Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings

The Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings are the only purpose-built provincial government buildings still in existence in New Zealand.

Canterbury Provincial Council buildings
Canterbury Provincial Council buildings. Contributor (ctb): Alan Tunnicliffe. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings are the only purpose-built provincial government buildings still in existence in New Zealand.

The buildings were the seat of the Canterbury Provincial Government from their construction in 1858 to the disestablishment of the provincial system in 1876. Constructed on what was the highest point of land in the central city, the buildings were erected in three stages between 1858 and 1865.

After coming into existence with the passing of the New Zealand Constitution Act in 1852, the Canterbury Provincial Council initially met in a variety of buildings until it was decided in November 1854 to erect a permanent building.

In 1855 approval was given to designs for a set of wooden buildings drawn by architect, Benjamin Mountfort. Originally Mountfort was partially inspired by the Palace of Westminster (then under construction) as well as the spatial layout of collegial buildings in England. However, by the time tenders were called for the construction of the buildings on Durham Street in 1857, the budget had been reduced. Mountfort was therefore forced to scale back his designs.

In January 1858 the foundation stone was laid for the first section of the buildings which consisted of the western wing of offices. The centrepiece of this section was the council chamber which was designed after the old manorial halls of medieval England. The western wing opened in 1859.

At the time of its opening there were already calls for tenders to construct an extension to the western frontage along Durham Street and to add a north wing which fronted onto Armagh Street. As the Armagh Street façade featured a central tower, it has been suggested that Mountfort was possibly influenced by contemporary architectural designs such as the First Foreign Office in Whitehall and the Natural History Museum in Oxford, England. The tower featured a constructional polychromy effect by using red and grey stone, an architectural style that was derived from the High Victorian Movement. This section was completed in 1861.

An increase in council membership meant that the original wooden chamber was no longer practical. To house the council, Mountfort designed a stone chamber that was built in 1864. At the same time, refreshment rooms were constructed on the eastern end of the original wooden chamber. Designed in the domestic Gothic style, the refreshment rooms featured a dining room on the ground floor and a smoking room on the upper floor. This building later came to be known as Bellamy’s.

After the Canterbury Provincial Government was disestablished in 1876 the building became the offices for various government departments. The original wooden council chamber, however, was returned to the local government in 1928. In 1971 the remaining wooden buildings were put under local control.

In 1988 the buildings were transferred to the Canterbury United Council, and then to its successor, the Canterbury Regional Council. The latter was responsible for overseeing strengthening of the buildings. As of 1993 the buildings were in the care of the Christchurch City Council.

The buildings, the stone tower and the stone council chamber were badly damaged during the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes. The buildings have been stabilised but are currently closed to the public.