An introduction to Antrim House
When boot baron Robert Hannah built Antrim House in 1905 it was the ultimate statement home, a sumptuous Italianate affair on one of urban Wellington’s most notable residential streets. Today, the house fits snuggly between high-rise apartments and office blocks, a stone’s throw from Wellington’s busiest streets. Surrounded by lawns and mature trees – a favourite lunch-time spot– it’s a green oasis among the concrete and clatter of the CBD.
Hannah, whose name lives on in the shoe retail chain, was a cobbler’s apprentice from Northern Ireland who opened his first store on Lambton Quay in the mid-1870s, followed a few years later by a factory. He hit the market at the perfect moment, capitalising on the government’s imposition of a duty on imported footwear aimed at nurturing a domestic industry. By 1893, he had ten stores and the factory employed 250 people. Antrim House, which Hannah named after his home county, was the showy gesture of a self-made man.
Designed by notable Wellington architect William Turnbull, the 18-room residence is an impressive display of taste, with rich kauri panelling and staircase, imported pressed metal ceilings, stained glass windows, elegant verandahs and a central tower topped with a mansard roof. Likewise, Hannah spared no expense on mod cons, splashing out on gas electric lights and bathroom.
Hannah died at home in 1930, after which the house was leased as a private hotel then sold, suffering one near-disaster in 1940 when fire damaged the tower and upstairs rooms. Bought by the government in 1949, for several years it operated as a hostel for young men recently arrived in Wellington to work in the public service. In 1981, after extensive repairs and renovations, Antrim House reopened as the HQ of the then Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga).
Today, the former home is still used as our working offices. Visitors can drop in and tour the hallway, lower staircase and the majestic former drawing room. When you’re visiting, ask the staff if you can see the secret spot by the fireplace where hostel boarders from the 1950s to ’70s furtively graffitied their names.
If you’d like to explore the whole house, keep an eye on our website for details of special open days throughout the year, with staff on-hand to share the history. Group tours can also be made by arrangement.
When you’ve finished exploring, wander down Boulcott Street to St Mary of the Angels, a beautiful Category I Gothic Revival church on a site of continual Catholic worship since 1843. Reopened in 2017 after a four-year closure for earthquake strengthening, it’s worth a visit for its elegant interior and fine collection of stained-glass windows alone. Also of historic interest is Dr Henry Pollen’s former house and surgery on the corner of Willis St, another elegant survivor of the early 20th Century now dwarfed by the Majestic Centre.