One of New Zealand's historic theatres faces the prospect of an "indefinite mothballing," Auckland councillors have been told, due to work stalling on the project some years ago and nothing happening since.

Council heritage manager Noel Reardon has written a memo to the council's planning committee members meeting today that makes for grim reading on the St James Theatre on Auckland's Queen St.

As at July 1, 2016 and still is today inside the St James. Photo/Jason Oxenham.
As at July 1, 2016 and still is today inside the St James. Photo/Jason Oxenham.

"The current situation ... remains at a standstill with the prospect of a possible sale of the site(s), and of a new owner perhaps proposing a new version of the full project, although there appears to be little prospect of such a party eventuating from within New Zealand, and none yet from elsewhere. The possible alternative is an indefinite mothballing of the theatre," Reardon has told the committee headed by Chris Darby.

The theatre's restoration ceased in 2017.

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Councillor Cathy Casey said today: "At the Planning Committee today, Auckland councillors will be updated on the fate of the St James Theatre. The landmark theatre sits abandoned after an adjacent apartment development - intended to provide support services for the theatre's restoration - lost funding."

The building at 314 Queen St was opened in 1928. Sir Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were once on the stage, along with the Bolshoi Ballet, Black and White Minstrels and Cats.

Earlier last decade, developer Paul Doole bought the building and sought to develop apartments through the middle of it.

Herald archives show his purchase was around 2002 and many rock concerts were held there under his ownership. People talk of the entire building shaking and plaster coming down as loud rock concerts were staged within the ornate, historic walls.

In 2009, Doole won resource consent for his 39-level tower, but that never went ahead and the building was shut.

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In 2014, Doole sold the property to Lijun Li and family and its Relianz Holdings which is where one of the heirs to the Target Furniture business emerged – Steve Bielby, now in his early 30s, who said he has an interest in heritage buildings. This earned him the nickname 'hot property' from his Target colleagues.

A hopeful Steve Bielby in 2015 when work started briefly. Photo/Nick Reed
A hopeful Steve Bielby in 2015 when work started briefly. Photo/Nick Reed

Around 2015, the St James' future appeared hopeful: the migrant Li family were then planning the massive St James apartments next door. Bielby said that would give the St James the essential services like disabled toilets and access at the theatre.

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Work did start, particularly on the foyer and it seemed promising.

Around that time, Devonport-based filmmaker Margo McRae even screened The Show Goes On, a documentary on the theatre. Bielby starred in that along with the council's just-retired heritage manager George Farrant.

Margot McRae with Steve Bielby in 2015. Photo / Nick Reed
Margot McRae with Steve Bielby in 2015. Photo / Nick Reed

Inside, craftspeople were employed to paint and plaster, along with specialists in terrazzo. Bielby talked of a $60m-$70m restoration and reopening.

In November 2015, the council agreed to pay $15m for the St James restoration.

Diggers came in, new seismic foundations were to be laid. The stall seats were removed and the floor was dug up.

It was then shut to be restored. A new seismic base isolating system was to be installed, walls were to be fixed, new air handling systems put in, new fire sprinklers, roof and lighting were all planned.

But in December 22, 2015, the neighbouring planned 39-level 309-unit St James Suites apartment project was axed due to lack of funding. That was a huge blow to the St James restoration and Bielby.

However, Bielby has always remained hopeful about the project and so has Farrant.

In March this year, Bielby said work "stopped on the site in August 2017".

"We did continue design work that also stopped approximately 12 months ago," he said.

Grand 1928 St James now has stall seats removed.
Grand 1928 St James now has stall seats removed.

"The theatre is essentially reliant on the neighbouring development going ahead in some capacity. The future of the two sites were always linked. In the early days, it was the theatre holding up the suites development.

"Now it is the opposite, except the issue is that those commitments from the council and Government can't keep rolling over forever without certainty," Bielby said, referring to public funding commitments which he had secured for the building's restoration.

"I'm still hopeful we can save this building but things are not looking as certain as they were prior to the collapse of the neighbouring development."