Former Supreme Court Building

Former High Court, 36 Stout Street, 38 Stout Street, 40 Stout Street

36-42 Stout Street, Wellington, Wellington
Map
  • Constructed

    1879 - 1881

  • Heritage Area

    Stout Street Precinct

  • Builder(s)

    Barry and McDowell’s.

  • A fine Classical civic building designed in a Neo-Palladian style.

    The interior spaces such as the old courtroom are of particularly high-quality design and skilfully crafted. It was the first masonry building the government built in Wellington after the 1855 earthquake.

    This building has a continuous link with justice in New Zealand for the past 130+ years. As New Zealand’s highest court, all chief justices presided here between 1881 and 1993 and many important cases in legal history were held during that time. It is now used as part of the Supreme Court complex. 

  • close History
    • The old Supreme Court building (after 1980 known as the High Court) is the oldest of the buildings along Stout Street. The building opened in 1881 was used continuously for court purposes until 1993 when the new High Court opened on Molesworth Street. For over a century this building was the principle court building in Wellington and was the setting for many famous and infamous cases in New Zealand legal history, and it has been presided over by all of the Chief Justices between 1881 and 1993.

      The name of the building is somewhat confusing. It was originally known as the Supreme Court, as it was the highest court in New Zealand in an era when final appeals could be heard by the Privy Council in London. In the 1980s the ‘Supreme Court’ was renamed the ‘High Court’ as part of the process to disestablish right to appeal to the Privy Council, and to create a final court of appeal in New Zealand. The building was known as the Supreme Court for 100 years from 1880 – 1980 and the High Court from 1980 – 1993. It will be referred to hereafter in this report as the former, or old, Supreme Court.

      The old Supreme Court was designed by P.F.M Burrows in 1878, the architect who succeeded William Clayton as Colonial Architect (although without the formal title or salary). Land for the Court was found on the recent Thorndon reclamation and the building was to be constructed in masonry, and was the first major masonry structure to be built by the Government in Wellington since the 1855 Earthquake. The decision to build the new building in brick was due in part to new Wellington City Council bylaws that were introduced in 1877. The bylaws required all new buildings in the Number 1 Fire District – all the reclaimed land and all properties within 150 links of the Golden Mile from Thorndon Quay, along Lambton Quay, Willis Street, and Manners Street – to be clad in non-combustible materials. The old Supreme Court Building is a near-neighbour to the old Government Buildings (WCC ref 17/179) – one of the last (and certainly the largest) timber buildings to be built in the CBD

      To ensure that the new masonry building was as safe as possible, a forest of piles was driven below sea level into firm ground. Burrow’s estimate for the work was £16,000, however, when tenders for the construction were called the lowest was Barry and McDowell’s £24,785. Construction began with an impressive Masonic ceremony to lay the foundation stone, which was laid by Frederick Whitaker, Attorney-General to the Hall Ministry of 1879-82 (and soon to become Premier himself), with numerous dignitaries in attendance. The building was completed in March 1881.

      The Court building has had numerous additions and alterations with the most significant (prior to its refurbishment) occurring in 1907 and 1913. The 1907 alterations included the extension of the public office and the construction of a strong room in the north-east corner and extensions to the Law Library in the south-east corner. The 1913 work designed by Government Architect John Campbell, faithfully matched the style of the existing building, and included the building of three new rooms in the north-west corner. In 1956 the chimneys and pediments from the first floor parapets were removed and the roofs behind altered to a hipped style. In 1981 a new addition was made to house the judge’s office, which was built alongside the west elevation of the building.

      With the construction of a new High Court building in Molesworth Street in 1993, the old Supreme Court building fell out of use and by 1996 the Department for the Courts began to look at possible options for the future of the building - including its disposal. Feasibility studies for a number of potential uses were carried out including for Victoria University; the New Zealand Portrait Gallery; as a training facility; a ‘Law in Schools’ centre; a national Disputes Resolution Resource Centre/Arbitration, Mediation, Conciliation facility; a community Law Centre; or two restaurants and a wine bar. None of these options came to fruition, and the building fell into disrepair.

