Margot McRae: St James is our Albert Hall - all it needs is a WOF

The "shabby chic" vibe of rock and soul bands should be part of the St James brand. Photo / Ollie Dale
The "shabby chic" vibe of rock and soul bands should be part of the St James brand. Photo / Ollie Dale

The key to saving the St James Theatre is not to aim for a grand restoration but simply to make it safe and open its doors.

There's a huge amount of backing in Auckland for this gorgeous theatre but the longer it lies empty and decaying the harder it will be to retain the support.

The talk of a full heritage restoration with its $50 million price tag is the biggest deterrent to saving the St James.

This Rolls Royce approach causes councils and property owners to run in panic when faced with community calls for saving heritage landmark buildings.

Conservation architects with their ambitious plans for painstaking restoration are in danger of frightening off the very people that we need to take on heritage projects.

But there is no need for this all-or-nothing approach to the St James.

What is needed is to do the minimum required to make it safe for public assembly and to get a warrant of fitness for the building.

This is the approach we took at the Victoria Theatre in Devonport (also a Category 1 Historic Places Trust building) which in a much smaller way is an example of what can be achieved when the aims are realistic.

The North City Council bought the building and gave the Victoria Theatre Trust a 33-year lease. We took over a dilapidated, damp, broken building and gave ourselves 10 months to get it open again.

We achieved this by being resourceful and taking a number eight wire approach to problems. Essentially we acted like careful home-owners with a modest budget. We didn't aim too high, just did what was essential and what we could afford.

And we certainly couldn't afford to slavishly follow any conservation architectural directive. But we respected the heritage features of the buildings and kept the Historic Places Trust informed of everything we were doing.

The HPT is helpful and remarkably understanding of the necessity to manage heritage refurbishment in cost-effective ways.

The important thing with the Vic is that restoration was not our primary goal but getting it open was. We still plan to one day fully restore the Vic but we know that is several years away.

In the meantime its doors have been open for almost three years and it has become a busy cinema and thriving performing arts venue. The resulting audiences have brought it alive.

Exactly the same principles can be applied to the much larger St James. It needs to be bought by Auckland Council and leased to a charitable trust made up of practical, determined and resourceful people. They will need trustees dedicated to raising money and others to concentrate on the physical refurbishment of the building. The key is to not accept those high cost quotes but shop around or get sponsorship for work. Essential too is a good builder who can think outside the square.

The great thing about the majestic and beautiful St James, is that all its most superb heritage features are intact and on display.

There's no need to re-paint and plaster - the very scruffiness of the place can be turned into great "shabby chic" vibe and be part of the St James brand.

Don't aim for ballet or opera audiences but rock and soul bands. With 1400 seats and a magical, electric atmosphere who wouldn't prefer the St James to the soulless Vector Arena?

All it needs is a building warrant of fitness, clean and working toilets and a good bar to make it buzz again.

The St James is our Albert Hall. We cannot let any more years pass before taking action to get the audiences streaming in there again.

Margot McRae is co-chairperson of the Victoria Theatre Trust and a heritage campaigner.

- NZ Herald

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