Thomas Turnbull and Son


Thomas Turnbull & Son was a prominent Wellington architecture practice of the early 20th century. Led by Thomas Turnbull (1825-1907), one of the architects who transformed Wellington from a town of two-storey timber buildings to a fine Victorian city, the practice was active from 1891. Thomas Turnbull was one of the leading local architects of the Victorian era, and had a reputation that has somewhat overshadowed that of his son William (1868 – 1941). William was, however, a talented architect who kept up to date with the changing architectural styles of the early 20th century. Under William’s leadership from 1907, the practice designed many fine Edwardian, and then inter-war stripped-Classical and understated Art Deco buildings.

Thomas Turnbull was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and trained in the Edinburgh office of David Bryce. Bryce at that time was Queen Victoria’s architect for Scotland. In 1851 Turnbull emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, practising as an architect in the gold towns of Victoria. In 1861 he moved to San Francisco, California to practice as an architect. After the earthquake of 1868 he held the office of secretary of the Architectural Association of San Francisco. Failing health caused by “the severe strain of conducting his business under pressure of American professional tactics” caused Turnbull to shift to New Zealand in 1871. Within a year he was joined by his wife and five children. He first worked in Wellington in the office of the colonial architect, William Clayton, but from 1872 he practised on his own.Wellington was still largely a town of two-storied timber buildings, built in response to the damage caused to earth and masonry structures by the earthquakes of 1848 and 1855. In papers, lectures and by example in his buildings, Turnbull advocated structurally sound methods for building in masonry to resist earthquake forces. These included the use of tensile reinforcing and iron supports.

Turnbull’s technical skills were matched by a wide knowledge of architectural style. Important commissions in the Gothic style included St Peter’s Church, Willis Street (1879), and St John’s Church, Willis Street (1885), both in timber; and the General Assembly Library (1899) built in masonry. His warehouse buildings for W. and G. Turnbull and Company (1876) and Jacob Joseph and Company (1878) were early masonry buildings in the city, since demolished. A very important group of commercial buildings was built on the corner of Lambton Quay and Customhouse Quay. These include the former National Mutual Life Association building (1884) and the former head office of the Bank of New Zealand (1889), both strong and ornate classical designs typical of much of Turnbull’s commercial architecture. By the early twentieth century Wellington had become a city of substantial masonry buildings, and this change was in no small measure due to Turnbull’s work. His legacy of fine buildings in Wellington is unmatched by any other nineteenth century architect.

Thomas Turnbull’s fourth son, William, was articled to his father’s practice in 1882. William was born in San Francisco and educated in Wellington. In 1890 he worked a year in Melbourne before re-joining his father’s practice as a partner in 1891. He became a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1906, designing many important early twentieth century buildings in Wellington such as 12 Boulcott Street (1902), the Whitcoull’s Building on Lambton Quay (1908), Thorndon Brewery Tower (1915), Turnbull House (1916), the Northland Fire Station(1929) and the Wellington Free Ambulance Building (1932-33). William retained the name of Thomas Turnbull & Son even after the death of this father in 1907. The range and variety of his adaptation of architectural styles show him to be fully versed in almost every contemporary architectural idiom and to have special skills and flair for masonry design.


Mew, Geoff & Adrian Humphris. “Raupo to Deco: Wellington Styles and Architects 1840 – 1940” (Wellington: Steel Roberts Aotearoa, 2014) 
WCC Heritage Inventory 2001
NZHPT Glossary.


Last updated: 8/11/2016 10:58:59 p.m.