      A new Supreme Court system was established in the early 2000s with the passing of Supreme Court Act 2003 and the removal of the right to appeal to the Privy Council in London. Temporary facilities for the new court were established and Supreme Court judges were housed in the Victoria University Law School (Old Government Buildings). The street-block between Ballance, Stout, Whitmore streets and Lambton Quay was chosen as a site for a new Supreme Court complex – known as ‘Justice Park’. The subsequent proposal to demolish parts of the old Supreme Court building on this site led to a political battle involving the then Prime Minister Helen Clark, Chief Justice Sian Elias, Attorney General Margaret Wilson, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen, and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Relations between the Historic Places Trust and the Justice Ministry deteriorated so much that former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer was called in to mediate. The disagreement was finally resolved with the decision to restore the old Supreme Court in its entirety and to construct a new purpose designed building on the site of what was known as ‘Justice Park’.

      Alterations and repairs to the old Supreme Court building were extensive, and major work included the demolition of some of the additions to the rear of the building and the introduction of a base-isolation seismic strengthening system to the remaining parts. The building had been poorly maintained and extensive restoration was required – particularly where water had damaged the internal timber joinery and decorative plasterwork. The work to restore and repair the building was carried out to high standard, and used a mix of modern and traditional crafts, materials and trade skills. The exterior of the building was repaired and the parapet pediments were reinstated. The interiors were also repaired, the timber work restored, and the plaster ceilings reinstated – and the project has been credited as having “helped preserve some dying arts and developed the skills of craftspeople around the country – from solid plasterers to moulders and woodworkers.”

      The old Supreme Court building occupies approximately half of the “Justice Park” site and serves as an ancillary building to the new Supreme Court Building. The Justice Park development was designed by architects Warren and Mahoney and built by Mainzeal, it was completed in 2009 with an official opening in 2010.

    • Modifications close
      • 1883 - 1883
      • Application for relaxation in building regulations, old Supreme Court Thomas Turnbull (00233:9:1883/6517)
      • 1883 - 1883
      • Relaxation of building regulations and the old Supreme Court house - Moorehouse, Edwards & Cutten (00233:9:1883/6590)
      • 1885 - 1885
      • Water meter Supreme Court Public Works Department (00233:12:1885/955)
      • 1911 - 1911
      • Re repairs to footpath at Supreme Court - G H Veale (00233:214:1911/2511)
      • 1940 - 1940
      • Supply of water to Supreme Court (Stout Street), Department of Justice (00001:1606:40/406)
      • 1956 - 1956
      • Ballance Street (32-42 Stout Street), alterations to the Supreme Court (00044:8:100)
      • 1956 - 1988
      • Building: Stout Street, Justice Department, Supreme Court (00009:159:6/1617)
      • 2007 - 2007
      • 34 Stout Street, 8591 Lambton Quay, new Supreme Court of NZ (00078:3251:168162)
      • 2007 - 2007
      • 34 Stout Street, 85-91 Lambton Quay, Old Supreme Court Building (OHCB) envelope and interior for the project, and includes the Fire Report for OHCB and the new Supreme Court. Stage 3 (00078:3316:170205)
      • 2008 - 2008
      • 34 Stout Street, 85-91 Lambton Quay, architectural envelope of the new supreme court building Section 77, stage 5 (00078:3317:179665)
      • 2009 - 2009
      • 34 Stout Street, 8591 Lambton Quay, Internal fitout of the new supreme court 3 Levels basement, ground, 1st floor. Stage 7 (00078:3301:190618)
      • 2009 - 2009
      • 34 Stout Street, 8591 Lambton Quay, Supreme Court of New Zealand Siteworks and landscaping Stage 8 (00078:3317:196744)
    • Occupation History close
      • 1879 - 1993
      • Ministry of Justice High Court
      • 1993
      • Ministry of Justice Supreme Court
  • close Architectural Information
    • Building Classification(s) close

      Not assessed

    • Architecture close

      The old Supreme Court Building is one of the most significant and oldest of the buildings in the Stout Street Heritage Area. It was the first major masonry structure to be built by the government in Wellington after the 1855 earthquake and was completed in 1880 on newly reclaimed land.

      Designed by P.F.M. Burrows in a carefully correct and quite elegant Palladian neo-Classical style, the old Supreme Court has a strong sense of the formal buildings of 18th century England in its appearance. It is constructed in traditional load-bearing masonry with a plaster render, a significant expression of permanence and strength appropriate to its sober function.

      It has a well-balanced composition, enhanced by well-designed additions of 1906 and 1913, consisting of a T-shaped plan with a two storey main block rising above flanking pavilions. The detailing is rather severe and formal but is carefully composed and elegantly executed. The lower storey is strongly rusticated above a low plain plastered base and features round-headed windows with prominent keystone details, a mid-level string course and an openwork balustraded parapet above a projecting cornice. The second storey is more ornamented with a regular composition of Composite-order pilasters framing square-headed windows with triangular pediments supported on corbels. A strong cornice line with dentils and consoles is all that remains of the original triangular pediments which were removed in the 1950s – but missing elements were replaced in the c.2009 restoration works and the building now closely resembles its original design.

