Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wellington's central libraries

This image from a postcard shows the 1893 Wellington Public Library, a combination building linked with a technical school, at the intersection of Mercer and Wakefield Streets. It caught my eye because of the somewhat similar architecture used for the Leys Institute here in Auckland, a decade later. (Different architect, though).

Auckland Weekly News, 30 March 1905, ref AWNS-19050330-11-5, Sir George Grey Special Collections, 
Auckland Library

Anyway, back to Wellington, which has a timeline history online for its libraries.

In 1893, to the design of William Crichton, the Wellington central public library was opened.

In a day or two Messrs. R. Carmichael and Son, the contractors for the erection of the Public Library, will be in a position to hand over the building to the City Council. Work was begun early in December, 1891, but owing to a difficulty in obtaining Mount Somers stone, the completion of the undertaking has been delayed until the present. The building is a very handsome one of red brick, faced with white stone from the Ashburton district, and has been erected in a manner which has given Mr. W. Crichton, the architect, every satisfaction. The news-room, 56ft x 56ft, is on the ground floor, and contains reading desks capable of accommodating 78 papers. The desks are made of kauri and red pine, and each in surmounted by a couple of electric lamps. At each end of the room is a large fireplace with tile hearth and fender and an enamelled slate mantelpiece. Gaspipes have also been laid down, and if the necessity arises the fittings can be put into the room in a day or two. There is an apartment for the librarian on one side of the news-room. 

Leading off the stairs, a few feet above the ground floor, is a room which is intended for boys. It is provided with a number of tables and comfortable cane-bottomed chairs, and is to be lighted by electricity. Immediately above this room, on the upper floor, is another of equal size, which is to contain the magazines, and adjoining is situated the reference library, 56ft 9in by 56ft 9in. fitted with shelves for about 7000 volumes. The tables are 13 in number, and each is provided with electric light fittings. In order that there may be no overcrowding, only three persons are to be allowed to sit at each table. Ascending a narrow staircase the tower is reached, and a fine view of the city obtained. 

On the ground floor there are lavatories and the usual conveniences. Mr. James Freyberg's ornamental flooring has been laid in the vestibule, and is bound to attract the attention of every visitor. The flooring consists of a combination of New Zealand woods arranged artistically, and the effect is really fine. The centre resembles the Roman tiling in St. Albans Abbey, pine timber having been used by Mr. Freyberg to make the desired pattern, while the border, made of kauri and matai, represents the Grecian key. The flooring has been cemented with a preparation of local invention, and cannot be removed except a hammer and chisel are brought into use. Mr. Freyberg has been warmly complimented on the success of his work by a leading Melbourne architect who recently visited Wellington. The floor of the porch is also very ornamental, Mr. Burton, plasterer, having brought all his resources to bear in making an artistic design. The buildings are thoroughly ventilated, and the rooms are well lighted in the daytime, appliances for suppressing fire have been placed on each landing. 

The plumbing was done by Mr. J. E. Hayes, the painting, varnishing, &c., by Mr. Tustin, and the plastering by Mr. Burton, each of whom has carried out his sub-contract very satisfactorily. Mr. Godfrey, of Dunedin, carved the stonework over the windows and doors, and Mr. E. Seagar manufactured a massive iron gate for the entrance. The whole of the bricks and the patent ridging and crests were supplied by Mr. H Hill, of Wellington, and are a credit to his factory. Mr. T. S. Powell has made a very efficient clerk of works. 

(Evening Post 26 January 1893)

View of Wellington Public Library from Mercer-Wakefield Street site, Ca 1890s Reference Number: 10X8-0011-G, Alexander Turnbull library

William Crichton, the building's architect, had a bad accident later on while on the construction site of the Wellington Hospital in June 1926, overbalancing on a trestle and falling ten feet. He seemingly recovered, and continued his work but was never completely well afterward. He died in April 1928.

Very general and sincere regret will be expressed at the death of Mr. William Chrichton, of the firm of Crichton, McKay, and Haughton, architects, which took place unexpectedly at 6 o'clock this morning. ... The late Mr. Crichton was a son of the late Mr. George Crichton, merchant, of Wellington, and was born at Cornwall, England, in 1861, coming out to New Zealand with his parents 47 years ago in the ship Chile as a young man. Soon after his arrival here he entered the Public Works Department, and subsequently left to enter business as an architect on his own account. In 1901 he was joined by Mr. J. H. McKay, and the firm continued under the name of Crichton and McKay until 1923, when Mr. V. P. Haughton was admitted into partnership, and the name of the firm was altered to Crichton, McKay, and Haughton. Among the many buildings which the firm has erected are the Wellington Public Hospital, the new "Dominion" building, the Bowen street hospital, U.S.S Co. building, Banks of New South Wales and Australasia buildings, new Huddart-Parker building, and many hospital buildings in various parts of the country. Recently Mr. Crichton was appointed by the Wellington City Council to act with Messrs. W. Page and S. V. Fearn to formulate and report upon a scheme for a civic centre in Wellington. He leaves a widow to mourn her loss, and much sympathy will be extended to her, Mr. Crichton being a man of a very lovable nature and exceedingly popular wherever he went. Mr. Crichton's principal recreations were racing and motoring, he being one of the original guarantors of the Wellington Racing Club.
(EP 5 April 1928) 

The library Crichton designed lasted only 12 years after his death. By 1935, it was found to be inadequate, and plans were drawn up for funding loans and a new design by the firm of Gummer Ford. The old library closed 8 February 1920, and the new one opened 5 days later.

Wellington Public Library in Mercer Street, ca 1940 Reference Number: 1/1-015911-F Looking across Mercer Street, and the parked cars, at the Wellington Public Library. Taken by Gordon Burt circa 1940. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Of course, times being as they are and ever-changing, this later library was replaced in the 1980s-1990s by a new version, part of Wellington's Civic Centre development, still in the same area.


  1. I love all the building styles, such a pity each had to give way to the next instead of recycling the former ones for other uses.

  2. I agree, Jayne. At least the Leys Institute Library here in Auckland is still there in Ponsonby, virtually as it was when built.

  3. Jayne sent me over, and I am so glad she did. I often wonder whether the edifices being constructed now will last as long or be admired as much as their predecessors. With a few notable exceptions I think that public buildings have become dull, dull and boring to boot.

  4. Welcome! Oh, yes!! Absolutely agree. I like the 1893 version of the Wellington library. Haven't seen an image of the present library, but I'd say it would most likely be a glass, chrome and steel job (happy if anypone from Wellington would like to comment and say it's something different). We're in the Age of the Bland.

  5. Hi there, I came across this while hunting for information on this building for a design project. Just thought I would let you know, this building still sits proud in the middle of the civic centre and is now the the city's Art Gallery. The new library does have more glass etc but it is offset to the side, so this building is still centre of attention at civic centre :)