Leys Institute Gymnasium

14 St Marys Road, Ponsonby, Auckland

  • Leys Institute Gymnasium (left). Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 23/09/2011.
  • Leys Institute Gymnasium. Building detail. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 23/09/2011.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 612 Date Entered 26th November 1981 Date of Effect 26th November 1981


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 11 Deed Blue F (RT NA576/50), North Auckland Land District, and part of the land described as Pt Allot 13 Sec 8 Suburbs of Auckland (RT NA131/205), North Auckland Land District and the building known as Leys Institute Gymnasium thereon

City/District Council

Auckland Council


Auckland Council

Legal description

Lot 11 Deed Blue F (RT NA576/50), Pt Allot 13 Sec 8 Suburbs of Auckland (RT NA131/205), North Auckland Land District


The Leys Institute Gymnasium building, opened in 1906, is nationally significant as a monument to the Victorian ideals of education and self-improvement for the community. The two buildings of the Leys Institute, a library building and the gymnasium building next door are believed to be a rare surviving example nationally of a purpose-built early twentieth-century combination of contiguous library and gymnasium structures and have played a significant role in Ponsonby and Auckland history. Both buildings, designed by architect Robert Watt, are important examples of turn of the century Edwardian Baroque architecture, and the main facades of the highly decorated one-storey plastered brick building, designed to be in keeping with the existing library, remain intact.

The Leys Institute was originally founded under the will of William Leys, a bookbinder and property owner who had been strongly involved in the Ponsonby community, who died in 1899, and then substantially financed by his brother, Thomson Wilson Leys. The Institute’s library was built in 1905; the funding for the neighbouring gymnasium came from a large donation from the estate of Ponsonby resident William Mason, two Mayors of Auckland, and members of the Leys family, who continued their involvement for many decades.

In the early twentieth century, exercise culture was very much in vogue, embraced by both men and women. A number of gymnasiums were established at this time. Much was made at the opening of the gymnasium in 1906 of the need for young people to develop both their bodies and their minds. While one use of a gymnasium may be to keep ‘young people out of mischief’, the mayor said it also ‘played an important part in developing their faculties, in enabling them to make the most of themselves’. The building consisted of a large open gymnasium with an open truss roof; a director’s office; dressing rooms; and a photography darkroom. The words ‘Mens sana in Corpore sano’ (a sound mind in a sound body) were displayed on the wall. Within months of the opening of the gymnasium, hundreds of members, both men and women, were enrolled under director Professor Francis Potter. Gymnastics, wrestling, fencing, boxing and other sporting groups, often named after the Institute, were soon established and used the building for more than a century. It was also used for concerts, lectures and political meetings.

In 1967-8 the council added a concrete block two-storey addition at the rear. Architect John Gummer carried out a major restoration project on both buildings, funded by the William Leys Trust Fund and completed in 1991. The 1960s addition was partly removed and a new section added to allow room for new gymnasium facilities.

The Leys Institute gymnasium building has architectural significance for its Edwardian Baroque style, of which there are few examples in Auckland. It is likely to be a rare surviving example of a purpose-built, early-twentieth century combination of library and gymnasium, reflecting the importance placed on self-improvement through both mind and body, in a period of social change and heightened awareness of the disadvantaged.

This building is still in use as a gymnasium and community centre, continuing the Institute’s hugely important role in the community life of Ponsonby.

Assessment criteriaopen/close


The Leys Institute has played a significant role in Ponsonby and Auckland history. The construction of the Institute indicates recognition of the growing boundaries of Auckland and the establishment of Ponsonby. The Institute stands as a monument to the Victorian ideals of education and self-improvement for the community and the philanthropic urge of the Victorian middle class. The history of the Leys Institute is closely linked with the Leys family. The Institute was originally founded under the will of William Leys, a bookbinder and property owner, who died in 1899.

His intentions were to provide a free library and Mechanics Institute. The funds he left were inadequate and his brother, T.W. Leys, contributed half the money needed, on condition that the Auckland City Council provided the site. The Council accepted the offer and the Institute was opened in March 1905 by the Mayor, Mr E. Mitchelson. A year later a gymnasium was erected.

The Institute's main function is as a library, but it also provides a base for various organisations. These include literary, dramatic, musical, debating games and sports clubs. The Institute acts as an important social centre.


The Leys Institute is an important example of turn of the century Edwardian Baroque architecture, of which there are few examples in Auckland. At this time numerous types of buildings for which there was no set precedent or architectural style were being built. Many of these buildings fulfilled a civic function such as town halls, libraries, police and fire stations.

