The St James Theatre doesn't give her secrets away lightly - or to just anybody, as Steve Bielby has discovered.

Like the old diva she is, the theatre has her own way of making things happen and isn't above throwing the odd curve ball.

Talking on the eve of Auckland's Heritage Festival, the 30-year-old Orakei resident - who is overseeing the restoration project - found that out recently.

"The foundations of the theatre barely reach 2m in depth, instead of the 6m foundations that were believed to be in place," he says.

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Archaeological works beneath the St James Theatre in July this year found more surprises. PHOTO/JASON OXENHAM
Archaeological works beneath the St James Theatre in July this year found more surprises. PHOTO/JASON OXENHAM

"At the same time, we're also balancing other issues like incorporating some of the world's most advanced seismic strengthening techniques into the building, involving base isolators like those used in Wellington's Parliament buildings."

Welcome to the world of heritage projects which - like the St James - can change virtually overnight depending on what secrets the building chooses to reveal at any given time.

"Heritage buildings are often complicated to work with," says Bielby, who first experienced this reality while undertaking fit-outs for family business Target Furniture.

"I learned that they are a blunt instrument. There is constant tension between what you can and can't do. Essentially you are designing and constructing as you go depending on how the building steers you - which is not the usual approach to a building project."

Bielby wouldn't have it any other way - though he readily acknowledges the St James takes complexity to another level.

"I really enjoy the challenge of working through these tensions to find a solution," he says.

"The St James could easily have become today's equivalent of His Majesty's, which was demolished in 1987"

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Because base isolator technology is not generally used with retrofits of heritage buildings, the steep learning curve needed to get things right meant Bielby flew his team to San Francisco to learn more about the technology - a long-term investment in expertise, and a solution to a pressing issue.

In any given week, Bielby spends 80 per cent of his time - about 40-50 hours - on the theatre project. His objective is to create a multi-purpose venue that celebrates its heritage, while being versatile enough to host a graduation ceremony one day, a rock concert the next, and a live theatre performance the day after that.

"The St James needs to be a multi-purpose venue, which is essentially what it has been for the past 20 years," he says.

"The great thing about this theatre is that it has evolved over time. That's why the public has such a high level of affection for it."

The main foyer bar, pictured in 2015, was the intermission experience for thousands of theatre-goers. PHOTO/NICK REED
The main foyer bar, pictured in 2015, was the intermission experience for thousands of theatre-goers. PHOTO/NICK REED

His own earliest experience with the St James was as a member of the audience watching productions such as the Buddy Holly Story and Cats.

As he grew older, Bielby started going to gigs such as the Black Eyed Peas concert and the Violent Femmes, who earlier this year played the last gig held at the St James prior to its temporary closure.

"Before this, the theatre operated for a year. During that time we put on a number of shows, and on average they were 80 per cent full for all performances. It showed very clearly that people still wanted to go to the St James to enjoy a live theatre experience," he says.

Conversely, he still gets regular requests from performers overseas wanting to play at the St James.

Bielby first started eyeing up the theatre with a view to acquiring it in 2009, though the timing wasn't right. Ironically, it has been Auckland's booming housing market that has made all the difference.

"The St James is a private-public project - a partnership between the Auckland Notable Properties Trust and developer Relianz Holdings which is building an apartment building around the theatre. Auckland's rising property prices made the proposed apartment development viable," he says.

"The St James could easily have become today's equivalent of His Majesty's, which was demolished in 1987.

"The reality, though, is that in order for the theatre to survive, it has to sit within a commercial development project like this.

"The standard grant-based charitable trust model of fundraising would not have been able to support a project of this scale with its budget of $60-70 million."

"There is a misconception, put out by some developers, that heritage buildings are often too difficult, and that developers face too many obstacles"

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The project has drawn support from Auckland Council, which recently provided funding of $15 million through a suspensory loan, and Bielby is determined that the work on the St James will set a high standard.

Heritage New Zealand has also provided advice and guidance on heritage elements of the building, while also recognising the need for the theatre to function effectively in the entertainment marketplace - as it has done for almost 90 years.

"The St James has to set the benchmark in terms of quality, though the theatre also has to be fit for purpose," Bielby says.

The acoustics are a case in point. Famous for being outstanding for live theatre, they're not so good when sound is amplified.

"Inevitably, that will mean some compromises. But the attraction for both audiences and artists is that they will be performing at the St James," he says.

"You can't please everyone, and so it's likely that not everyone will be happy with the St James when the project is finished - though they will be happy that the St James has been saved."

The Auckland Notable Properties Trust has a self-funding business plan underpinning its operation - the development of a solid capital and asset base acquired through buying and selling of notable properties which are kept in circulation as quirky, desirable commercial space. These fill a specialist niche and command their own market value.

"There is also a social return, as these buildings are retained for the public good," Bielby says.

"Cruise ship visitors to Auckland, for example, walk up Queen Street to see the Civic Theatre or the Town Hall.

"It's heritage buildings like these that draw their attention and interest while adding quality to their visitor experience. They also help set Auckland apart from other destinations."

Firefighter Mike Maguire walks through the burnt-out shell of the St James after a fire in 2007 almost destroyed the iconic landmark. PHOTO/CHRIS SKELTON
Firefighter Mike Maguire walks through the burnt-out shell of the St James after a fire in 2007 almost destroyed the iconic landmark. PHOTO/CHRIS SKELTON

Bielby insists heritage does not belong in the too hard basket.

"There is a misconception, put out by some developers, that heritage buildings are often too difficult, and that developers face too many obstacles. The perception is that everybody has to be a conservation architect, though that's simply not true," he says.

"Auckland Council, for example, comes in for a lot of criticism, though I have found them really good to work with - along with Heritage New Zealand. When it comes to heritage in this country we're neither too tough nor too soft - in many ways I think we've got it about right."

The sheer scale of the St James Theatre project is likely to be a career highlight for Bielby, though the Auckland Notable Properties Trust has other irons in the fire - including heritage buildings owned or used by community groups who often struggle with what they can do with these buildings.

Meanwhile, the task of transforming the St James - complete with its original tower which was covered up in the 1950s, and which has yet to be revealed in what is sure to be a grand encore - still occupies much of Bielby's energy. For him, though, change is a two-way street.

"Projects like this change you. Often you come out a different person," he says.

"The St James Theatre project has taught me not to be in so much of a hurry. The building has secrets - and will reveal these only when she wants to."

For the full programme of the Auckland Heritage Festival, go to heritagefestival.co.nz
* John O'Hare is Heritage Adviser Media and Marketing at NZ Historic Places Trust.