Wellington Scoop

Don’t demolish the Harcourts Building; a plea to save its history and architecture

by John Daniels
Historic Places Wellington urges the Wellington City Council to refuse the application to demolish the Harcourts Building in Lambton Quay. The Council has the difficult responsibility of balancing public safety, property rights, and heritage interests. We urge the Council to give the most serious consideration to upholding the integrity of the Historic Places Act registration and its own heritage listing for this Category One building.

Category One registration requires passing the test of special or outstanding historical or cultural significance or value. This high status is conferred only sparingly and in special cases. There is only a limited number of these in central Wellington. Category One buildings therefore demand a high degree of attention to their protection and preservation.

It has been notable that in the past ten years (apart from the exceptional case of post-earthquake Christchurch) only seven Category One buildings have been lost throughout the whole of New Zealand. Of these seven, two were lost to fires. Two were large railway bridges whose preservation was deemed impractical. Of the remaining three, one was in an isolated rural location and a safety risk. The remaining two buildings were in urban areas, one in Napier and the other in Whanganui.

It would be a most unfortunate and notable precedent if the present application resulted in the first loss of a Category One building in a major city (apart from Christchurch).

The Wellington City Council has been a leader among local government administrations in its regard for past history and its use of heritage assets to enhance the city’s liveability. If it were conversely to be a leader in approving the demolition of a central Category One building, this would signal that the Council has changed direction and is prepared to sacrifice its most important heritage assets without full exploration of possible options.

If full demolition is granted, this is likely to have a profound effect on heritage not only in Wellington, but also setting a precedent for heritage building owners around New Zealand, that it is acceptable to demolish our architectural heritage, thus destroying our “Sense of Place”.

The Harcourt’s Building has historical significance because it was erected in 1928 for T & G, the Australian Temperance and General Mutual Life Assurance Society Limited. The company was established in 1876 in Melbourne. Business developed rapidly and by 1903 the company had offices in New Zealand and all over Australia.

T & G’s first offices in Wellington were sited where Midland Park, Lambton Quay is now. Prior to the T & G, Commercial Union Assurance Company had owned and occupied a building on this site since 1890. T&G bought the site of the present building in 1924 and in 1928 erected what was then one of Wellington’s biggest and grandest buildings.

T & G was one of New Zealand’s major insurance companies until its merger with National Mutual in 1983. Wellington was the home of T & G’s New Zealand head office from the time it was established in the country in 1903. The Harcourt’s building is historically significant as the company’s head office for 55 years.

• Architectural Significance

The distinctive T & G architectural style, developed by the firm’s Australian architects, is well displayed in this building. It is aesthetically significant for its bold, sculptural facade, a prominent element in the Lambton Quay streetscape, and perhaps the best example in the city of the so-called Chicago style pioneered by Louis Sullivan and other architects. This style sought to establish proportions and design features, as well as engineering practices, particularly appropriate to tall buildings. The term “stripped classicism” is sometimes used to describe this style.

The building is a worthy representative of the transitional period between the Classical revival and Art Deco movements. The building uses contemporary materials of structural steel and reinforced concrete in an imaginative manner combined with the formality of classicism. This is a prestige building representing the best in design and finishes of its time.

The building is in remarkably authentic condition, both outside and in significant interior spaces.

• Townscape and Landmark Value

The T&G’s corner siting gives it a strikingly handsome presence. The character and scale of the land and building are comparable to the nearby Harbour City Building (formerly DIC) and together they form a coherent and pleasing architectural statement. Moving further north along the east side of Lambton Quay, the Kirkcaldie’s Building façade, the former State Insurance Building, and the former Public Trust building, represent an important streetscape of commercial buildings from earlier periods of the city.

• Assessment of Heritage Values

An Assessment of Heritage Values has been prepared by Salmond Reed Architects. Its introduction states:

The building is a notable building in the Wellington commercial centre and is an important artefact in the history of the insurance industry in New Zealand, and the roles these played in the shape and character of the main centres. It is also significant as a work of architecture of the first half of the twentieth century in New Zealand, and at the time of its construction was considered to be a robust structure, capable of resisting damage by earthquake, a quality that it no longer enjoys.

The report later quotes from the Conservation Plan for the building prepared by the same firm in 1999, as follows:

Harcourt’s Building has considerable significance in Wellington and New Zealand because of the following:
• Its association with the development of the insurance industry in this country, and the T&G in particular;
• Its architectural character and design, as an example of the early 20th century Classical Revival style in New Zealand, its use of classical decorative motifs applied to both its exterior and interior, and the quality and consistency of its architectural detail;

• Its technical interest as an early building incorporating concrete encased steel construction;
• Its setting in the modern central Wellington streetscape;
• The survival of some original interiors of very high architectural quality.

The Plan also draws attention to

A high level of fabric integrity, including notably; finishes in the ground floor lobby, stairs and stair foyers, lift entrance doors (including indicator panels); and original ceramic finishes.

These assessments are a very accurate and valid statement of the considerable heritage merits of this building.

Structural and Economic Factors

Historic Places Wellington accepts that public risk and safety considerations are paramount in the inner city. We note that the building is subject to an Earthquake Prone Building notice under section 124 of the Building Act 2004. Strengthening and other remedial works are essential if the building is to have a future.

These issues are exacerbated by the problem of pounding between Harcourt’s and the adjacent building in the event of an earthquake. Although there are ways of mitigating this problem they would result is a reduction in usable floor space.

