Three years ago, Mayor Len Brown made a plea to the Auckland Council to explore options to save the magnificent St James Theatre. It was, he said, one of the most iconic buildings in Australasia yet it was "an open sore in the community ... sitting there rotting". Mr Brown's enthusiastic backing for the Queen St venue's restoration seemed like a turning point, the harbinger of a suitably splendid future. That makes it all the more ironic that, if anything, the theatre's prospects have deteriorated since 2011 even though the case for restoring it remains as strong as ever.
Two events have conspired to cloud the St James' future. The first was the failure of The Edge's proposal to restore it as part of an international convention centre development next to the Aotea Centre. Convention-goers were to work at the new centre and play at the revived St James. This concept was, however, trumped by SkyCity's convention centre deal with the Government.
The second blow was the council's decision to give $10 million for the Auckland Theatre Company's project in the Wynyard Quarter. This sum, only $1 million less than that thought to be required to buy the St James, was justified on the basis that there was an urgent need for a smaller theatre, as proposed by the ATC. Not mentioned was the increasingly urgent need to pay attention to the St James.
The theatre, closed since 2007 because of a fire, is owned by a property developer who says demand for inner-city apartments is improving sufficiently for him to start work on a 39-storey apartment tower next door. Paul Doole says the council has made no offer to buy the St James, which sits on a title separate from the adjoining Odeon and Westend theatres, the tower site. He is keen for the council to buy egress routes into the St James from Queen St as part of the tower development. Logically, this should also be the time when the council makes a definitive move on the theatre.
Any move to save and restore the St James will be widely supported. That backing is fully justified given its heritage and performing arts qualities. The theatre, with its ornate colonial-style interior featuring a marble staircase and three tiers of seating, more than lives up to Mr Brown's adulation. Its 1400-seat capacity will also fill a niche in Auckland's entertainment scene, not least for opera and ballet. Touring mainstage shows would also welcome it as a venue. Importantly, its acoustic qualities are said to match its ambience. During its 85 years, stars such as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson have appeared on its stage.
The need to save the St James has not been diminished by the developments of the past three years. The only change has been its further slide into decay. This has prompted the establishment of groups dedicated to saving it. First off the mark was a St James Saviours campaign led by Bob Kerridge. A year ago, Mr Kerridge also formed the St James Charitable Trust to seek donations for a restoration if the council bought the theatre.
The St James can be a world-class theatre. It is situated at the heart of Auckland's arts district and is the right size.
The city has taken the right step in upgrading the Civic Theatre and adding impressively to the Art Gallery. Equally, however, too many important heritage buildings, not least His Majesty's Theatre, have fallen under the wrecking ball.
If Auckland does not restore something as valuable as the St James, it is fair to ask what will be deemed worth saving.