Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Wellington hometown tourist

On Monday, instead of going for a bike ride, we played at being tourists in our own hometown, Wellington. There are so many interesting and noteworthy places to visit and look at, but in our day-to-day lives, we tend to just walk past them without another glance.

We started with the Pipitea Campus of Victoria University. It occupies Rutherford House, the West Wing of the Railway Station, and the Old Government Building.

We had a bit of a browse around the foyer and mezzanine of Rutherford House. Currently VUW is having its mid-year break so it was pretty quiet. There were several rows of computers in the lobby, at which a couple of students were working (or maybe just checking emails). Very different from when I was a university student – we had to hand-write our assignments!

A very large Colin McCahon painting dominates the foyer – “Gate III”

Students use the computers in the lobby

Across the road is the Old Government Building. It is one of NZ’s most outstanding historic buildings. Built in 1876 to house the whole of NZ’s civil service, it is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings. The civil service rapidly outgrew the building, and one by one the various departments found premises elsewhere. By 1990, it was neglected and empty. In 1994, the Department of Conservation, which now owns the building, started renovations to restore it to its 1907 appearance (when extensions were added to the original building).

The buildings were officially re-opened in 1996, when Victoria University’s Law School took out a 50-year lease.

The Old Government Building – Bunny Street façade …

… and front façade

It is a truly magnificent building. Parts of the ground floor and first floor are open to the public, and we took quite a few photos. The entrance lobby features kauri paneling, with stencilled medallions, carved rimu detailing, and a carved rimu ceiling rose with a chandelier.

The panelled entrance lobby

Detail of the stencilled panels

Probably the most remarkable part of the building is its “hanging” staircase. The stairs had a history of weakness, almost from the start, and had to be progressively propped up. During the restoration they were strengthened and brought back to the way the original architect, William Clayton, had intended them to be.

The “hanging” staircase (photo by John)

The magnificent staircase, seen from the first floor (photo by John)

View from the first landing. Note the (upside-down) V and R on the carpet

The blue and gold carpet on the stairs replicate the original pattern with which the leather treads had been nailed down. The letters V and R in the pattern stand for “Victoria Regina”.

Originally, the building had 126 fireplaces. Most were removed, but 42 cast-iron fireplaces were replicated for the restoration. They were cast in Dunedin, based on an early example found in the building. They are now merely decorative.

One of the replica fireplaces. The lion on the mantlepiece is the original carving
for the coat of arms which adorns the top of the front façade

We walked up the left side of Lambton Quay, which is the “less-travelled” side, since the shops are on the other side. Along here are office buildings, many of which have beautiful foyers featuring interesting artworks.

“Horse Breaker in the Murder Red Country” by George Morant – in Legal House

I had never heard of George Morant, but we discovered a further two paintings by this Australian artist in other buildings. I searched the Internet for information about him, and the most useful item I found was this report about an exhibition of his works at the Dowse Museum in Lower Hutt, in 2004.

“The House Girl” by George Morant

In the foyer of the New Public Trust Building, we found two large paintings – another one by George Morant, and one by Michelle Bellamy. I rather like the work of both these artists, both being vibrant and colourful.

“Colours of Fun” by Michelle Bellamy – in the New Public Trust Building

On the corner of Waring Taylor Street, is a sculpture by Jeff Thomson, entitled simply “Shells”. It is made from concrete, though the artist has used his more usual medium of corrugated iron as a mould to shape the shells. It marks the site where Wellington’s foreshore used to be, before reclamation began in the 1850s.

“Shells” by Jeff Thomson, on the corner of Lambton Quay and Waring Taylor Street (photo by John)

In several places, plaques are set in the footpaths to show where the original shoreline was

Across the street, on the corner of Midland Park, is a sculpture of Katherine Mansfield. It is called “Woman of Words” – made of stainless steel, into which are laser-cut words and phrases from her writings. It was created by Virginia King, and installed in 2013.

“Woman of Words” – author Katherine Mansfield – by Virginia King

Carved into the plinth on which the statue stands are the words “A celebration of Wellington-born writer Katherine Mansfield 1888-1923 – Innovator of the modernist short story”.

In the centre of Midland Park is a fountain consisting of slabs of slate, tiles and stones tilted at various angles, and bronze “stalks” with heads spouting water, which always remind me of bean sprouts. It is in fact a serious work, called “Nga Korerorero – Ongoing Talk”, by Colombian artist Silvia Salgado. It represents communication. The “bean sprouts” are meant to be talking heads. The base concrete and slate tiles apparently suggest tectonic plates.

“Nga Korerorero – Ongoing Talk” by Silvia Salgado – in Midland Park

Midland Park is fringed by mature trees, which are home to lots of birds, which – unfortunately – create a bit of a bombing hazard for passers-by, so canopies have been built under the trees by way of protection.

Midland Park’s protective canopy

I stopped to talk to Neville, the uniformed gentleman who opens the door for customers entering Kirkcaldie’s, Wellington’s only remaining department store. He told me he’s been doing this job part-time for the last nine years and loves it. His favourite time of year is the cruise ship season, when large numbers of tourists visit the city. He enjoys talking to people who ask for directions – both about the city and about the store.

Neville, the doorman at Kirkcaldie’s

A bit further along on Lambton Quay, the HSBC Tower houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). Its foyer is quite beautiful, with marble floor tiles, one curved wall clad in brown or grey marble tiles, and horizontal wood paneling opposite. There are three art works – a traditional bronze statue of a woman carrying scales (representing justice?), a modern sculpture of two seated women, and a beautiful object made from what I assume is burr wood. It vaguely resembles a female form. There were no name plaques with any of the works, and I haven’t been able to find out any details about them.

