Public Trust Building

131 Lambton Quay; 133 Lambton Quay

131 – 135 Lambton Quay, Te Aro, Wellington
  • Constructed

    1909 - 1909

  • Heritage Area

    Stout Street Precinct

  • Builder(s)

    Messrs J. and A. Wilson

  • This outstanding Edwardian Baroque building makes the most of its corner site. The building features an early innovative steel frame designed to resist earthquakes. It is possibly the only surviving large building built from true New Zealand granite (Tonga Bay granite).
    The building was built as the Public Trust head office. Public Trust, a Government body formed around 1872 to administer New Zealanders’ estates, was the first institution of its kind in the world.

    When Public Trust left the building in 1982, the building was under demolition threat and there was a public campaign to save the building. It now has a heritage protection order.

  • close History
    • The Old Public Trust Building was built on land reclaimed as part of the Thorndon reclamation that began in 1876. The Thorndon reclamation created approximately 19 hectares of land on which now sit the Wellington railway station, and Stout, Ballance, Whitmore and Bunny Streets.  The reclaimed land was divided into blocks that were further divided into lots, of which Lot 10 (of Block 6) was purchased by Dr M. S. Grace. Dr M. S. Grace practised medicine in Wellington from 1866 and in 1870 he was appointed as a member of the legislative Council, in 1895 he transferred the property to his son Dr J.J. Grace and on the 15th September 1900 the land was sold to the Public Trustee. The Crown already owned Lots 1,2 and 3 (Ballance Street), Lots 7 and 8 (Lambton Quay) and the neighbouring Lot 9 on Stout Street.   Lot 9 was then “…conveyed by the Governor in consideration of the sum of 1,435.8.4...” to the Public Trust.  

      The Public Trust Office was established in circa 1872. It was a Government body set up to prevent the misappropriation of trust funds upon a person’s death. Private and public trust properties were then placed in the hands of the Public Trustee. By 1880 it handled some 1500 estates and continued to grow quickly, although the office had no building of its own.  The Public Trust was the first institution of its kind in the world and became “the prototype for similar institutions in several countries including England, Canada, Fiji and the Australian States.” 

      John Campbell of the Public Works Department was asked to prepare plans for the construction of a building for the Public Trust Department in 1894, but there were concerns about its location -   within the reserve/grounds of the Government Buildings on Lambton Quay, next to the telephone exchange.  The Public Trust was required to hold important documents and it was considered inappropriate to locate the building next to such a highly flammable timber building. 

      In 1899 parliament passed the Appropriation Act which allowed for the construction of the Public Trust Office, but the design process was delayed by further concerns about the earthquake and fire resistance of the proposed building. In 1904 plans were prepared for a building on this site by Reid Brothers of San Francisco, experts in earthquake resistant design, for the sum of £1400.   The expense of commissioning an overseas architect to prepare the drawings was so controversial that in 1905 the Government Architect, John Campbell, was asked to prepare further plans for the building.  These plans were then queried in 1906 by the Seddon government and Campbell was “required to replan the building on the steel frame principle.”   Reid Brothers are listed as the building’s engineers/ designers of the steel work on the 1978/1981 NZHPT Field Record Form although the extent, if any, of their involvement in the project requires further research. 

      The decision to construct the Public Trust Building with a steel frame structure clad in brick and stone appears to have been a direct response to concerns about the building’s performance during and in the aftermath of a major earthquake. This was further demonstrated by the 18 April 1906 San Francisco earthquake where it was found that although both timber and steel framed buildings survived the quake, timber buildings were destroyed by the subsequent fires. 

      The Public Trust Building is notable for its innovative design. The building has been described as “the first large public building erected in the Dominion with a skeleton riveted steel frame for the purpose of resisting earthquakes.”  The building was also notable for its substantial and secure vaults for the storage of confidential documents, and for its use of Tonga Bay granite. The supply of the stone was problematic and led in part to a delay in the completion of the contract of nearly a year. The total cost of the works was £42,000 and the building was opened by Prime Minister Joseph Ward on the 9th June 1909. Newspaper reports of the day note that “There is no stucco, no cheap make-believe about this impressive office…If a solid building is a good advertisement for a firm, then the Public Trustee must be well pleased with his new quarters”  and this suggests that the apparent solidity of the building (built in steel clad in brick and stone) was designed to be symbolic of the reliability of the Public Trust itself. 

