomplished architect both within the Public Service and in private practice, in New Zealand and Australia.
25th October 2001
Report Written By
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Anna Crighton, 'William Clayton', Volume Two, Wellington, 1993, pp. 89-90.
New Zealand Historic Places
New Zealand Historic Places
Michael Kelly, 'A Landmark Restored', March, 1996, pp. 6-8
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.