Sculpture in the HSBC Tower foyer

Wood artwork in the foyer of the HSBC Tower

The ANZ Bank building where Lambton Quay meets Featherston Street has been vastly refurbished in the past year or so. In the “bull-nose” corner where the public toilets used to be, there is now a very swish Nespresso Boutique – not shop, not store, you’ll note, but “boutique”.

At the open door you are greeted by a huge photograph of George Clooney – who, of course, advertises Nespresso on TV. I wandered in to have an idle look around. From the adverts it seemed to me that it would be rather expensive and quite wasteful with those capsules. “Oh, no, it works out at about a dollar per cup”, said the young man who was very keen to demonstrate his product. “Have you tried it?” “No? Would you like to try it? How do you like your coffee – weak, strong, medium?” How could I refuse!

He proceeded to demonstrate how the machine works. The capsules come in a range of 12 strengths, all colour-coded. He picked “Levanto” for me, in a bronze coloured capsule. "It is a level 6 intensity", he told me, "a balanced espresso-style, with caramel notes”. “You just drop your capsule in here, pull the lever, and your coffee comes out here”. Just like George Clooney shows you on the box …

I must admit, the cup of coffee he brewed for me was delicious. But I don’t think I will buy a machine. Having it available all day, every day, at home, would spoil the specialness of enjoying a nice coffee when out and about, wouldn’t it? Besides, I’d be bouncing off the walls all day with all that caffeine!

Demonstrating the Nespresso machine and milk frother

The impressive lights above the demonstration island at the Nespresso Boutique

Right opposite Nespresso is the MLC Building – an Art Deco building dating back to 1940, and classified as a Category I (places of special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value) historic place by the NZ Historic Places Trust. It is noted for its streamlined features and beautiful faience tiling.

Right next to it is a kinetic sculpture by Phil Price, consisting of four disks which move independently from each other in the wind. It is called “Protoplasm”.

The MLC Building and “Protoplasm” by Phil Price (2002)

I remember when the Old Bank Arcade was the main branch of the Bank of New Zealand in Wellington. I would struggle up the few steps with my young daughter in her pushchair. It was, and is, a beautiful building. Attractive tiled patterns on the floor; solid, almost intimidating, carved counters on each side; substantial tables down the centre for customer use, with heavy, leather-upholstered chairs.

That was the early 1970s. Then in the 1980s, many venerable old Wellington buildings were being torn down as they presented earthquake risks. Fortunately the old BNZ survived, was strengthened, refurbished and became the Old Bank Arcade, home of some pretty fancy shops and eateries. The tiled floor, the pillars and the beautiful ceilings are there still, as is the grand old clock.

The Old BNZ’s clock

The stylish ceiling and pillars of the old bank survive

This is where Lambton Quay meets Willis Street, so I crossed and walked back up the other side, towards the Railway Station. At the Plimmer Steps, I couldn’t go past the charming statue of John Plimmer and his dog Fritz.

John Plimmer (1812-1905) was a carpenter and builder, and one of the first councillors to serve on the Wellington City Council, which was formed in 1870. Between 1856 and 1871, he served on the Wellington Provincial Council, the first Wellington Town Board, and the Wellington City Council. No wonder he has been called the “Father of Wellington”. The steps near which this statue stands were called after him, as was the township of Plimmerton, north of Wellington.

John Plimmer and Fritz

From the first floor of the recently refurbished Lambton Plaza, I was able to take a photo of the Old Public Trust Building. This is one of Wellington’s most beautiful historic buildings. It was completed in 1909, and was NZ’s first steel frame building. No doubt this is the reason it survived several earthquakes (1923 and 1942). In last year's July quake (centred in Cook Strait), there was some damage, and most of its tenants moved out. There was talk of it “being at risk" (of demolition), but since then, the building has been bought by a developer who will save and redevelop the site.

The Old Public Trust Building (and the New Public Trust building to the left of it)

Finally, as we had a few minutes before the arrival of our bus home, I took a quick look at the new Supreme Court Building, opened in 2010. It has a decorative bronze screen, inspired by intertwining branches of pohutukawa and rata, which wraps around the whole upper floor. The oval shape of the courtroom, as seen from the foyer (I didn’t go any further than that), and its cladding of copper panels, emulates the form and texture of the cone of the kauri tree. Unfortunately I couldn’t spend more time exploring, but I will go back some time.

The exterior of the new Supreme Court Building

The courtroom’s exterior is designed to look like the cone of a kauri tree

The length of Lambton Quay is less than a kilometre, but what a lot there is to see when you are pretending to be a tourist. I can think of lots of other places nearby that would warrant a closer look. This could be the first in an occasional “hometown tourist” series. Watch this space!


  1. Shirley Kalogeropoulos16 July 2014 at 08:09

    What an interesting and beautiful city Wellington is! I work in Legal House so see the George Morant painting in the lobby every day, as well as the Supreme Court just out the window across the road.

    1. Hi Shirley, thanks for your comment. I'd never been into those office buildings, and was surprised at the art on display. I think that Morant painting is stunning - love the intensity of the colours.

      We really enjoyed doing the "tourist thing", and we're sure to do it again in an another part of town. There's lots to discover, I'm sure.