      The Public Trust had originally intended to occupy only the ground and first floors but with the advent of WWI the workload of the Trust increased as it administered the wills and estates of soldiers serving overseas. Soon, the Trust occupied the whole building. In 1917 the Trust installed a lift, an emergency stair and a luncheon room for the female staff. The building was further renovated in 1922, and more vaults were constructed in 1926 (and the vaults were further repaired in 1945). In 1919 the Trust sought to purchase two buildings in Stout and Ballance Streets to house additional staff. 

      Despite the innovative use of structural steel in its construction the Public Trust Building was damaged in an earthquake in 1923 and in 1926 a rafter or girder collapsed into an office space. The Old Public Trust Website notes that “an engineering assessment determined this was caused by damage from the 1923 earthquake and staff were instructed not to sit under the girders until strengthening work was completed in 1927.”  In 1927 work was carried out to strengthen the concrete floors with the installation of “light angled furring” to the steel around the girders,   and the building appears to have survived the 1942 Wellington / Wairarapa earthquake with little visible damage. 

      The Public Trust was also damaged by a riot during the depression when, on 11 February 1932 the Old Public Trust Building was attacked by “…an angry mob”… who broke two windows. Staff closed the building and locked the vaults “…in case of invasion…” The Public Trustee had “…a great deal of difficulty finding suitable window replacements.”  

      The Public Trust vacated the building in 1982 and the building was for some time under threat of demolition until a Protection Notice was issued by the Minister of Internal Affairs. The demolition of the building was opposed by several groups including Wellington’s Architecture Centre and the NZHPT.  The building is now subject to a Heritage Order with the Historic Places Trust as the heritage protection authority under the Resource Management Act of 1991 (RMA).

      The building was refurbished in 1983/1984 at a cost of approximately $3 million and works included seismic strengthening, the addition of a garage door and ramp to the basement for car parking, and the separation of the building into tenancies. After strengthening and refurbishment the building was partly occupied by the Queen Elizabeth the Second (QEII) Arts Council of New Zealand.

      The Public Trust building is noted as one of only two remaining large scale structures, and the only surviving large building, to have been constructed in Tonga Bay granite. The other large scale structure built from New Zealand’s only true granite are the Church Hill Steps that lead to Cathedral Square in Nelson.  The stone, that was quarried in Tasman and Golden Bays near Nelson, is now known to be a coarse granted granite formed with large rectangular crystals of feldspar that are bonded imperfectly into the stone. The granite is known to be extremely soft (for granite) and exposed stone surfaces have a tendency to crumble or split.  The resilience of the stone was questioned in 1911,  and the refurbishment works in 1983/94 found that areas of the Tonga Bay granite had degraded, particularly where they had been coated with a cement render for the 1953 Royal visit. 

      The building owners sold part of the development rights for the unused / unusable plot ratio for the site and in 1985 sold floors 2,3 and 4 to Alexander Associates, although the QEII Arts Council continued to occupy the floors as tenants. The QEII Arts Council (later Creative New Zealand) purchased part of the ground floor along with floors 2,3 and 4 in 1991. The remaining floors were owned by Advisorycorp Securities Ltd which later went into receivership in 1990. 

      In 2009 the building was owned by a body corporate that comprised of Creative New Zealand (levels 2,3 and 4, part of the ground floor (tenancy 3) and ten basement car parks); Stout Street Estates Ltd (Level 1 and four basement car parks); Julian Parsons (part of the ground floor (tenancy 1) and one basement car park); Muturangi Trust (part of the ground floor (tenancy 2) and one basement car park. The building was occupied in 2009 by Creative New Zealand; Stout Street Chambers & Cahill Solicitors; Tenancy 1 – unoccupied; Shannons electrolysis and Beauty.

