Saturday, June 16, 2012

General Assembly Library, Wellington

Edited 24 June 2014.

When I got this postcard on TradeMe recently, I didn't think it would take a bit of untangling of internet sources to tweeze out a history of the building. Heritage New Zealand (formerly NZ Historic Places Trust) have this summary which doesn't give the full story, really. The best one can be found here via

Apparently, in 1857, the Wellington Provincial Council had their Council Chambers constructed -- but seemingly with an eye to the future, which arrived in 1865, when the capital shifted from Auckland to Wellington, and the Provincial Council building was ready and waiting for the Government to move right in. In 1873, the original building was extended and altered, as the affairs of running our far-flung colony became more and more involved and complicated.

Parliament buildings, Wellington, [ca 1880] Reference Number: 1/2-018471-F. Alexander Turnbull Library

Reference Number: 1/2-C-16700-F Wood engraving showing women sitting in the Ladies' Gallery, Parliament House, Wellington. Taken from the `Graphic', 13 November, 1880, page 484. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Showing a view of the Parliament Buildings and extensions in Wellington from Hill Street. Auckland Weekly News 21 July 1899. Ref AWNS-18990721-4-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.

The building was further enhanced, added-to and generally made grander in 1899, the start of an eight-year period in its existence. My postcard belongs to this period.

The Parliament Buildings.

Wellington, June 19. 
Work at the Parliament Buildings is being rapidly pushed on, and most of it, except that in the library portion, will be ready by the opening time with the exception of small details. The prevailing feature of the new building is the bright white walls of the interior, which are set off by terracotta pillars and extensive ornamental work. For the present there will be want of room, as there is not so much space available in the new edifice as in the portion it replaces, especially while the library remains unfinished. 
 Colonist 20 June 1899

Showing the Council Chamber of the New Zealand house of Representatives in Parliament buildings, Wellington. Auckland Weekly News, 22 June 1900. Ref AWNS-19000622-9-6, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library


Most of the litter and debris which had accumulated inside and outside Parliament Buildings having been removed, the effect of the new structure can be better appreciated. In respect to style, it must be called a composite structure. It is disadvantageously placed, being overshadowed by what is known as the Speaker's wing, an old fashioned wooden edifice which is higher than the front entrance, and except for its Gothic windows possesses no style whatever. This portion of the present block will be replaced by the corresponding wing of the new structure facing the north-east. 

To many people, the low entrance of the new building gives a somewhat squat appearance to the whole. When completed, however, it will still look a handsome structure, notwithstanding its composite character. The internal work deserves the highest praise. Some experts have been at work night and day on the interior for the last three months. The ornamentation is in the finest cement, and exhibits some of the finest workmanship seen in the colony. The vestibule is admirable. The staircase which conducts the visitor to the upper committee rooms and corridors leading to the Legislative Council, is admirably conceived. The Sergeant-at-Arms' room, the Cabinet room, the messengers' room, the clerk and assistant clerks' rooms are fitted with panelled ceilings and cornices. The vestibule panels are supported by round pilasters with floral caps, the shaft being of a brown red color, and having an excellent effect, for they are placed round the whole of the walls. The entrance doors are excellent. The flooring is composed of tiles, having the Royal Arms on either side. 

What is known as the long lobby is painted a dull green, with white mouldings. When the furniture is arranged, the whole of the compartments mentioned will have a bright and comfortable appearance. But the principal room upstairs is the library. It is an apartment of noble dimensions. There is, perhaps, not another room in the colony that approaches it for effect or convenience. It cannot be the receptacle for the books this year, because the walls are scarcely dry. The workmen are busy in painting the new building the "yellowish stone" color of the Speaker's wing. This seems incongruous, but it is a defect that will be easily amended. 

Poverty Bay Herald 21 June 1899

Zachariah, Joseph 1867-1965: Crowd outside Parliament Buildings, Wellington, celebrating Dominion Day, Thursday 26 September 1907 Reference Number: 1/2-153019-F Crowd outside Parliament Buildings, Wellington, celebrating Dominion Day on Thursday 26 September 1907. There are flags draped across the roof and also a line of flags flying from one side of the Parliament Buildings to the other. The statue of John Ballance can be seen near the middle of the photograph. Photograph taken by Joseph Zachariah. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Then, just two months after all the pomp of celebrations around our Dominion status in 1907 -- disaster.

