Wayne Thompson

Wayne Thompson is a NZ Herald reporter.

Fate of an Auckland landmark: Saving the St James

The historic theatre in the heart of Auckland's arts precinct has been closed since a fire in 2007 and supporters of its restoration are frustrated by a lack of action.

The old St James Theatre building. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The old St James Theatre building. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Auckland's new civic leaders will come under intense pressure to rescue the St James Theatre - a historic venue that has been six years in mothballs - as the private owner of the old theatre complex builds a 39-storey apartment tower next door.

Owner Paul Doole said a resurgence in the demand for CBD apartment sales meant development was a real prospect within the next 18 months to two years.

He said Auckland Council had made no offer to buy the St James, which is on a separate title from the adjoining Odeon and Westend theatres which form the site for the tower.

His resource consent calls for the old St James tower to be restored, strengthening of a wall adjoining the theatre and provision for an entrance to Queen St.

When the complex closed after a fire in 2007, Mr Doole had to supply a fire plan and engineering report for the council. That highlighted that if the St James reopened, it would need fire egress routes from Queen St.

Mr Doole declined to comment on whether the council had agreed to buy egress routes for the theatre but said it would be ideal to incorporate them as the apartment tower was built.

"Progress on the tower would be nice because it's shambolic at the moment," he said.

People want to save the building because of its heritage and performing arts qualities.

Hopes that restoration would start were high during the elections for Auckland Council three years ago. All mayoral candidates agreed it was a desirable Super City project.

Eventual winner Len Brown made a study to assess professional performing arts needs and venues one of his "100 projects in 100 days".

The study found a refurbished St James could satisfy demand for a 1400- to 1500-seat theatre.

Mr Brown said the 1928 theatre was one of the iconic buildings in Australasia yet was an "open sore in the community ... sitting there rotting" and called for an urgent report on options to save it.

A key option was soon crossed off when the Government rejected a bid for a national convention centre by the council's The Edge, using Aotea Centre for work and a revived St James for play - especially the attraction of "mainstage" touring shows.

The theatre was reported to be for sale around its $11 million rating valuation. But the council instead agreed to give $10 million for the Auckland Theatre Company's $41 million Wynyard Quarter project, a half-hour walk from the Arts Precinct.

The city's need for a project of the ATC size was classed as urgent in the May 2011 performance venue study, which mentioned council estimates for refurbishing the St James of $50 million to $65 million.

Heart of the City chief executive Alex Swney said the council's investment in the waterfront theatre should not be at the expense of the Arts Precinct where the council had spent heavily on the Art Gallery additions and upgrades of the Aotea Square and the Civic Theatre.

"The next bus off the rank surely - after years of being a city embarrassment - must be the St James."

Asked about progress this week, Mr Brown told the Herald: "Auckland Council continues to work with heritage groups, the community and the building owner on options for the St James. In the meantime, the building is being looked after and its condition is being monitored."

St James: Perfect city venue for live shows and music

International theatre consultant Dr Miles Gregory said decisive leadership was needed to prevent the St James "crumbling" into history.

"If Auckland is serious about becoming the world's most liveable city, then the St James is crucial to developing a world-class theatre district in the city's heart," said Dr Gregory.

"It is the right size, in the right location, and is one of the most beautiful and acoustically important theatres in New Zealand.

"Properly restored and independently managed, it could well prove the tipping point that shifts the cultural leadership from Wellington to Auckland."

Trustee and heritage consultant Allan Matson said the theatre could fall into neglect.

"Here's a remnant of a bygone era that's potentially a beautiful theatre and I'm surprised that any mature city would allow this to carry on."

In May last year, SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge formed the St James Charitable Trust to seek donations for a restoration should the council buy the St James.

He said the proposed waterfront theatre would not steal the St James' limelight.

"It is for the Auckland Theatre Company and is quite small and suited to stage plays.

"However, the fact that funds will be sought for this enterprise will probably make it a little harder for the St James."

Campaign aims to restore lost glory

The St James was built specifically as a live theatre. Restoration has strong support from the generation of Aucklanders who recall the theatre's latest era - dance parties and modern music concerts.

Loop events owner Michael Tucker said: "It is a great alternative venue if you are looking for a place that's bigger than the Power Station or The Studio but not quite as big as the Town Hall or Civic.

"It's perfect middle ground and with character and is what promoters are looking for."

Mayoral candidates offer their views

The Herald asked Auckland mayoral candidates about saving the St James Theatre:

Auckland Mayor Len Brown: "I am actively working to secure the future of the St James.

"It is a fantastic theatre space and an important part of our heritage.

"It will absolutely continue to be a special place."

Stephen Berry: "I went to a dance party there many years ago - when I was much younger. But I think the property owner should be left to do whatever he wishes to do and I do not think the council should spend any money on it."

Penny Bright: "I support an independent cost-benefit analysis for proposals to revive and update the St James Theatre, for its potential use as a 'grand stage amenity."'

John Palino: "I think about the Civic Theatre and I thank God they saved it. People go there just to look at it. The St James has a beautiful character but we need to know whether it's damaged and if it's feasible to preserve it.

"I question why council are spending so much on building other theatres, for example Q Theatre and the big one at Wynyard Quarter while the St James situation sits there for years."

John Minto: "I would have a sympathetic ear for heritage projects.

"In this case, though, the sum is enormous and would not be a priority ahead of the issues I'm campaigning on - free public transport, building 20,000 affordable houses and paying the living wage to people doing council work."

Rev Uesifili Unasa: "St James is part of Auckland's heritage, telling our story as a people of where we come from and the ideas and creativity of an age. Something needs to be done but it's a matter of how much and when?

"A good example of how to retain heritage for contemporary use is the Mt Eden Village Centre where the Methodist Church, the council and the community worked together. I was proud to be involved."

* Tell us your memories of the St James Theatre: Email newsdesk@nzherald.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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