    • Modifications close
      • 1872 - 1873
      • Public Trust established
      • 1876
      • Land reclamation of the Thorndon Shoreline started
      • 1879
      • Plot 10 purchased by Dr M.S. Grace. Plot 9 was already a Crown Section and this section was conveyed to the Public Trust.
      • 1899
      • Appropriation Act (to allow for the construction of the building) passed by parliament
      • 1900
      • Plot 10 sold to the Public Trustee for £3,635
      • 1904
      • Reid Brothers of San Francisco commissioned to design the building for the sum of £1400
      • 1905
      • The Government Architect, John Campbell was asked to prepare plans. The plans are dated October 1905.
      • 1906
      • John Campbell re-planned the building using the steel frame principle. Tenders were called for the construction of the building with the tender of J and A Wilson accepted in the sum of £40,780
      • 1909
      • The building was opened by Sir Joseph Ward
      • 1917
      • New lift, new emergency stair and alterations to the interior for the sum of £9,678 designed by Crichton and McKay.
      • 1923
      • Earthquake damage to the building resulted in the collapse of a ‘girder’ in the Legal Branch in 1926.
      • 1926
      • Gray Young Architects scheme to add two floors to the building (did not proceed).
      • 1926
      • New vault constructed that was designed “to stand intact if the whole building collapsed”
      • 1927
      • Structural repairs / strengthening
      • 1942
      • Wellington and Wairarapa Earthquake caused little visible damage to the building
      • 1944
      • Flat roof at the rear of the building re-roofed
      • 1945
      • Basement vaults repaired
      • 1974
      • Public Trust planned to demolish the building
      • 1982
      • Heritage Order placed on the building
      • 1983 - 1984
      • $3,000,000 repairs and alterations to the building including basement conversion to car-parking, structural strengthening, separation of the building into tenancies
      • 1994
      • Mezzanine floor added
      • 2006
      • Level 1 refurbished to a design by Jasmax
    • Occupation History close

      Not assessed

  • close Architectural Information
    • Building Classification(s) close

      Not assessed

    • Architecture close
      The Old Public Trust comprises five storeys above ground with a basement level below. The building makes superb use of an important corner site. The exuberantly detailed stone, brick and plaster façades conceal an innovative steel structure engineered by San Francisco based architects to the most up-to-date earthquake resistant design of the day. The corner cylindrical tower rises five storeys and is capped by a fine copper-sheathed cupola and lantern. 

      Both façades are heavily articulated, most notably with the large segmental-arched pediments at roof level supported on giant-order Corinthian columns. The heavily rusticated base of the building is finished in Tonga Bay granite and has arched openings. A dentilled string course clearly separates this level from the next. 

      The upper floors feature a major motif in the form of three giant segmental arches supported by a giant order of attached Corinthian columns. The order rises over the second and third floors and rests on a solid plinth with elaborate consoles. The windows of the first and second floors are detailed with Gibbs surrounds and segmental or triangular pedimental hoods. Other windows are square-headed with pronounced voussoirs. The dome, with its paired ribbing and lantern, is the crowning feature of the building.  

      The main entrance at the centre of the drum is gained up a flight of radiating terrazzo steps which lead in to the foyer, resplendent in mosaic tiling and richly moulded plasterwork. While the interior has been altered many times, a reasonable amount of original building fabric remains and the building retains a high degree of authenticity. 

    • Materials close

      Tonga Bay granite cladding

      Brick cladding – from Mt Cook Prison. The brickwork is also noted as ‘pressed bricks'

      Steel rivet frame structure

      Concrete foundations and floor slabs (requires verification)

      Steel ‘Crittall’ windows

      Tiled floors to entrance hall – ‘Minton Hollins’ mosaic tiles

      Vaults – supplied by Chubbs Australia

    • Setting close
      The Old Public Trust building is an important Wellington landmark that takes great advantage of its spectacular corner site with the extraordinary lantern dome and drum, flanked at right angles by the two main façades. The building occupies a prominent, long, narrow, rectangular corner site between Lambton Quay and Stout Street and is located in the Stout Street Heritage Area.

      The former Public Trust Building is bounded to the north by the new Public Trust Building (c.1982) at 117-129 Lambton Quay that is notable for the strong vertical emphasis to the façade, and the tall, wide, two-storey glass verandah. This modern building was designed to a similar scale as its more elaborate neighbour with a six storey block to the south of the site, and a taller, 13 storey tower to the north. To the south of Stout Street on Lambton Quay is the fine State Insurance Building (1942) by Gummer and Ford, and its Stout Street neighbour, the Departmental Building (1939-40) by the Government Architect. To the north-east of the Public Trust Building on Stout Street is a remnant of the District Court (1903) that is somewhat overwhelmed by the construction of a six storey modern office block / court complex directly behind the original three storey façade.
  • close Cultural Value
     The Old Public Trust Building is an outstanding example of Edwardian Baroque architecture designed by Government Architect, John Campbell.

