Sydney Street Substation

The Sydney Street substation is one of the many heritage buildings in Wellington that has recently received funding from the Wellington City Council – but it’s not just the buildings we’re helping to preserve, it’s the stories that go with them too.

The Sydney Street substation in 2009. Image by Rachel Connolly; copyright NZ Historic Places Trust.
Sydney Street substation in 2009

The substation is a heritage-listed building. In 2014, it was awarded $30,000 funding for earthquake strengthening from the Council’s Built Heritage Incentive Fund.

The project

In May 2013, the 260-square-metre building, which stands on a freehold site, was sold by the Crown, and the new owners are now in the process of restoring the building to its former glory. Work includes restoring the facade and earthquake strengthening.

“As a project I felt it was important for heritage in Wellington, and also that it would have a good return as a commercial proposition,” says co-owner Trevor Lord.

After witnessing in his younger years what he calls the systematic demolition of old Wellington from the railway station to the bottom of Willis Street, Trevor is now enthusiastic about the future of Wellington’s heritage.

“Restoring heritage buildings is not a futile exercise.  Given a safe environment to be in, people hugely prefer good, character-filled architecture than that which just offers bland functionality.”

The project is expected to take around 18 months, with plans for the building to be converted into a short-term-stay inner city apartment.

“The Council's gesture of support for our project was a major boost. The heritage team has also helped in tangible ways not involving money and that has been equally valued and encouraging – it has been a pleasure to have taken on this project in Wellington!” adds Trevor.

The Sydney Street substation in 1930. Image courtesy of Trevor Lord.
Sydney Street substation in 1930

History of the substation

Sydney Street originally passed through Parliament grounds, linking Mulgrave Street and Tinakori Road.

In 1910, when Parliament was rebuilt following a fire, the new building encompassed a larger area and Sydney Street was divided into two, becoming Sydney Street East and Sydney Street West.

The two streets shrunk even further over the years. In 1993, Sydney Street East was renamed Kate Sheppard Place in honour of the suffragette’s centenary.

In 1925, following the opening of the Mangahao hydro power station based near Shannon, the substation was established to manage the area’s power supply  – and in particular to feed electricity to the local government buildings. 

The substation was designed by the Wellington City Engineers Department and built by Fletcher Construction in an unusual style loosely described as a mix between Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture.

During the 1951 waterfront dispute, the four-bedroom apartment above it was home to a trade unionist who was rumoured to have a printing press making illegal protest publications.

Coincidentally, a couple of decades on, the building was the site of offices and editing suites for hard-hitting film and documentary film makers Vanguard Films, who made A Century of Struggle – a documentary about the history of the New Zealand Seamen's Union, with plenty of footage from the 1951 waterfront strike.

In 1991, the substation was officially shut down when the new Municipal Electricity Department’s (MED) substation took control of local power. However, the building continued to make history.

Trevor Lord's story

In the video below, produced by Victoria University Museum and Heritage Studies student Imogen Stockwell, property owner Trevor Lord talks about why heritage is important and what a difference the grant made to the project.

The Built Heritage Incentive Fund

The fund helps with conserving, restoring, protecting and caring for Wellington's heritage-listed buildings and objects.

Our current focus is on earthquake strengthening.

Find out if your project is eligible for funding

Images courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library.