Mayor calls for report on the restoration Of The St James Theatre.
Boarded up and neglected, the St James Theatre is one of Auckland’s best kept secrets. The Spanish Mission facade facing Queen Street is hidden behind a later addition that resembles something from the Stalin era, it is hideous to say the least. The interior of the theatre is awe-inspiring and should not be hidden from the public eye and that is why the mayor of Auckland has called for an urgent report on the restoration of The St James Theatre. It won’t come cheap but it is worth every cent. Not only will it benefit culture vultures, it will also enhance the character of Queen Street and Auckland’s architectural merit. Gems like these cannot be replaced, they should be protected and opened for the public to enjoy.
A refurbished St James could satisfy demand for for a venue of approximately 1500 seats but a recent report suggested that the Auckland Theatre Company requires a new downtown theatre to seat 600 people. They have applied for a grant to build a new theatre close to the new North Wharf development, attached to the new ASB Headquarters, and that will leave room for the St James Theatre to be used for Opera, Ballet and Commercial Shows. The building is currently owned by a private developer but we understand that he is willing to sell it to the Auckland Council. Another alternative is for The Edge @ Aotea Square to develop the much talked about National Convention Centre due to the fact that they are willing to restore the theatre if they win the bid. All done and dusted, St James could rise again.
The St James was built as a replacement for Fullers’ Opera House on Wellesley Street in 1928. It was designed for travelling vaudeville acts, continuing a tradition of musical and comic entertainment that Fullers had pioneered in New Zealand. Vaudeville was popular among working-class audiences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but was eclipsed by the arrival of talking pictures. The St James was built just before this change occurred, and was modified the following year with the provision of projection facilities. It has continued to be used for both live performance and film, seeing entertainment as diverse as the Bolshoi Ballet and wartime newsreel.
The original building is remarkable for its well-preserved interiors, and is an unusual blend of traditional theatre and American picture house design. Traditional elements include the three steep tiers of seating, boxes and high-quality acoustics in the main auditorium, while the influence of cinemas can be seen in the elegant entrance tower on Queen Street (now concealed) and large foyers for public congregation. The ornate Spanish Colonial-style interiors include statuettes, marble steps and elaborate lighting, which was a way of transporting the audience away from their everyday lives. Purpose-built cinemas were added to the original structure in 1957, 1966 and 1982, some with heritage value of their own. Shops were included along the main frontage at this time, similar to the nearby Civic Theatre.
The building is nationally significant as one of the best-preserved vaudeville theatres in the country, and illustrates important changes in popular entertainment during the early twentieth century. It is closely associated with the early motion picture industry in New Zealand, and subsequent developments in cinematic history. It has considerable aesthetic appeal, with many rare or unique elements in its intact 1928 interior. The building has additional value for its proximity to other places of public entertainment (see ‘Civic Theatre’ and ‘Auckland Town Hall’), showing the importance of Upper Queen Street in the cultural life of the early twentieth-century city. Its 1957 addition is significant as the first public space in New Zealand to be fully supplied with air-conditioning. The St James also enjoys high public esteem as a major place of recreation in Auckland.