Wellington Scoop

Central Library to be given top heritage protection – architectural, historical and social value

central library heritagenz

by Helene Ritchie
Heritage New Zealand have agreed with my submission which nominated Wellington’s Central Library for the highest possible heritage protection in New Zealand. I am delighted. Our distinctive library is well and truly worthy of this highest protection.

As a result, Heritage New Zealand is proposing that the Library be listed and protected as a category one Historic Place, particularly but not only for its architectural, historical and social values, recognising that the Library is the second most utilised public building in Wellington after Te Papa.

The protection includes sculptures inside by renowned New Zealand sculptors and architects John Scott, Alan Brown, Paratene Matchitt, and recognition of some of Clare Athfield’s interior design work and some of the unique furniture and chattels.

My background as former Chair of the Civic Centre project, when the entire concept plan was developed and adopted in 1987/88, and the team of architects, Athfield, Tebbs and Moller was appointed, enabled me to provide extensive supporting material with my nomination to Heritage New Zealand, emphasising the key role of the Library (and civic centre) in the life of the Capital.

In their in-depth report, Heritage New Zealand say:

The Wellington Central Library possesses outstanding architectural significance as a highly esteemed postmodern building, employing classical architectural forms, historical references and varied shapes and materials to arresting effect. The building is critically acclaimed by architectural commentators and has won major architectural awards. It has exceptional historical significance as a major work of Ian Athfield, one of New Zealand’s most renowned architects of recent times.. a very significant figure in the modern history of Aotearoa New Zealand architecture.….

Commonly referred to as Wellington’s living room, the Central Library has outstanding social significance as a much-loved and visited institution. Its outstanding significance rests on its architectural, historical and social values …. it occupies a special position in Aotearoa New Zealand’s architectural landscape. Its most striking feature, the collection of nīkau palm columns, is part of the cultural fabric of Wellington…

In addition to the critical approbation this building has received, it had a high level of public use and associated esteem.…a place to access books, magazines, music and technology, it was valued as a meeting point, relaxation spot, and warm and inviting haven on a cold day.

Heritage New Zealand is recommending that a conservation plan be prepared; that the building be seismically strengthened, conserved and refurbished in accordance with the conservation plan; that it be added to the Wellington City District Plan heritage schedule and scheduled for protection, and that the heritage values of the building inform the use and management of the site.

They are now calling for comment on their report and recommendations, by 13 October.

Helene Ritchie, a former deputy mayor, chaired the Civic Centre project which approved the concept plan, and commissioned architects Athfield, Moller and Tebbs to design the Library and civic centre.


  1. Pauline Swann, 9. September 2020, 16:47

    Once again Helene you have come up top for Wellingtonians! Well done and as one of the 1300 plus submitters thank you for what we hope is the preservation of our wonderful Central Library.

  2. David Mackenzie, 10. September 2020, 6:50

    Helene, wonderful. Now the council has no option but to fully repair it. I hope they do not attempt a legal challenge to the listing.
    We need our library, it is the beating heart of our city’s cultural life.

  3. Sky, 10. September 2020, 9:10

    Thank you. But. Protection of this kind is a two edged sword. Wellington is a young city. And at pains to find good examples of architecture, which takes time to develop the depth of talent and cultural significance to find the material to do so. Let’s try to be honest about its architecture, compared to other capital cities. Mirthful, colourful — these are *interesting* qualities — but not *Significant Architecture* qualities. They’re not St. Paul’s. Or the Guggenheim. Or the National Library in Paris. It’s a conceptually thin project — its only distinction, really, are the columns.

  4. greenwelly, 10. September 2020, 10:09

    Heritage NZ listing is nice, but unless it’s given effect under the council’s district plan it doesn’t give any protection…
    The Teachers training college in Karori was deemed an “outstanding architectural significance ” and listed as a Category 1 historic places by heritage NZ. That didn’t stop Ryman demolishing and bulldozing it.

  5. Helene Ritchie, 10. September 2020, 10:18

    Congratulations to all so far. This is a huge step forward. However, we must remain vigilant……

    It is especially good that Heritage NZ is recommending placement on District Plan. (more consultation and submissions..sigh). Meantime October hearings to the Council re the 1300 plus submissions; then the Council might at last make a decision and get on with fixing refurbishing and reopening.
    Do submit if even briefly to NZ Heritage by Oct 13. Theirs is an excellent and interesting report with only very minor error.

  6. wendy, 10. September 2020, 11:08

    Fabulous news Helene

  7. Dave B, 10. September 2020, 12:01

    Definitely your turn for mayor, Helene.

  8. John H, 10. September 2020, 17:02

    While I appreciate the effort made by Heritage NZ, the WCC are unlikely to want to have their hands tied on their decision by listing it on the district plan. I experienced this to great distress when I was involved in the ‘Campaign to Save Broadcasting House’. This was a brilliant building with considerable architectural and major engineering merit (possibly the finest recording studios in Australasia). There was nothing wrong with it structurally and it had just undergone a multi-million dollar refurbishment. It had a Category 1 listing by the HPT, no listing on the district plan and was demolished for no reason whatsoever. The National Government were so desperate to get rid of it that they called in the bulldozers to start demolition when (literally) the lights were still running.

  9. Dorothy Grover, 10. September 2020, 17:14

    That’s awesome news for a beautiful building that should be preserved as part of Wellington history.

  10. Toni, 10. September 2020, 17:44

    @sky: Yes Wellington is a young city and unfortunately too many beautiful old buildings have been bulldozed down. Unless we are prepared to keep buildings considered significant, we will always look like a young city with no heritage.

  11. Helene Ritchie, 10. September 2020, 17:58

    I agree re the powers of Heritage NZ. But they do have power and they exercise it judiciously on our behalf.
    Category 1 classification means after serious research that they recognise the Wellington Central Library as a worthy place for the highest possible protection for our country, not only the Capital. The report of Heritage NZ and the recommendations are excellent, very helpful, and we should send a comment even if if is brief and supportive! However, we must focus now on the Council and its hearings – and action by them.

  12. Guy M, 10. September 2020, 18:20

    You’ve certainly got a good point John H. The Grade 1 Heritage listing that has been given to buildings in the past has not guaranteed any of them against demolition. In recent years, the Erskine College and Chapel was heritage listed, and then demolished by the developer, with just the Chapel remaining. In Napier, the St Johns Church Hall (one of the few pre-quake buildings surviving in Napier’s CBD) was listed as grade 1, and then demolished by the church and replaced with asphalt for a car park. In Christchurch, despite the Grade 1 listing on several buildings, including both the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals, both have been in limbo for a decade, with one at last being kept and the other destroyed.

    The only thing really that will save a building is not so much the listing (nice try Helene) but people power and money. Lots of money.

  13. Georgina Campbell, 10. September 2020, 18:22

    If Wellington’s Central Library gets listed, it’ll be the first heritage place listed from the 1990s.

  14. Paul Martell, 10. September 2020, 19:58

    Thanks Helene. These architects were the Wellington group in their prime. It needs to be kept. I simply love it!

  15. Victor Davie, 10. September 2020, 20:21

    John H: Broadcasting House opened in 1963 and demolition commenced in the dead of the night during mid-September 1997. Doug Kidd was speaker of the House of Representatives and was tossed out along with his National colleagues in 1999.

  16. James, 11. September 2020, 9:21

    The Heritage New Zealand report is available here.