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Architectural style, construction & materials

Edwardian Baroque

Edwardian Baroque is an architectural style developed during the Edwardian period (the reign of King Edward VII, 1901–10), which drew upon the Classical, Renaissance and Baroque architectural languages. A contemporary New Zealand newspaper article call ed it ‘the better style of architecture so rapidly springing into vogue’. It was a spectacular ornamental language appropriate to the high spirits and new technologies of the turn of the century and, in New Zealand, to a sense of optimism about the development of a new nation.

Construction

The building was constructed on site by Messrs J. and A. Wilson, with a builder's yard and stonecutter's shed set up next door on Stout Street. The building contains many materials: a steel-rivet structural frame, reinforced concrete foundations and floors, pressed brick and Tonga Bay granite exterior walls, timber-framed interior walls, metal-framed windows, a slate tile roof and copper ornamentation. Construction took a year longer than intended, with the builders blaming difficulties in obtaining a regular supply of Tonga Bay granite.

Copper dome

Domes were incorporated in many buildings of this period to emphasise their importance. By 1930 this was the only remaining dome in the city, the others having been removed because of the risk they would collapse in an earthquake. The dome and dormer windows are clad in copper, which develops a coating of green verdigris as it weathers. The copper is purely decorative and conceals a reinforced concrete structure.

Motifs

Historian Chris Cochran describes the highly ornamental exterior of the building as ‛a vigorous blend of Renaissance and Baroque motifs, with some completely new ones of architect Sir John Campbell's invention worked in’. The motifs are in celebratory Edwardian Classical style. They reference several architectural styles and include floral patterns, classical columns and festoons (or garlands) of fruit. Above the door, a motif depicts a set of scales weighing fruit. This symbolises the measurement of good and evil or truth and falsehood, as well as justice and the law. It reminds us of the important role played by the Public Trust in New Zealand's justice system. The motifs are carved from Tonga Bay granite.

View of the stairwell ceiling.

Tonga Bay Granite

Tonga Bay granite is used on the exterior façade. The granite was quarried in Tonga Bay near Nelson by the Tonga Bay Granite Company and was shipped to Wellington for preparation in a stonecutter's shed on Stout Street next to the construction site. It is an easily worked, soft granite that unfortunately crumbles as it weathers – the Public Trust Office Building is the only remaining building in New Zealand still clad in this type of stone.

Read more about Tonga Bay granite from Papers Past.

Brick

The pressed bricks used on the façade were supplied by the Prisons Department. After the first wing of an intended seven-wing prison was built in Mount Cook in Wellington, its inmates manufactured bricks from the local Mount Cook clay. Production continued for 46 years, with bricks supplied to many buildings around the country.

Read more about brick making on Mount Cook here.

Interior Tiles

The intricate mosaic tile floor on the ground floor was supplied by a London company, Minton Hollins. The tiny ceramic tiles (tesserae) are arranged in the shapes of fans, decorative vines and leaves, supplemented by cursive 'PTO' lettering. The entire floor contains about 128,000 tesserae. During a refurbishment they were covered in plastic laminate. When they were uncovered during work on the building in 1983, the tiles were badly in need of repair. Sydney-based mosaic tile specialists Andrew and Barry Bulmer restored them in 1996 and further repair work was undertaken in 2009.

View of the ground floor stairwell.

Brief biographies

Sir John Campbell, Architect

John Campbell was born in Glasgow in 1857 and arrived in Dunedin in 1882. He moved to Wellington in 1888 and by 1890 had become Chief Government Architect.Most renowned for Parliament House, he also completed several other major public buildings. Campbell was responsible for establishing Edwardian Baroque as the style for New Zealand courthouses, post offices and police stations.

Reference: John Campbell, PA1-o-038-29-2, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

James and Archibald Wilson, Builders

James Wilson Junior (born 1866) and Archibald M. Wilson (born 1870) (J. & A. Wilson) took over the building firm their father, James Wilson, had founded in 1870. Their work included the Wesley Church and schools, St John’s Church and schools, and the Public Trust Office Building. They added undertaking to their business in 1894.

Public Trust building under construction, corner of Lambton Quay and Stout Street, Wellington. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972: Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/1-019739-G, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.