1907 fire at Parliament Buildings, Wellington, 11 December 1907 Reference Number: 1/2-022885-F The fire at Parliament buildings on the 11th of December, 1907. Shows a crowd in the foreground and hoses following up through the gate to the Legislative Council steps. Sydney Street West is visible. Photographer unidentified. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Standing out boldly on a gradual eminence fronting Molesworth-street, and flanked on either side by Sydney and Hill-streets, the Parliamentary Buildings, now a blackened ruin, formed an imposing and handsome pile. Built at a time when men feared to build of brick in Wellington city, because of the restlessness of Mother Earth, the greater portion of the huge block was of wood, the exception being a new wing on the western side of the building in which the library, which was saved, was housed.

The danger of destruction of the main building by fire has long been apparent, and the re-building of the wooden structure in brick was decided upon by Cabinet some years ago. The size of the building made this a very costly undertaking, and the work was put in hand in sections. The valuable library was first housed in brick, and then came a hiatus of several years, when the general reconstruction in brick was determined upon, the first contract, which included the extension and replacement of the western side, having been let during the last recess …

The building, exclusive. of the brick annexe, was one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, although considerably smaller than the Treasury Buildings on Lambton Quay, which takes pride of place in regard to wooden structures the world over. The area covered was very extensive, and the destroyed portion contained both Houses, the chambers of the House of Representatives and of the Legislative Council, in addition to the various galleries, cabinet room, committee rooms, the Speaker's quarters, and Ministers rooms.

Parliament House was erected, in 1873 from plans prepared by the Colonial Architect, Mr. Clayton, and there has been a great deal of alteration and reconstruction since. The Parliamentary Buildings were previously on the same site, but owing to the ravages of dry rot the reconstruction of the buildings had to be undertaken… In the recess of 1883-4 extensive alterations were made, a system of ventilation being established, and special appliances being laid on to heat, purify, and distribute air through the building. In 1898 a contract was let for a new wing in brick for the housing of the library, and to minimise risk in the event of fire. This was built with but one entrance, a double fireproof door on the ground floor just inside the entrance, all other portions of the interior walls being absolutely solid, a barrier which has proved effective, except in the case of Bellamy's, on the south of the library, being thus offered to the progress of flames from the wooden building …

The saving of the library is fortunate indeed. It is a very valuable collection, containing over fifty thousand volumes, and including an invaluable and unique collection of New Zealand literature, newspaper files and pamphlets. To the late Alfred Domett, statesman, poet, and ripe scholar, is due the title of father of this grand collection of literature. He commenced his labour of love while Premier, in 1862, and continued it during his residence in the colony until 1871. The banding contains two storeys and a basement, sociological works and fiction being stored on the ground floor, and works of reference on the upper. The value of this library cannot be estimated, and its destruction would have been a tremendous loss to the colony, for no amount of money could replace some of the volumes and records …

Auckland Star 11 December 1907

1907 fire at Parliament Buildings, Wellington, 11 December 1907 Reference Number: 1/2-008517-F Fire at Parliament Buildings, on the corner of Molesworth and Hill Streets, Wellington, 11th of December, 1907. Photographer unidentified. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The surviving part of the building became the General Assembly Library building, witnessing further changes on the site as Parliament Buildings, and later the Beehive were erected during the 20th century.

Parliament Buildings, Molesworth Street, Wellington, ca 1928 Reference Number: 1/2-068827-F Shows Parliament Buildings and the General Assembly Library in Molesworth Street with the Tinakori hills in the background. Photograph taken ca 1928. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Interior of the General Assembly Library (later known as the Parliamentary Library) in Wellington, photographed by Jeremy Garvitch circa 1940s-1950s. Shows a Gothic revival style room, featuring rows of books on bookcases. 
Reference Number: PAColl-0074-1-05, Alexander Turnbull Library.

General Assembly Library, Wellington, November 1955 Reference Number: 1/2-177170-F View of the General Assembly Library (now the Parliamentary Library) from the front from Parliament grounds, taken by Morrie Hill. 
Alexander Turnbull Library.

During work on refurbishing the library in the 1990s, fire struck yet again in 1992. But, it survived.

Reference Number: EP/1992/F4816/4A-F Flames bursting from the roof of the General Assembly Library building, Parliament Buildings, Wellington. Photographed by an Evening Post staff photographer on the evening of the 19th of October 1992. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Master plasterer, Ian Colquhoun standing framed by the wooden gothic tracery of a window in the Parliamentary Library building. Photographed by an unknown Evening Post staff photographer on the 1st of July 1995. 
Reference Number: EP/1995/1956/5A-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.


  1. Pardon me while I drool a little all over your blog at those gorgeous buildings.

  2. Drool away, Aussie friend o' mine ... ;-)

  3. Fabulous post. Yes I'll echo Jayne on the photos there.........