The Harcourt’s building has significant issues in regard to the air rights and future development of the building caused by the redevelopment of the neighbouring HSBC Building. This in turn means that substantial value has been transferred from the Harcourt’s building to the HSBC building, thus making any development by a new buyer of the Harcourt’s building problematic. This is clearly shown by the financial calculations and current “as is” value in the Collier’s valuation. Upon reading the various reports supplied by the applicant it is easy to see how the costs could blow out in trying to strengthen and refurbish the building within its current envelope.

Because of these factors, it may be difficult to develop an economically viable scheme to strengthen and refurbish the building as is, and may require partial redevelopment of the property encompassing use of some of the air space above.

It has been well documented in the press that due to the Christchurch earthquakes building owners throughout New Zealand, and especially Wellington, are now paying the price in significant increases in insurance premiums. This has had a devastating effect on value of all buildings but most notably heritage and unreinforced masonry buildings built around the time of the subject building in the 1930’s.

Seeking a Solution

Nevertheless, Historic Places Wellington urges the Council to enter into discussions with the applicant to develop a viable proposal that preserves the most important elements of the building. The full range of mechanisms available to the Council should be used to encourage this outcome.

From a heritage viewpoint, the best outcome would be to strengthen and refurbish the building in its present form. Possible uses that would capitalise on the quality and character of the building might include professional offices or a small high-end boutique hotel.

Wellington is in need of a 5 star-plus hotel as has been shown by the possible options for a Hilton Hotel on the Wellington Waterfront. It is understood that a hotel proposal has been talked about for Harcourt’s building in the past. Such a development would require a lot of internal walls, which would in turn add the overall strengthening process for the building.

If this sort of outcome proves unattainable, then some degree of additional development would be required. This should only be permitted if key elements of the building were retained. Other measures, such as replacement of decorative features in lightweight materials, could assist.

Mechanisms open to the Council to assist in retaining the building include

• Use of the Built Heritage Incentive Fund for assistance to owners of buildings listed in the District Plan Heritage Lists or in a heritage area.
• Rating relief – This was provided to the owner of Old Bank Arcade, one of Lambton Quay’s icons, to assist in the redevelopment in the 1990’s.
• Remission of fees when a resource consent is required because the building is listed in the District Plan Heritage Lists or in a heritage area.
• Use of Transferable Development Rights. These were used in the 1980’s to facilitate some heritage building projects, e.g. the Old Public Trust Building.

Added to these might be possible changes at central government level. The government is currently waiting on Royal Commission findings, with the first report due out in November this year. This is likely to provide guidance in reviewing the Building Act 2004, the Earthquake Prone Building policies, and what if any tax concessions may be offered to building owners to strengthen their buildings more quickly to make our cities safer places in which to work and live.

Historic Places Wellington understands that we are in difficult times, and that building owners need to make decisions and move forward soon as possible. We realise that compromise will often be required to save some of our most important heritage buildings. Those compromises should aim at preserving as much of the significant fabric of heritage buildings as possible.

There needs to be compromise from all parties, so that the benefits are also shared with future generations, and that the city can grow at the same time.

The city has some fine examples of heritage buildings that have been redeveloped and in some cases incorporated in new developments. This has been done very successfully with the Old BNZ buildings and the Chews Lane development with the Ballinger building.

Historic Places Wellington recommends that the application be declined and that all options for retaining the building in or near its existing form be further explored and discussed. If preserving the building in its existing form proves impracticable, consideration should be given to allowing a redevelopment retaining the most significant heritage features of the building.

John Daniels is chairman of Historic Places Wellington Inc. This article is adapted from his organisation’s submission to the city council opposing the owner’s plan to demolish the building.


  1. Pauline, 12. November 2012, 11:53

    Thank you Historic Places Wellington for your research. I have since read the Council Heritage Buildings report and under “Description” it says “The construction technique used in the building was modern – a steel framework and foundations of reinforced concrete. The exterior walls are 330mm brick, plastered and the interior walls are brick or reinforced concrete.” From this report there appears to be no valid justification for the demolition and there should be an independent engineering report; plans need to be fully investigated to retain at least the essential elements of this building which has survived a number of earthquakes over the last 84 years.

    The suggestion of a Boutique hotel sounds great not a 25 storey office block.

  2. George, 12. November 2012, 20:32

    We all know demolition is a done deal. Wellington is property developers’ heaven.

  3. Phil C, 16. November 2012, 0:54

    Ohh no, no, no! How can they let this happen? Why are some New Zealanders so set on vulgarising and vandalising their country?

    Mind you, Wellingtonians have a wonderful history of wrecking their architectural heritage, as in the 1980s. You’d think the presence of a university and a civil service might serve to heighten sensibilities but no, it’s a town that seems to want to render itself ever-more provincial and parochial in the pursuit of passing fads.

  4. Maximus, 16. November 2012, 15:51

    photos on this page by eyeofthefish.org …..

  5. Tania W, 17. November 2012, 11:01

    Thanks Wellington.Scoop for highlighting this issue. Every day, it seems another heritage building is under threat, with little comment from those living in the city. This is despite the fact that it is the character of our city which makes it such a wonderful place to live in. Whilst it is obvious that safety must be of primary concern for people, this does not need to come at the expense of our heritage. No one is interested in finding creative solutions to the issue and the knee-jerk reaction of demolition will be one we live to regret.