Wellington Central Library (Former)

101 Wakefield Street, Civic Square, WELLINGTON

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Wellington Central Library (Former) opened in 1940 and was Wellington’s main library until 1991. It has historical significance as one of the city’s major public buildings, a function that continues to the present day through its status as City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi. A fine example of the Stripped Classical Style, it is an architecturally significant building that makes an important contribution to the city’s built fabric. The human presence in Wellington is said to begin with the explorer Kupe, who travelled to Aotearoa New Zealand from Hawaiki, the ancestral Polynesian homeland of Māori. Following permanent settlement, the rangatira Tara, son of Whātonga and the eponymous ancestor of Ngāi Tara, travelled south from Māhia Peninsula and settled at the harbour, which came to be known as Te Whanganui-a-Tara, the great harbour of Tara. In the seventeenth century Ngāti Ira of Hawke’s Bay joined Ngāi Tara and extensive intermarriage occurred between the two tribes. Other iwi who made a home in the region included Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe. Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga migrated south from Taranaki in the 1820s. In 1824 Ngāti Mutunga built the five-acre Te Aro Pā, which straddled both sides of present-day Taranaki Street just north of the intersection with Courtenay Place and Manners Street. When Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama people migrated to Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) in 1835, their land rights around the harbour were transferred to Te Ātiawa. Organised Pākehā settlement commenced in 1839. In 1935, as the country was moving out of the great depression and entering the Second World War, the Wellington City Council held a design competition for a new central library which was won by two firms, Messenger Taylor and Wolfe, and Gummer and Ford, who collaborated on the final design. The outcome was a well-realised inter-war Stripped Classical building of two stories and a basement, constructed in reinforced concrete. The main elevation is distinguished by eight fluted pilasters and generous steel windows. Above the ground floor windows are moulded tablets inscribed with library classifications. The relatively plain entablature proclaims the building’s function in capital letters. Internally, the ground floor was occupied by the ‘popular library’ (mostly fiction), the junior library, and the newspaper and magazines rooms. On the first floor was reference, commercial and technical, the New Zealand and Fine Arts collections and staff offices. The basement held the stacks and bindery, and a lecture hall, meeting room and kitchen. A mezzanine floor at the east side between ground and first was used for offices. The building served as the city’s central library for over 50 years and its location in the city’s civic centre made it the backdrop for a range of community, social and political events and gatherings over the years. The men’s toilet on the Harris Street side was a beat, a sex-on-site venue for men interested in men. The number of library patrons eventually outstripped capacity and a new library designed by Athfield Architects opened next door in 1991. The old library was converted to City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi as part of the Te Ngākau Civic Square development. The gallery opened in 1993. Previously facing Mercer Street, the building now opens onto the pedestrian square and is the background to even more community events and protests. Inside is an ever-changing series of modern and contemporary visual art exhibitions. The building was modified to meet the requirements of an art gallery and the north (back) elevation has had significant modifications and additions in the early 1990s and in 2009; however, the main elevation facing the square is significantly intact.

Wellington Central Library (Former),Wellington. CC BY-SA 4.0 Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org | Tom Ackroyd | 12/10/2019 | Tom Ackroyd - Wikimedia Commons
Wellington Central Library (Former),Wellington. Dots for Love and Peace by Japanese Artist Yayoi Kusama as part of her exhibition at the gallery CC BY-SA 4.0 Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org | Wainuiomartian | 21/02/2010 | Wainuiomartian - Wikimedia Commons
Wellington Central Library (Former),Wellington. c.1940 Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, must be obtained before any re-use of this image. Ref: 1/1-015911-F | Gordon Onslow Hilbury Burt | Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand



List Entry Information


Detailed List Entry



List Entry Status

Historic Place Category 2


Able to Visit

List Number


Date Entered

9th September 1981

Date of Effect

9th September 1981

City/District Council

Wellington City


Wellington Region

Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Lot 1 DP 494594 (RT 724107), Wellington Land District and the building known as Wellington Central Library (Former) thereon.

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 494594 (RT 724107), Wellington Land District.

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