In its earlier phase the architecture was characterised by the use of a elaborate and picturesque skyline. The style changed rapidly to a form more influenced by the Beaux Arts tradition. This period of rapid change is apparent when the Leys Institute and the nearby Ponsonby Post Office (1911) are compared.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Watt, Robert Martin

Watt (1860-1907) was born in Scotland and studied architecture in Glasgow with the firm of Barclay Bros. He immigrated to New Zealand about 1878 for health reasons and practised in Auckland both on his own account and, from about 1892, with John Mitchell (c.1859-1947). Mitchell and Watt were appointed architects to the Auckland Education Board in 1892 and while Mitchell undertook new work, Watt was responsible for rebuilding projects and renovations to existing buildings. In 1960 Watt was elected president of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Watt was responsible for the design of the Ley's Institute, Ponsonby (1905-06), and the partnership of Mitchell and Watt was responsible for schools at Te Mata (1905) and Maungatautari (1905), additions to schools at Cambridge (1900) and Dargaville (1905), the Seddon Memorial Technical College (1903-13), and Mt Eden Congregational Church (1900).

Jas Lye and Son

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description


The Leys Institute consists of two buildings which are both Baroque in style. One building (the Institute) is two storeys in height, and the other (the Gymnasium) is one storey high.

The facades of both buildings have elongated proportions. Bays of narrow windows are separated by pilasters which culminate in finials. Two of the pilasters on the Institute building culminate in pediments and are flanked by volutes resembling Dutch gables. The central three bay portions of both buildings are stepped forward and have pedimented gables. The window sills and leads are linked by string courses in which the beds of the pediments above the windows are incorporated.


1908 A new lending department added

1927 Offices altered and additional toilets added

New wireless workshop

1939 Demolition of existing partitions in the lending department

Extensive enlargement and remodelling of interior

1957 Hilary Leys Memorial Wing added

1967 Extensions to Gymnasium

Notable Features

The distinctive façade

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1906 -
Gymnasium built

1967 -
Extensions to Gymnasium

1991 -

2007 -
Courtyard area in front of the two buildings developed

Construction Details

Brick, plastered. Timber framing. Roof timber-framed with metal trusses.

Completion Date

11th June 2015

Report Written By

Elizabeth Cox

Information Sources

Auckland Public Libraries

Auckland Public Libraries

1880 -1950

Auckland Star

Auckland Star

Auckland Star, 5 July 1906, p3

Auckland Star

Auckland Star

19 March 1964

Colgan, 1980

Wynne Colgan, The Governor's Gift: The Auckland Public Library 1880-1980, Auckland, 1980.

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Mogford, Janice, ‘Leys, Thomson Wilson’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, updated 5 Nov 2013

New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald, 12 July 1932, p. 6; 28 September 1933, p. 6.

9 July 1963

13 June 1984

15 April 1907 (Obituary) p6

University of Auckland

University of Auckland

J Barr 1950, Sheppard Collection

Verran, 2004

David Verran, 'Mechanics' Institutes in New Zealand, and their effect on the development of library services.' Paper to LIANZA conference, September 2004

Carlyon, 2008

Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow, Urban Village: The Story of Ponsonby, Freemans Bay and St Mary's Bay, Auckland, 2008

Cumming, 1959

Ian Cumming, Glorious Enterprise - The History of the Auckland Education Board, 1857-1957. Christchurch 1959

Education Board

Education Board

1857-1957, p204-5

Auckland Metro

Auckland Metro

‘Murry Grimsdale: Celebrating Life’, Auckland Metro, Dec 1981/Jan 1982, p.13

Barr, 1950

Barr, John, Auckland Public Libraries 1880-1950, Auckland, 1950

Leys, 1908

Leys, Thomson W, Report on Municipal Libraries in Great Britain, 1908

New Zealand Libraries

New Zealand Libraries

New Zealand Libraries

New Zealand Libraries

Ridling, Coral, ‘Hilary Leys Memorial Wing: A New Children’s Library’, New Zealand Libraries, Vol. 21, No. 6, 1958, pp142-147

New Zealand Libraries

New Zealand Libraries

Ridling, Coral, and H Hills, ‘Work with Non-European Children’, New Zealand Libraries, No 31, 1968, pp.33-43

Riding, 2001?

Ridling, Coral, One Man’s Dream: The Leys Institute and the Family who Founded It, Ponsonby U3A Publication No1, [2001?]

Anon, 1906

The Leys Institute, St Mary’s Road, Ponsonby, Auckland NZ, 1906

Daley, 2003

Daley, Carolyn, Leisure and Pleasure: Reshaping and Revealing the New Zealand Body 1900–1960, Auckland, 2003

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 Northern Region Office of Heritage New Zealand