Forgotten gems saved from wrecker's ball

By Chris Barton

The Imperial. Photo / Patrick Reynolds
The Imperial. Photo / Patrick Reynolds

Aucklanders are soon to rediscover remnants of a bygone era that have been locked away for more than 50 years when what's left of the former Queen's and Everybody's picture theatres are transformed into restaurants in July.

The spaces, once the entertainment centre of Auckland, have been shut off from public view, empty and decaying slowly - a sad indictment on how this city has regarded its built heritage. But in what may be a sign that heritage doesn't always have to end under the wrecking ball, Phillimore Properties have begun a $10 million makeover of the Imperial and Everybody's buildings at 44-56 Queen St, directly behind the Michael Hill, Louise Vuitton and Gucci retail outlets.

Three cavernous spaces are revealed in the development - the two theatres and an unusual gable loft with clerestory windows called "the Boathouse", which was probably a warehouse in its previous life. Today, what is left of the Queen's Theatre is an ornate plastered ceiling but, when it opened in 1911, it caused quite a splash. The Auckland Star reported: "The decorations of the interior have been carried out on a lavish scale, the walls having been covered with paintings of New Zealand scenery and the remaining space with plate glass mirrors."

The theatre seated 500 people and ran screenings continuously in two sessions - 11am to 5pm and 6.30-11pm. "Go where the crowds go. Nothing unworthy of the entertainment but the prices. Fancy!" declared an advertisement in the Observer on December 2, 1911. Adults paid 6p and children 3p.

Detailed research by Jan Grefstad at the Central City Library shows that, in 1927, Queen's changed its name to the Hippodrome and was run by Michael Moodabe - a partner in the Hippodrome Picture Company which later became Amalgamated Theatres. Damaged Goods caused something of a sensation at the time because the censor declared mixed audiences were prohibited. "Women in Dress Circle, men downstairs," said the ad. "Remember! Thousands of people have been unable to see this 'The greatest of all films!' Here is your opportunity."

The theatre had another name change, becoming the Roxy in 1929 when it was converted for "talkies". The first "talking session" was The Donovan Affair - "12 famous stars speak".

The Roxy closed in 1935 but was later reborn as the new Roxy in Everybody's cinema, which was built alongside the Queen's in 1915. Today, it's just a bare brick space with steel roof trusses. But architectural drawings in the city archive show an ornate interior and seating for 496 on its sloping ground floor, with room for 239 in the gallery.

The records also show heated correspondence between the owners and various council officials. There was much concern about the arrangement of tables in the entrance to the theatre, which had been converted into a tea room. In 1916, We're leaving the texture of the walls and not plastering or gibbing over them. We are showing the age and generations that have gone through these spaces. Ross Healy, Phillimore Properties from wrecker's ball the building inspector was convinced, should there be a fire and panic, the tables would "constitute a death trap". Somehow they worked out a compromise.

Another letter in 1920 complained about an "offensive smell from manure stored at premises in Fort Lane" that was seeping into the theatre. It seems "bone dust" had been stored at the said premises for some time without anyone complaining and council staff were on the case to track down the mystery smell.

At the opening, much was made of the ventilation system - "Everybody's theatre never stuffy." And the seats - "The large fat man will never be uncomfortable at Everybody's."

A newspaper report described the theatre as being of "dainty Grecian design" and that a "handsome Fama floor of terra-cotta design, some elaborate mirror arrangements and unique electroliers at once command attention". It also showed continuous films and was run by Thomas O'Brien between 1923 and 1929 when it closed. Woolworths took over the lease and adapted the building as a department store, but relocated to the Imperial Building next door in 1935 after a fire.

Everybody's Building was then modified and opened as the new Roxy. It operated as a continuous double-feature house and served as Amalgamated Theatre's headquarters before eventually closing in 1956.

Woolworths again used the building as a retail outlet in 1955. A major refit in the 1980s saw Woolworths spend $500,000 driving piles 10m into the earth to the old harbour bed to join both buildings for the launch of its branded Deka store.

The four-storey Imperial building was erected in 1911 for William and George Elliot and the upper floors were tenanted to professional firms and small businesses.

Nine years after it was built, it was sold to glass and paint merchants Phillips and Impey, which manufactured paint in the building's beamed cellar. The southern part of the building was sold in 1935 to Woolworths for £50,000. The property was developed into the Imperial Arcade in the 1970s.

The refurbishment of the theatre spaces by Phillimore aims to keep the existing heritage look and feel. "We're leaving the texture of the walls and not plastering or gibbing over them," says Phillimore's Ross Healy. "We are showing the age and generations that have gone through these spaces."

The owners of La Zeppa restaurant, the new Snapdragon in the Viaduct and The Matterhorn and Foxglove in Wellington are developing plans to open two new restaurants, which will have access from Fort Lane. The Queen's Theatre space will become a bar/bistro and the former Roxy Theatre will be a full service restaurant. Both spaces will have new mezzanine floors.

Another significant aspect of the development is a new pedestrian lane extending from Queen St through to Fort Lane, which is also getting a makeover under the Auckland City Council's new shared space programme - an urban design concept that aims to combine rather than separate the functions of a street.

The Fort Lane shared space design includes improved street lighting on building facades to create a safer environment, the removal of "street furniture", neon art work running along the lane and new paving.

The new lane from Queen St runs at ground level through the existing building, ramping down to a wider lane space at the Fort St end where it will be lit by "light chimneys" - voids descending through three levels from the top floor Boatshed room. The building also has a substantial basement area which, when it is waterproofed from the harbour's rising tides, will have access from the new Imperial Lane and Fort Lane.

What's unusual about the development is that, although the buildings have heritage protection on their Queen St frontage, it doesn't extend to the rear of the buildings which push through to Fort Lane. If it had wanted to, Phillimore could have demolished the rear site and put up a high-rise to match the glass and concrete ugliness that defines Auckland's CBD.

But it didn't, choosing instead to work with what was there. "It's not our thing," says Healy, explaining why he didn't take the high-rise option. The company got into heritage development about 15 years ago, largely on gut feel. The experiment began with the 1928 General Buildings in Shortland St followed by the 1912 former Public Trust building in Mayoral Drive - working with what was there, creating smaller spaces and offering shorter leases for tenants. It was a formula that proved successful and it's one Phillimore has followed ever since.

For this latest development, Phillimore is creating a central courtyard to provide circulation and light to all the office spaces to be leased, and is working with the Historic Places Trust and Auckland City heritage advisers to ensure heritage features for the openings into the courtyard and also on to Fort Lane are retained.

Find out more on The Imperial restoration

- NZ Herald

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