      While both the exterior and interior of the building were altered and added to over the 112 years of court use, the building retains a high degree of authenticity, particularly in the interior which has some work of exceptional quality(especially in the main courtroom), and it retains very high heritage values.

      The building now serves as an annexe to the new Supreme Court building (2009) – a large modern curtain-walled ‘box’ that has been over-clad by a decorative bronze screen. The interiors of the new building, particularly the new courtroom ‘pod’ clad in kauri and copper, are particularly fine.

    • Materials close

      The building is constructed in load bearing brick masonry on concrete foundations and piles. The floors and roof are timber framed. The exterior was originally plastered with a mixture of sand and cement and the roof was originally shingled.

      During the refurbishment of the building a number of changes were made to the fabric of the building. Many of the original timber windows were removed and repaired, any decayed sections were replaced using similar timbers, in most cases heart Totara and Heart Rimu. Finishing trims were repaired and replaced in materials that matched the original, in most places Swamp Kauri. The original Matai flooring was salvaged and re-laid. The timber panelling and carving was repaired and refitted to the interior walls. New doors were installed that matched the originals that had been repaired and all doors were placed on new hinges and fitted with new locks, latches, handles etc. The ceiling plaster was removed and replaced with new fibrous plaster. The exterior plasterwork was also removed during the refurbishment and replaced with a Sto Stolit MP Remedial Plaster system and the building was also base isolated.

    • Setting close

      The old Supreme Court building has a high townscape value. It is bounded by Lambton Quay, Ballance, Stout, and Whitmore Streets, with its main frontage onto Stout Street and occupies a prominent corner within the CBD. The building has been adapted to join the new Supreme Court building (2009) and now serves an ancillary function to the new building. The new “Justice Park” complex occupies a key street block in the CBD, and is part of the Stout Street Heritage Area.

      The building can be seen as a counterpoint to the old Government Buildings – its near neighbour on Lambton Quay. The two buildings show the transition between timber and brick as the predominant building material in the CBD – the old Government Buildings was one of the last (and one of only two surviving) timber buildings on the Golden Mile whereas the old Supreme Court is one of the oldest surviving masonry buildings.

  • close Cultural Value

    The former Supreme Court Building is a fine example of a Classical civic building designed in a distinguished Neo-Palladian style. It is notable for the high quality of its design, materials and workmanship – particularly in the interior spaces such as the old courtroom. It was the first masonry building built by the government in Wellington following the 1855 earthquake.

    The former Supreme Court building provides a continuous link with the administration of justice in New Zealand over the past 130+ years. It was presided over by all Chief Justices between 1881 and 1993 and saw a number of important cases in legal history during that time. It is now in use as part of the new Supreme Court complex. The building is a significant work by a prominent architect P.F.M Burrows.

    The building has exceptional social value for its use as the nation’s highest court.

    • Aesthetic Value close
      • Architectural

        Does the item have architectural or artistic value for characteristics that may include its design, style, era, form, scale, materials, colour, texture, patina of age, quality of space, craftsmanship, smells, and sounds?

        The old Supreme Court Building is a fine example of a Classical civic building designed in a distinguished Neo-Palladian style. It is notable for the high quality of its design, materials and workmanship – particularly in the interior spaces such as the old courtroom. It was the first masonry building built by the government in Wellington following the 1855 earthquake.

      • Group

        Is the item part of a group of buildings, structures, or sites that taken together have coherence because of their age, history, style, scale, materials, or use?

        The building contributes to the Stout Street Heritage Area.

      • Townscape

        Does the item have townscape value for the part it plays in defining a space or street; providing visual interest; its role as a landmark; or the contribution it makes to the character and sense of place of Wellington?

        This building has extremely high townscape values and occupies a prominent CBD site.

    • Historic Value close
      • Association

        Is the item associated with an important person, group, or organisation?

        The old Supreme Court building provides a continuous link with the administration of justice in New Zealand over the past 130+ years. It was presided over by all Chief Justices between 1881 and 1993 and saw a number of important cases in legal history during that time. It is now in use as part of the new Supreme Court complex.

        The building is a significant work by a prominent architect P.F.M Burrows. 


    • Scientific Value close
      • Archaeological

        Does the item have archaeological value for its ability to provide scientific information about past human activity?

