News | 12 May 2023
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A history of Wellington’s significant builds: Part one

Wellington wouldn’t be Wellington without the historic buildings that make up the city’s landscape.

The Basin Reserve in the 1980s, with crowds of people gathered on the grass.

As the city embarks on its biggest transformation programme since the development of the Wellington Waterfront more than 30 years ago, we’ve created this historic timeline of how the cityscape has evolved.

Basin Reserve - 1866

Basin Reserve in 1981.
The Basin Reserve, circa 1881. Wellington City Council Archives, 00291-3286-7

What originally began as a lagoon known as Basin Lake, has turned into one of the most unique cricket grounds in the world. 

After the 1855 earthquake caused the lagoon to be raised it quickly began to resemble a swamp so the local governing body (Wellington City Council) saw an opportunity to develop the area for recreational activities. 

With the help of inmates from Mt Cook Prison, the area was drained and levelled. By 1866, the Basin Reserve was officially recognised as the new capital’s main cricket ground. The first game of cricket was played on the Basin Reserve in 1868. The pavilion is now a registered Historic Place, and the Basin Reserve itself has been a registered Historic Area since 1998.

Old Government Building (Current Victoria University Law School building) - 1876

The old Government Building that is now the Victoria University Law building. Circa 1879. James Bragge; photographer; Wellington. Purchased 1955. Te Papa (D.000007).

The Victoria University Law building on Lambton Quay is one of the greatest wooden buildings in the city. At the time it was completed, it was the world’s second largest timber building after the Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple complex in Nara, Japan.

In 1994, the Department of Conservation began on a landmark two-year, $25 million restoration, after which Victoria University’s Law Faculty moved in. The grounds, ground floor displays and cabinet room remain open to the public.

The Old High Court building (Supreme Court) – 1881

Old Supreme Court building.
Old High Court building. Circa 1870. Wellington City Libraries 50002-3-63.

This building was the first major Wellington building to be constructed in masonry (brick and concrete) instead of timber, following the earthquake in 1855.

Construction started in 1879, and it was completed in March 1881 where it was used for the High Court. Over the next 100 years, there were many modifications made to this prominent building, and in 1982, the building was named historic. 

In 1993, the High Court moved to Molesworth Street and the building was left empty for 14 years!

Town Hall – 1904

Town Hall on Mercer Street.
Town Hall with original Band Rotunda. Circa 1904. Wellington City Council Archives, 00148-65.

The Town Hall was opened on December 7 by Mayor Aitken, infront of a 3,000-strong crowd. Although the Town Hall has been through a number of changes in the past century, it has kept its architectural significance in its style and form. 

The Town Hall was closed in 2013 for earthquake strengthening. By law, it either had to be demolished or strengthened, but its heritage status prevented it from being demolished.

When it re-opens, the Town Hall will be a world-class musical and recording venue with improved rehearsal and performance space. It will be a base for civic and community events and part of a centre of musical excellence for New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) and Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī. The redeveloped, much-loved Wellington Town Hall, with its wonderful auditorium and world-class acoustics, will be at the heart of the national music centre.

St Gerard’s Church and Monastery – 1908

Wellington hills with St Gerards Monastery.
Oriental Bay, Wellington showing St Gerard's Church and Monastery. Winder, Duncan, 1919-1970: Architectural photographs. Ref: DW-4120-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22756955.

The church on the hill is a key part of Wellington’s skyline. It's made up in two parts – the church, which was built in 1908, and the monastery, which was built in 1932. 

They were both designed by two well-known architects  John Swan and Frederick de Jersey Clere.

The Church was a source of comfort through the 1920s and 1930s, becoming a centre for civil defence during World War ll. During the 1960s to 1980s, there were plans to turn it into a social centre, and then modifications were made to preserve the building.

In 2012/13, the Church and Monastery were identified as earthquake prone.

St James Theatre – 1912

Old image of St James Theatre.
St James Theatre. Circa 1978. Wellington City Libraries. Reference 50003-1840. Photographer Charles J Fearnley.

Originally named as His Majesty’s Theatre, the theatre opened on Boxing Day after it took only nine months of construction to complete. 

When it first opened, performances were of slapstick comedians, balladeers, jugglers, acrobats, tumblers, and dancers, which were all extremely popular through to the 1930s. 

St James was closed for major restrengthening and refurbishments in 2019.

After three years of being closed, the iconic St James Theatre reopened in mid-2022 to host a variety of shows, including TEEKS with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Wellington Opera - La Traviata, The Ryman Healthcare Season of Cinderella, Les Misérables and Macbeth.

Band Rotunda – 1936

Band Rotunda from 1992.
Band Rotunda Wellington City Council, photographer Neil Price. Circa 1992. Wellington City Council Archives, 00540-1-1.

The Band Rotunda was created for free public musical performances in 1936. In its heyday, it was used quite frequently by the public but as time went on the use declined. 

In the 1970s, there were discussions about how the rotunda could be used to boost the cultural scene and enhance performances, but then the decision was made for it to be turned into the commonly known Fisherman’s Table restaurant on Oriental Bay.

Wellington Railway Station – 1937 

Railway station in Wellington in 1936.
Wellington Railway Station. Circa 1936. Wellington City Council Archives, 00146-337.

Before the Railway Station on Bunny Street was opened, train stations used to be located at Pipitea Point and then later, Featherston Street. 

Despite the changes that have been made over time, the main elevations and a number of interior spaces of the Wellington Railway Station are much the same. The building is in remarkably original condition and remains a prominent and significant building since 1937.

Hannah Playhouse - 1964

Hannah playhouse in 1978.
Hannah Playhouse. Circa 1978. Credit Archives New Zealand Photographer G Simpson ref B13789.

The Downstage Theatre company was formed in 1964 and originally presented at Victoria University Memorial theatre and the Paramount Theatre in Courtenay Place.  

Harry Seresin negotiated a lease in the Walkabout coffee bar situated on the current Hannah Playhouse site. The company later took over the building and the upper storey became an adaptable theatre restaurant. 

The Hannah Playhouse Trust was formed in 1968. The Trust’s purpose is to encourage, foster, and promote the performing arts for the benefit of the Wellington community, through provision of a theatre venue which was built on the site of the Walkabout.  

Circa Theatre – 1976

Original Circa Theatre.
Original Circa Theatre. 1979-1983. Wellington City Council Archives, 00557-686-10.

Circa Theatre started with a breakaway group of actors and theatre practitioners in the Ilott Advertising building on the corner of Harris Street and Jervois Quay. 

It made the move next to Te Papa in November 1994, where it has been ever since! 

Black writing on a yellow background that reads 'Positively Pōneke'.

Look out for 'A history of Wellington’s significant builds: Part two', and other interesting articles as part of our City Building series. Or, find out more about Positively Pōneke on our website.