Margot McRae: We refused to give up on the old girl

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The refurbished Victoria Theatre. Photo / Sarah Ivey.
The refurbished Victoria Theatre. Photo / Sarah Ivey.

I like taking people up the stairs of the Victoria Theatre, pushing open the double doors and ushering them into the old dress circle. I wait for them to pause, then gasp, as they take in the gracious sweep of the old theatre. They're impressed, not just by the elaborate plaster ceiling panels and columns, but that the theatre is still here at all.

How has a 98-year-old cinema managed to survive Auckland's scorched earth attitude to old buildings, and theatres in particular?

Next week, the Victoria Picture Palace and Theatre reopens as a three-cinema and performing arts space in the main street of Devonport. What a sweet day of victory that will be for a community that simply refused to give up on the old girl.

It's been touch and go. The fact that the Victoria Theatre was built in 1912 and is the oldest purpose-built cinema in the Southern Hemisphere did not cut much slack with developers who a few years ago were more interested in its possibilities as an apartment conversion.

The Vic had by then become shabby and required major maintenance work. Since the 1980s and the advent of multi-cinema complexes, the Vic had struggled to find audiences. People were no longer prepared to put up with out-dated seats and large, cold spaces.

In 1990 it was remodelled as Charley Gray's Twin Cinema. One million dollars were spent splitting the large auditorium into two separate cinemas, redoing the seats and painting the theatre inside and out in faux Art Deco pastel colours.

The Vic was sporadically successful during the 90s but never for long.

But whenever the doors were closed on another failed dream, there was always a group of locals who simply could not let the Vic die. They would put on live theatre and film showings, comedy and music, anything that showed the community cared about, and wanted this place.

But there was never enough money to maintain the building and the Vic became increasingly rundown. Roof leaks began causing serious internal damage to the plaster walls and ceiling panels, and patrons brave enough to come put up with damp, cold and uncomfortable seats and occasionally water running down the inside walls.

In 2004 the theatre seemed doomed to become an apartment complex: its heritage listing in the District Plan might protect its facade but the theatres inside were under threat.

This shocking news ignited many locals. A trust was launched, the doors were opened, films shown and a campaign began to persuade the North Shore City Council to buy it. A reluctant council finally offered to hold a referendum for the whole North Shore and amazingly the majority were in favour. Amazing because the normally parochial North Shoreites don't usually care about places outside their own suburb and especially not Devonport heritage issues.

In 2006 the council bought the Vic for $1.5 million (much of it from a local endowment fund) and this year the Victoria Theatre Trust won the right to lease the Victoria for 33 years. We have a professional cinema manager in place and will screen a combination of mainstream, art house and family films, as well as live performances in the lower theatre.

So the community-driven battle to save the Vic is now a major heritage success story, but sadly another similar fight has been lost. The joy of opening the Vic next week will be tempered by the terrible loss of the battle to save the Masonic Hotel. While the Vic narrowly escaped apartment madness, the Masonic has fallen victim to it.

Historically an even more important building, the Masonic has sat on the Devonport waterfront and operated as a pub for 144 years. It is the oldest surviving hotel still on its original waterfront site in Auckland. Sure it's a bit down-at-heel and its gracious veranda has been covered in, but this sturdy old building has the cultural history of the North Shore etched in its bones. In Europe, any building of equivalent age and importance would unquestioningly be respected and fully protected.

Here, the poor Masonic was tagged with an out-of-date "facade" protection, an agreement reached 10 years ago when it faced imminent demolition.

This year the Environment Court decided this puny facade protection was entirely appropriate for a building even they had to agree was high in heritage value.

The judges said the plan to reconstruct the hotel facade would mean the development would retain an "echo" of heritage values. Never mind that the bulk of the Masonic will be demolished, that all its interior, rear and side walls and roof will go. It will be prettier, they decided, and there will be some genuine bits left.

The court had the power to take the larger view and protect the full heritage qualities of the Masonic. They could have had the whole song, but instead settled for an echo.

So the Masonic will close, the carpark will be filled with apartments and this historic hotel will be largely demolished and converted into luxury apartments.

If the Victoria Theatre had been subjected to a similar resource consent proposal she would have been long gone. The planners, commissioners and Environment Court would have plumped for the rights of the property owner. In these battles, the public good of retaining heritage always comes in second place to the owners' right to economic satisfaction.

The Environment Court and we as a society haven't yet accepted that there is a strong public right involved here too and that a single individual's quest for economic gain should not outweigh this country's right to preserve historic places it holds dear.

Equal numbers of energetic people fought to save both the Vic and the Masonic. In a gruelling, drawn-out process, we Masonic campaigners fought right up to the High Court.

There are two main reasons the Vic survived and the Masonic will not: the former owner of the Vic was not hell-bent on development; and the council agreed to step in and buy it. No such action was available for the Masonic.

This tale of two buildings demonstrates clearly that councils and government have to be involved in retaining our heritage sites and buildings. It is simply not good enough to allow market forces to take precedence over this country's cultural history. Time and again it is only the ruckus kicked up by heritage campaigners that saves our old places.

Last week the Navy opened its beautiful new museum in the superbly renovated old military buildings in Devonport's Torpedo Bay. Yet only a few years ago the Navy was going to clear the site and build a museum that resembled a supermarket. It planned to destroy the historic defence system built to counter the 1880s Russian threat, demolishing the buildings and the military relics. It was locals' outrage at the lunacy of destroying heritage buildings and real naval history that caused the Navy to change tack.

Now we have a splendid museum housed in genuine heritage buildings, on a site redolent of history.

If the Vic could tell her story on her reopening next week, it would be all about the community that surrounds her, about the people who have refused to accept that she was done for. Over the years there have been scores of people who have seen past the decay and the leaks and seen the possibilities of the building. The relaunch of the Vic is testament to all these people, to their imagination and hard work, and their belief that our history is important and worth preserving.

Some dismiss heritage campaigners as being sentimental. It's true that people do respond emotionally to old places. That's because they speak to us of our past. Our old buildings are our castles. Without them there would be nothing to show us the journey through our history and to remind us of who we are and where we've come from. Within their old walls they hold the stories of this country. What's wrong with loving them?

So when I stand on the old polished wooden boards of the Vic's dress circle, as my visitor takes in the faded grandeur of the place, I turn and whisper, "It's amazing, isn't it? We saved her. She's ours."

- Margot McRae is co-chair of the Victoria Theatre Trust and chair of Devonport Heritage Inc.

- NZ Herald

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