When it comes to the built environment in Wellington, the 10-story Beehive generates the greatest buzz. But after the curiosity of it fades, you conclude that it’s really rather ugly, and that much more attractive architecture abounds in the capital of New Zealand. These are my favorites.
#1 St. Mary of the Angels
The frenetic and odd intersection at the edge of downtown teems with pedestrians, trams, bicycles, and delivery vans, and unveils a microcosm of the city’s development throughout the 20th century. Here in the old medical consulting quarter, the Hotel St. George (an Art Deco gem from 1930 that was once the country’s largest hotel and is now a student hostel that reverts to its original purpose during summer recess) stands across the street from the 1902 Pollen House (see #4, below), which, in turn, is dwarfed by the building next door, the Majestic Centre, Wellington’s tallest building since 1991. Standing serenely over it all since 1922, St. Mary of the Angels exudes a peaceful contrast to the controlled chaos around it. The symmetrical façade with the asymmetrical entry staircases rising from the hilly street presents a warm combination of light gray concrete and Persian orange bricks. Inside this French Gothic church, slender arches and columns, which ensure a clear view of the altar from every point in the nave, drew my eyes up to the gorgeous timber ceiling. Light streamed in from the stained-glass windows in the clerestory, the side aisles between the beautiful Stations of the Cross, and the rose window between the organ pipes. Temporarily closed for an earthquake strengthening project, St. Mary plans to reopen for Easter 2017, with what I’m sure will be a glorious Mass on the Catholic Church’s most important day in Wellington’s most exquisite building.
#2 Parliament Library
Part of a quartet of buildings that compose the New Zealand Parliament Buildings, including the Beehive, the Parliament Library is both the oldest (1899) and most striking of the four. Scaled down from a grander design with a third story and more ornamentation due to budget concerns, the Victorian Gothic revival building boasts tremendous curb appeal, with pointed arches, bouquet finials, wrought-iron railings on the roof, decorative stone and plasterwork, and stained-glass rose windows that are backlit at night. Inside, an entry foyer with stained glass and a grand staircase welcomes members of Parliament to pore through 300,000 volumes for their research, reached via an iron fire-door that saved the collection during a blaze in 1907 (aided by people shuttling 8,000 books out of the conflagration in 45 minutes). This eye-catching structure almost tempts you into entering politics. Almost.
#3 Public Trust Office Building
Public trust — it’s something most of us mock these days as an extinct belief in government’s concern for the average citizen. But in 1908, when the Public Trust Office in Wellington (the first such office in the world, founded in 1872) opened its new building, I’m sure passersby would have felt that they were, indeed, in the good, trustworthy hands of the government. The first building in New Zealand to be constructed with a steel frame, this Edwardian Baroque edifice boasts the most elaborate façade in the city, clad in pressed red brick and native Tonga Bay granite. Described by the Wellington Architectural Centre as the “nation’s crowning glory,” it became the quasi-official style of government buildings throughout New Zealand. Situated on a corner lot, with a round tower capped by a green copper dome, this sturdy, formidable building still radiates confidence, presence, and permanence. It was definitely constructed to last — it has survived a 1975 initiative to demolish it as well as an earthquake in 2013. And now, having been strengthened for earthquakes, I trust it will be around for yet another century.
#4 Pollen House
This striking structure seems terribly out of place in both time and location. Purpose built in 1902 for Dr. Henry Pollen for both his residence and surgery practice, the three-story French Second Empire home — gleaming white with black trim — is, aside from St. Mary of the Angels, surrounded by bland structures and tries to go unnoticed by its behemoth neighbor, the 29-story Majestic Centre, Wellington’s tallest building. Pollen House‘s bay windows were originally included to introduce more light, better cross ventilation, and additional floor space to accommodate the health and hygiene of both Pollen and his patients. With attractive brackets and quoins, balconies, and a mansard roof that features rounded head windows and a projecting turret, the house must have been a pleasant sight for those seeking treatment with Pollen. After his death in 1918, a series of restaurants, flats, and a massage parlor called the House of Ladies made his house their home. Today, a restaurant and wine bar occupies the building, in which Pollen’s dispensary has been converted into bathroom facilities, and the waiting room into a cloakroom and bathroom, yet the original staircase, fireplaces, and leaded lights remain. The restaurant’s name is, appropriately enough, The General Practitioner.
#5 Bank of New Zealand (Te Aro Branch)
It’s easily the most attractive Burger King I’ve ever seen. Since 1996, the international chain has occupied the old Te Aro branch of the Bank of New Zealand, which was constructed in 1913. One of the city’s earliest reinforced concrete and steel buildings, it retained its original purpose for more than 70 years. Resting on a rusticated base, two-story Corinthian columns and pilasters on pedestals with balustrading in between them support the entablature above. Ornately decorated with detailed brackets, festoons, lion heads, keystones, cornices, and dentils, the façade’s classical elements and monochromatic coloring are a great contrast to the flamboyant Art Deco department store building across the street. “BANK OF NEW ZEALAND” still appears on the two friezes. Despite the later banal addition of a hideous fourth story for apartments that was offensively plopped on the roof, the building remains an elegant feature in the city’s landscape. Even if you don’t come here for the fast food, stop by to enjoy a slow appreciation of one of Wellington’s top buildings.