Uncovering the Central City Library

The Auckland Public library emerged in 1880, born out of the book stock of the Mechanics Institute and a substantial donation by Sir George Grey who made it a condition of his gift that a public library be established. The somewhat modest Institute however was not up to housing Grey’s extensive collection and in 1887 the present Art Gallery building was opened which until 1971 housed both the library and the gallery.

It is the present library building with which most people will be familiar and which in 2019 was the focus of a display on level two of the Central City Library.

Auckland City Council. Showing the site for the new Auckland Public Library, 1963. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 580-7384.

The current central library building was designed by Ewen Martin Wainscott as part of his long serving role as City Architect under the former Auckland City Council. Described as “short, thick-set with an unruly mop of silvery hair, a blunt rough-edged voice and a taste for surprisingly vivid bow ties”, Wainscott designed many well-known Auckland buildings including the Aotea Centre. His experience as a draftsman with E.A. and L.G. Williams of Napier may have influenced his leanings towards modernism, his designs characteristically clean-lined and minimal but without the frills of the Art Deco style which dominates that city.

John Daley. Looking north from Rutland Street along Lorne Street, showing the Auckland Public Library. 1974. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, A13628.

The design of the Lorne Street building was inspired by an overseas trip undertaken by Wainscott along with City Librarian Bob Duthie in 1963. In typical Auckland fashion the building was not opened until the end of 1971 and even then, only as one of two stages, the latter finally being green lit almost a further decade later. The second stage now sits on the Wellesley-Lorne Street corner, at that time still occupied by the Embassy theatre. The auditorium space now occupied by the Academy cinema was part of the original library building design, however this would not become functional until the opening of the second stage in the early 1980s. The significant amount of basement stack space was also increased by this extension.

John Daley. Looking south from the corner of Lorne Street and Wellesley Street East showing the Embassy theatre and Auckland City Library, 1974. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, A13626.

The staggered opening of the Lorne Street building meant that initially the new library had less space for books than its predecessor across the road, now occupied by the Auckland Art Gallery. This also accounts for the main entrance being sited in a somewhat obscure spot along the Lorne Street frontage.

Kevin Durrant. The issue desk on the ground floor of the Central Library, 1990s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 669-99.

Wainscott described the building at the time as a “supermarket style” library: “we are getting away from the institution-type building with its no talking, no smoking atmosphere” he told the Auckland Star. Indeed, the library would open with a smoking room on the first floor. Former staff member David Verran recalls a patron hurtling down the escalator yelling “The library’s on fire!” It later emerged that a discarded cigarette had ignited a waste paper basket in the smoking room. For patrons seeking fresh air the building originally had an open balcony running along the Lorne Street frontage on the first floor, now enclosed.

The new library was also unique in its division into six discrete subject departments, replacing the simple lending/reference split in the old building. The Sir George Grey collection now held pride of place in the plush blue-carpeted “Rare Books Room” on the second floor. Announced the Auckland Star: “the rare-book room is one of the library’s main attractions, as it is the first time many of the books have been displayed for some years because of a shortage of space in the old building.” The report went on, less encouragingly: “reference staff say they have had many enquiries from “granny hunters” or people trying to trace their ancestors.”

Miles G. Hargest. 'Running the Gauntlet', Suffragist Exhibition in the Rare Book Room, 1993. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 589-342.

The definitive Cararra marble cladded exterior was chosen not only for reasons of durability, but also continuing availability necessitated by the stepped construction process. Before renovations in the late 1990’s, the building was characterised by an imposing “marble-curtain” exterior. Marble was also used to sheath internal columns along with Australian walnut paneling. Public floors were sandwiched between large administrative and book storage spaces. A lattice work support system between the basement stacks provided an unique air-flow system to protect books from damage by moisture and humidity.

Mark Gosper. Basement stack, 2019.

Wainscott himself designed many of the original fixtures and fittings in the central library building. On his design philosophy he has said “it is my belief one should endeavor to design buildings which are timeless: simple statements in planning which rely on massing form and contrast for their external expression. The use of solid and void, rough and smooth, light and shade.” (Home and building, Dec/Jan 1983).

Author: Mark, Research Central


Auckland Star 29 June 1971, 22 January 1972. From: Library Scrapbook.
Auckland Council Archives – “Auckland City Libraries” 1880-
Home and building.


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