Wellington Scoop

Closed and empty: time to reopen a significant city building

alexander turnbull house

by Rachel Underwood
During the recent celebration of Wellington’s 150 years as the nation’s capital, one of the few disappointments was that Turnbull House was not featured nor open. The sign on the front door simply said ” closed to public.”

Turnbull House, at 25 Bowen Street, is a category 1 listed heritage building with a highly significant place in the history of Wellington and New Zealand. It stands within the government precinct, opposite the Beehive and the Cenotaph (now renovated so attractively by the city council) in a vital city area.

Turnbull House was bult in 1916 as the home of Alexander Turnbull, to house his expanding collection of books, documents and maps. The house was designed by Thomas Turnbull (no relation) who designed the General Assembly Library, St Peter’s and John’s Churches (Willis Street) and Wesley Church (Taranaki Street.)

alex t sign

On Turnbull’s death in 1918, his library was bequeathed to the Crown, noted at the time as “the most generous bequest to the people of New Zealand ever made by a New Zealander.” (NZ Times, July 1918). The government then bought the house, and the nationally and internationally respected Alexander Turnbull Library opened there in 1920. In 1961, the Treaty of Waitangi was on public display in a glass case in the entrance hall.

After 1986, when the Turnbull joined the National Library in the Molesworth Street building, Turnbull House continued to be administered by the Department of Conservation, and became available for exhibitions and seminars. For a period a cafe and catring business operated there. Till nearly three years ago it was the registered address of the Friends of the Turnbull Library (we rented an office there) as well as the Royal Philatelic Society and the Shakespeare Society, with other spaces rented to other cultural and community organisations.

Now, this important building has stood vacant since 2012, in need of additional earthquake strengthening. The Friends have approached the Department of Conservation and the Minister Maggie Barry for assurances that the strengthening will be done. This is particularly important as the centenary of the opening of the library occurs in 2020, less than five years hence.

It appears no funding has been obtained nor has planning commenced. This is disappointed as the house and its history ar a part of New Zealand’s identity to be celebrated along with the excellent facilities the ATL enjoys within the National Library. We encourage all who recognise the value of Turnbull House to approach your MP, the Department and the Minister, urging action to reopen the building soon.

Rachel Underwood is president of the Friends of the Turnbull. This article was first published in the Friends’ magazine Off The Record.


  1. Henry Filth, 3. October 2015, 17:13

    I suspect that once sufficient maintenance has been denied, and sufficient neglect applied, the building can be demolished as a safety risk. Something ugly can take its place. And the transformation of Bowen Street into a world class pedestrian unfriendly wind tunnel will be complete.

  2. Jason, 5. October 2015, 14:47

    This is typical of our government and councils. They are more focused on money and corporate interests than protecting the very small amount of history we have as a young country. The above comment by Henry is spot on. Exactly what will happen if we don’t stand up and do something about it. Good on Wellington.Scoop for posting this story.

  3. Nora, 6. October 2015, 10:47

    Thank you Henry and Jason, I totally agree.

    Ever since N Z Historic Places changed its name to Heritage New Zealand, our history went out the window. Wellingtonians need to be made aware of the possible loss of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

  4. Alana, 9. October 2015, 16:33

    Thank you for describing the problem and offering good suggestions to convince the authorities to re-open this impressive structure. It is beautiful, but also useful. It is missed as the site for community meetings – and even government departments booked its rooms frequently.
    So I’ll send an email to Maggie, John Key, the Historic Places Trust and the Mayor to let them know this building deserves some attention – and I’ll ask heaps of others to do the same.