        The Former Supreme Court building is associated with a number of archaeological sites including: the Thorndon Reclamation, NZAA Central City R27/270, Police Station R27/272, Magistrates Court R27/273, Court of Arbitration R27/27, and Supreme Court R27/275.

      • Educational

        Does the item have educational value for what it can demonstrate about aspects of the past?

        This building has important education value for what it can demonstrate about the Court system in New Zealand throughout the 20th century. The style of the court in New Zealand has changed significantly over this time, so the former Supreme Court building is important as a representative of its time.

      • Technological

        Does the item have technological value for its innovative or important construction methods or use of materials?

        There is technical value as an early surviving example of a masonry building in earthquake-prone Wellington. The high quality of the interior fixtures and finishes is also of technological value.

    • Social Value close
      • Identity/Sense Of Place/Continuity

        Is the item a focus of community, regional, or national identity? Does the item contribute to sense of place or continuity?

        This building is the oldest building on Stout Street, and contributes to the sense of place and continuity of the Stout Street Heritage Area. It was home to New Zealand’s highest court for over a century and contributes to Wellington’s identity as the nation’s capital city.

      • Public Esteem

        Is the item held in high public esteem?

        This building is held in very high public esteem. This can be demonstrated by the intense, high-level negotiations that were held as part of the process to develop the Justice Park site.

      • Sentiment/Connection

        Is the item a focus of community sentiment and connection?

        The former Supreme Court remains in use by the Ministry of Justice as part of the new Supreme Court complex and is likely to be a focus of community sentiment and connection.

      • Symbolic, Commemorative, Traditional, Spiritual

        Does the item have symbolic, commemorative, traditional, spiritual or other cultural value for the community who has used and continues to use it?

        This building possesses significant traditional and commemorative values due to the contribution that it has made, and the role that it has had, in the history of the justice system in New Zealand. It is of particular importance to the legal community as the home of the High Court between 1881 and 1993. It is still used for commemorative events such as the admittance to the bar.

    • Level of Cultural Heritage Significance close
      • Authentic

        Does the item have authenticity or integrity because it retains significant fabric from the time of its construction or from later periods when important additions or modifications were carried out?

        This building has authenticity and integrity as it retains a great amount of original material. Although this building has been refurbished, all modifications were carried out to a high degree of quality, repairing original features and only replacing features that were too deteriorate to be re-used. The base isolation of this building is an important feature as it secures its future retention.

      • Rare

        Is the item rare, unique, unusual, seminal, influential, or outstanding?

        The former Supreme Court is one of the nation’s most significant civic buildings and has outstanding cultural heritage value. The building is one of the oldest masonry buildings in Wellington

      • Representative

        Is the item a good example of the class it represents?

        This building is a good representative of the Classical tradition built in masonry.

      • Importance

        Is the item important for any of the above characteristics at a local, regional, national, or international level?

        The former Supreme Court is a nationally significant building. It was the home of the highest court in New Zealand’s from 1880 – 1993, and is now part of the new Supreme Court complex.

    • Local / Regional / National / International Importance close

      Not assessed

  • close Site Detail
    • District Plan Number

      17/ 273

    • Legal Description

      Lot 1 DP 403086, Sec 1-12 Blk VII Thorndon Reclamation

    • Heritage New Zealand Listed

      1/Historic Place 219

    • Archaeological Site

      Pre 1900 construction, Thorndon Reclamation, NZAA Central City R27/270, Police Station R27/272, Magistrates Court R27/273, Court of Arbitration R27/27, Supreme Court R27/275.

    • Current Uses

      unknown

    • Former Uses

      unknown

    • Has building been funded

      No

    • Funding Amount

      Not applicable

    • Earthquake Prone Status

      Outside Earthquake Prone Policy

  • close Additional Information
    • Sources close
      • “Heritage Building – 34-42 Stout Street”. 1996. 1041-06-STOU36. Wellington City Council Records.
      • Historic Places Trust, ‘P.F.M. Burrows’. Professional Biographies. Accessed 13 June 2013.
      • Wellington City Council. Wellington Heritage Building Inventory 2001: Non Residential Buildings. Wellington City Council, 2001.
      • Kelly, Michael, and Russell Murray. Stout Street Heritage Area Report. Wellington City Council: Unpublished Report, prepared for Plan Change 32, 2007.
    • Technical Documentation close
    • Footnotes close

      Not available

Last updated: 12/8/2016 12:00:53 AM