Turnbull House Project

Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington

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“A new chapter to a much-admired and highly significant heritage building that will benefit all New Zealanders...”

—Andrew Coleman, Manahautū/Chief Executive, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga

What is the Turnbull House Project?
Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington

The Turnbull House Project is a multiyear project for the seismic strengthening, conservation and adaptive reuse of Turnbull House in Wellington.

Built in 1915-16, Turnbull House is the former residence of bibliophile Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull and original home of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

As a purpose built house and library, it is one of Wellington’s most architecturally distinct buildings.

Turnbull House was deemed earthquake prone in 2009 and closed in 2012. In 2017, stewardship of the building was transferred from Te Papa Atawhai Department of Conservation to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

In 2021, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga began work on the Turnbull House Project.

Project Objectives

  • seismic strengthening through base isolation and accompanying aboveground interventions
  • conservation of key heritage features
  • upgrades to meet the regulatory and best practice requirements for fire safety
  • adaptations that improve accessibility and enable the building’s future resilience
  • interpretation focusing on the legacy of Turnbull, mana whenua, and other important stakeholders.

Public Use 

At the project’s completion, Turnbull House is expected to have a public use, which may include exhibition space, research rooms, event space, meeting rooms, and offices. 

Turnbull House: The History
Birdseye view of Port Nicholson in New Zealand, 1839, by Thomas Allom. Gift of G Sidey. Te Papa (1992-0035-1569/1)
Te Whanganui-a-Tara

Te Whanganui-a-Tara has a long history of human occupation. Some of the first iwi to settle in the area included Ngāi Tara, Ngāti Ira, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngai Tahu and Ngāti Mamoe. By 1840, iwi with established rights in the region were Te Atiawa, Ngāti Tama, Taranaki, Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Ruanui.

To the north of the Turnbull House site was Pipitea Pā, established by Ngāti Mutunga and gifted to Te Atiawa in 1835. Also nearby was Kumutoto Kāinga, the dwelling place of Te Atiawa chief Wi Tako Ngatata.

Until land reclamation and the uplift following the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake, the Turnbull House site would have been on the harbour foreshore at the mouth of the Tutaenui stream.

Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull - Photograph taken by Van der Weyde. Ref: 1/2-032603-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull

He had the books even on the beds in the spare room. Cases of books came every other mail... Books filled his mind.

Born in Wellington in 1868, Alexander Turnbull was the fifth son of Scottish businessman Walter Turnbull and his wife Alexandrina. He spent his early childhood in the capital before being taken to London in 1874.

It was his next trip to Aotearoa, at age 17, that would inspire his lifelong love of the country. He visited the Pink and White Terraces, Lake Manapouri and Lake Wakatipu, and was particularly inspired by J.H. Kerry Nicol’s The King Country or Exploration in New Zealand.

By the time Turnbull returned to New Zealand in 1892, he was collecting anything published in or about New Zealand. He would spend the next three decades expanding this collection into a “one-man national library and reference centre”.

But an internationally recognised collection requires more than just books: it needs a home. So in 1913, Turnbull commissioned the construction of a unique three-storey dwelling designed to house himself and his books, which now numbered in the tens of thousands.

After Turnbull's death in 1918, the collection was bequeathed to the government, with the house purchased from his estate.

Pacific stack room, and staff, Alexander Turnbull Library, Bowen Street, Wellington. Alexander Turnbull Library :Negatives of items in the Library's collections. Ref: 1/2-005716-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Turnbull Library

A busy, much used, and eminently usable public institution.

Turnbull Library opened to the public in 1920, just two years after Turnbull's death. Chief Librarian Johannes Carl Andersen was tasked with cataloging the collection—which included over 50,000 volumes—as well as sourcing new material.

The quality of the library's contents was immediately apparent, with author George Bernard Shaw stating, "it would even make the Bodleian sit up." However, there were two ongoing issues: the risk of fire, and a lack of space.

Despite this, Turnbull Library grew rapidly in popularity. The second Chief Librarian, Clyde Taylor, extended opening hours and created an exhibition space. Students increasingly used the building as a place of study.

By the 1950s, Turnbull Library was a victim of its own success. Taylor wrote that, "the weight on the building is starting to tell, as evidenced by sagging floors..."

In 1952, Cabinet agreed to a renovation project, however by 1973 it was acknowledged that library’s world class collection had outgrown its original home.

Community Hub

For the next decade, Turnbull House faced the threat of demolition, with plans to widen Bowen Street and the perceived need for a new motorway onramp.

However by 1979 it had received a reprieve and the Turnbull House Council, which oversaw maintenance and management, transformed the building into a highly successful community space. 

Turnbull House became home to a café, meeting rooms and a gallery. By 1992, it was used by 163 different groups, playing a vital role in the city's social and artistic fabric.

The Department of Conservation took over responsibility for the building in 1990, with upgrades taking place four years later. However, in 2009 Turnbull House was declared earthquake prone, and was closed in 2012.

In 2017, stewardship of the building was transferred to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

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