    It is an important Wellington landmark that takes great advantage of its spectacular corner site

    The building is associated with the Public Trust, a significant Government body that was established in circa 1872 to administer the estates of New Zealanders. The Trust continues to fulfil a valuable social role in the community and the building was constructed as the Trust’s head office and continued to serve in that capacity for over seventy years.

    The building features an early and innovative use of steel frame structure designed to resist earthquakes. The building also features the use of Tonga Bay granite and is thought to be the only surviving large scale building to be built from a true New Zealand granite stone.

    The public campaign to ‘save’ the building from demolition in 1982 demonstrates that the building is held in high public esteem
    • 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 Public Trust Building is an outstanding example of Edwardian Baroque architecture and is considered to be the best known, and “most vigorous” design to come out of Government Architect John Campbell’s office. 

        The building design including the great corner drum topped with a copper clad dome; the rich decorative scheme including giant order columns, segmented arches and carved stone details; and the carefully considered palette of building materials that includes stone, brick and copper cladding create a building of high architectural and aesthetic value.

      • 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 makes a strong contribution to the Stout Street Heritage Area and is one of a group of local buildings constructed for use by the New Zealand Government.

      • 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?

        The Old Public Trust building is an important Wellington landmark that takes great advantage of its spectacular corner site.

    • Historic Value close
      • Association

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

        The building is associated with the Public Trust, a significant Government body that was established in 1872 to administer the estates of New Zealanders and continues to fulfil a valuable social role in the community. The building was constructed as the Trust’s head office and served in that capacity for over seventy years. . 

        The building is associated with Government Architect John Campbell and is arguably his finest work. 

        The building has been occupied and then part owned by Creative New Zealand: The New Zealand Arts Council since c.1985. Creative New Zealand is an important Government entity in the administration and fostering of the arts.

    • Scientific Value close
      • Archaeological

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

        The building is likely to have some archaeological value as it is sited on pre 1900 reclaimed land, and is located in the Central City NZAA R27/270 area.

      • Technological

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

        The building features an early and innovative use of steel frame structure designed to resist earthquake loads. 

        The building features the use of Tonga Bay granite and is thought to be the only surviving large scale building to be built from a true New Zealand granite stone.

    • Social Value close
      • Public Esteem

        Is the item held in high public esteem?

        The public campaign to ‘save’ the building from demolition in 1982 demonstrates that the building is held in high public esteem

      • 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?

        The building façade has remained (relatively) unchanged on the site for over 100 years and contributes to the sense of place and continuity of the Stout Street Heritage Area. The building continues to be used by a government funded body – Creative New Zealand.

    • Level of Cultural Heritage Significance close
      • Rare

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

        The building is rare, outstanding example of Edwardian Baroque architecture. The building is thought to be the only surviving large scale building to be built from a true New Zealand granite stone. 

        The building was, for seventy years, the home of the Public Trust, which, when it was established in 1872 was the first organisation of its kind in the world. The Public Trust has played some sort of role in the lives of most New Zealanders.

      • Representative

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

        The building is a good representative example of an Edwardian building constructed for use by a government body.

      • 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?

        The building facades remain relatively unchanged and retain most of the original building fabric.

      • Importance

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

        The building has national significance as the head office for the Public Trust, and for the quality of its design.

    • Local / Regional / National / International Importance close

      Not assessed

  • close Site Detail
    • District Plan Number

      17/180 (Heritage Order)

    • Legal Description


    • Heritage New Zealand Listed

      1/Historic Place 224

    • Archaeological Site

      Pre 1900 human activity on site

    • Current Uses


    • Former Uses


    • Has building been funded


    • Funding Amount

      Not applicable

    • Earthquake Prone Status

      Not Earthquake Prone

  • close Additional Information

Last updated: 9/19/2021 10:20:33 PM