Turnbull House

25-27 Bowen Street, Wellington Central – Pipitea, Wellington

  • Turnbull House, Wellington. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Paul Le Roy. Taken By: Paul Le Roy – Minicooperd. Date: 10/01/2016.
  • Turnbull House, Wellington. CC BY-SA 4.0. Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org.
    Copyright: Michal Klajban. Taken By: Michal Klajban - Wikimedia Commons. Date: 1/01/2015.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 232 Date Entered 25th November 1982 Date of Effect 25th November 1982


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 3 DP 2991 (NZ Gazette 1992, pp. 3822-3823; RT WN237/291), Lot 3 DP 10325 (NZ Gazette 1992, pp. 3822-3823; RT WN436/191), and Lot 1 AP 2948 (NZ Gazette 1992, pp. 3822-3823), Wellington Land District, and the building known as Turnbull House thereon.

City/District Council

Wellington City


Wellington Region

Legal description

Lot 3 DP 2991 (NZ Gazette 1992, pp. 3822-3823; RT WN237/291), Lot 3 DP 10325 (NZ Gazette 1992, pp. 3822-3823; RT WN436/191), Lot 1 AP 2948 (NZ Gazette 1992, pp. 3822-3823), Wellington Land District


Turnbull House on Bowen Street, Wellington, is a three-storey brick building designed by William Turnbull as a private home for nationally significant collector and bibliophile Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull (1868-1918). It has historical, cultural and architectural significance as a rare example of a purpose-built home and library, with a mix of Scottish Baronial, Queen Anne and Medieval architecture. After Alexander Turnbull’s death in 1918, the building housed the Alexander Turnbull Library for 55 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.

Alexander Turnbull was an important collector, principally of books, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Turnbull’s collecting, which had begun at a young age, became much more focused around 1892 and his collection came to include works by John Milton, Maori and Pacific artefacts and clothing, coins, and volumes relating to New Zealand, ocean voyages, naval history, Captain Cook, and English drama. Turnbull was also interested in golf and yachting, and was a member of a number of societies and local clubs. In 1913 he donated his collection of artefacts to the Dominion Museum and devoted his time to books for the last two years of his life. Turnbull commissioned prominent architectural firm Thomas Turnbull and Son (architect William Turnbull) to design a house for himself and his collection, which in 1918 was regarded as the largest private library in the country and was valued at £51,800.

Turnbull House was built by builders Campbell and Burke at a cost of £6,000 on part of a Bowen Street section owned by Turnbull’s family, the family home and most of the grounds having been sold in 1914. The house’s construction was delayed until late 1915 by the outbreak of World War I and Turnbull was only able to move into the house in 1916. The house was designed to store at least 60,000 volumes in its three-roomed library, and living quarters were in the southern end of the building.

Turnbull was not to live for long in the house. He died in 1918 and his collection was bequeathed to the government. His house, which was purchased by government, was opened to the public in 1920 as the Turnbull Library. The Library was to stay in the building until 1973, after which time the building housed various tenants including community groups, and was used for functions.

A life-long bachelor, Turnbull's private life and sexuality has been speculated about by biographers and historians. Eric McCormick and Chris Brickell have taken a circumspect approach, considering that he may have been what today would be understood as gay, but noting a lack of definitive evidence, whereas Stephen Eldred-Grigg has described him as a 'wealthy homosexual merchant, bibliophile, philanthropist and advocate of fin de siecle aestheticism'.

Turnbull House was threatened with demolition in the 1970s when the Ministry of Works planned an access ramp to link with the motorway. These plans were withdrawn following strong community concern. The building was strengthened in 1955 by James H Milne for the Ministry of Works and then again in 1995. In the mid-1950s, the gables and upper windows were removed because of perceived earthquake risk. They were rebuilt in 1995. Deemed to be earthquake prone by the Wellington City Council in 2009, the building was closed in 2012 pending further strengthening work. Nestled amongst the high rise buildings of Lambton Quay and The Terrace, Turnbull House is an important part of the Government Centre Historic Area, and the country’s only example of a purpose built residence and library.


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

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1915 - 1916

Structural upgrade
1955 - 1957
Building was structurally strengthened; major structural and refurbishment work including removal of gables and upper windows; automatic sprinkler system fitted

Structural upgrade
1995 -
Earthquake strengthening, restoration of ornamentation including gables, roof repaired, wiring replaced, fire protection improved

Completion Date

21st October 2015

Report Written By

Natalie Marshall

Information Sources

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Traue, J. E., ‘Turnbull, Alexander Horsburgh’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 18-Mar-2014,

URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/2t53/turnbull-alexander-horsburgh



‘Brick Gables Restored’, The Dominion, 21 August 1995

Dominion Post

Dominion Post, Wellington

‘Repairs Disruption at Historic Building’, The Dominion Post, 25 August 2012, p. 17

Evening Post

Evening Post

‘Funding sought for Turnbull House’, Evening Post, 12 September 1977

Evening Post

Evening Post

‘Legacy of an energetic collector’, Evening Post, 19 August 1989

The Dominion

The Dominion

‘Turnbull House restoration nearly finished’, The Dominion, 13 July 1995

Barrowman, 1995

Barrowman, Rachel, The Turnbull: A Library and its World, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1995

Cochran, 1991

Cochran, Chris, Turnbull House: Conservation Plan, Department of Conservation, Wellington, 1991

Other Information

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