Wellington’s heritage gem: The Turnbull House project
March 31, 2023 | Stories

By Stephanie So 

The Turnbull House Project, a multiyear project for the seismic strengthening, conservation, and adaptive reuse of Turnbull House in Wellington, is progressing steadily through its design stage.  

After completing early mitigation works in 2021, to temporarily strengthen Turnbull House and make it safer for staff and contractors, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga has now assembled a crack design team for the project. 

We have engaged the expertise of Octa Associates (project management), Warren and Mahoney (architecture), Dunning Thornton (structural engineering), R&D Architects (conservation architecture), Stephenson & Turner Engineering (building services engineering), Beca (geotechnical engineering), and Rawlinsons (quantity surveying) to help bring the currently vacant and earthquake-prone building back to life and for public enjoyment. 

Turnbull House, an eclectic mix of Scottish Baronial, Queen Anne and Medieval architectural elements, stands directly across from the Beehive in Bowen Street where a streambed once met the historic shoreline between Pipitea Pā and Kumutoto Kāinga. Turnbull House is a Category 1 historic place and a contributing building to the Government Centre Historic Area, both recognised on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero. Additionally, it is scheduled as a heritage building and protected in the Wellington District Plan and is a historic reserve vested in Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. 

The interior of Turnbull House. Photo: Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga

Nationally significant collector and bibliophile Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull (1868-1918) had the house architecturally designed and built over 1915–1916 as his private home and library, however he only lived in the three-storey brick house for a brief time. When he died in 1918, his collection was bequeathed to the government, and two years later the house opened to the public as the Alexander Turnbull Library.  

The building housed the Alexander Turnbull Library for 53 years and is therefore associated with a person of importance in New Zealand history as well as the Alexander Turnbull Library, a research library of international standing and one of the principal components in the establishment of the National Library of New Zealand. 

Following the movement of the Alexander Turnbull Library to the National Library on Molesworth Street in 1973, the building became home to a range of commercial, cultural, artistic, social, institutional, and educational functions. The building was managed by the Turnbull House Council from 1975 to 1992 and by Te Papa Atawhai Department of Conservation from 1992 to 2017.  

In 2009, the building was deemed earthquake prone and, since 2012, has remained closed to the public, vacant, and unused.  

In 2017, stewardship of the building was transferred from Te Papa Atawhai Department of Conservation to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga as part of a broader ‘property rationalisation’ project undertaken at the time. 

With the support of government through Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga is undertaking the Turnbull House Project with the mission and vision to resolve all principal building issues at an optimal balance of safety, compliance, conservation, and cost.  

The main objectives of the project are seismic strengthening through base isolation and accompanying aboveground interventions; conservation of key heritage features, inside and out; upgrades to meet the regulatory and best practice requirements for fire safety; adaptations that improve accessibility and enable the building’s future resilience; and interpretation focusing on the legacy of Turnbull, mana whenua, and other important stakeholders.  

At the project’s completion, Turnbull House is expected to have a public use, which may include exhibition space, research rooms, event space, meeting rooms, and offices. We look forward to safely reopening Turnbull House so that any New Zealander can meaningfully use the building and understand its significant heritage value and features.

Turnbull House
Turnbull, Alexander Horsburgh

Stephanie So | Programme Coordinator – Turnbull House
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