Chris Schulz takes a stroll through the once mighty, now musty, Saint James Theatre.

"It's a bit of a sad visit today," declares George Farrant as he unlocks two beige doors, pulls them apart and invites us inside.

"It's a working site," he cautions. "There's lots of cabling around, so please be careful."

Twelve curious souls standing on Lorne St step out of the sun and inside the dimly lit Saint James Theatre, one of Auckland's best live music venues currently mothballed.


It's a complicated story, but thanks to red tape surrounding its $68 million renovation nothing's been done for the past nine months. A handful of lights are on but the builders aren't home. Its current status is "to be continued".

For now, the Saint James Theatre, which has existed and entertained Aucklanders since 1928, sits unused and unfinished.

But it is not unloved.

Auckland Council heritage adviser George Farrant inside the St James. Photo/Jason Oxenham
Auckland Council heritage adviser George Farrant inside the St James. Photo/Jason Oxenham

Farrant, Auckland Council's principal heritage adviser, is a fan, and today he's taking us on a two-hour tour through the venue. We start in the ground foyer, where the Queen has walked on three separate occasions, and end standing on the scary slopes of the top deck dubbed "The Gods".

Farrant's passion for the venue is obvious. Halfway through today's visit, he declares: "A lot of people would come here and say, 'Oh, it's in a terrible state'. You have to look past that." It is, he says, a "magnificent theatre, largely intact".

To make his point, he singles out the repair work that's already been done. Walls have been returned to their original cream colour, statues and hand railings have been polished to their original shine, and intricate ceiling motifs have been painstakingly repainted.

Farrant estimates there are two-to-three years of work left to fully restore it. For that reason, he's "not optimistic in the short term, but I am in the long term".

But he has a macabre metaphor to describe its current state: "It's like a body lying on an operating table."

So what's the hold-up?

"We had a deal all done with the apartments going [up] next door," says Steve Bielby from the Auckland Notable Properties Trust. He's spearheading the renovations and thought he had it sewn up thanks to a deal with the developers of a $250 million apartment site next door.

Thanks to funding issues, that's stalled. "With them not happening we don't have toilets, we don't have kitchens, we don't have fire exits, we don't have compliance, we don't comply with the building act." For that reason, the projects are intertwined. If one stalls, so does the other.

A music lover who was in the crowd when Kanye West played there in 2006, he's as frustrated as anyone who's had to trudge out to inferior venues such as Trusts Arena or Greenlane Events Centre to see their favourite bands over the past few years.

"This is the theatre's last stand. If we don't save it, it won't be here," he says.

Steve Bielby of the Auckland Notable Properties Trust. Photo/Nick Reed
Steve Bielby of the Auckland Notable Properties Trust. Photo/Nick Reed

For someone who's had many a great night at Saint James, which can handle crowds of more than 2000, today's visit is sobering.

Walking through the rubble where the stage used to be, I can't help but feel nostalgic. Moments from a lifetime of gig-going spin around in my head. The Strokes. Arctic Monkeys. De La Soul. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Roots Manuva. The Mint Chicks. Che Fu. DJ Shadow. Mos Def. The Black Eyed Peas. The list goes on.

Seeing it half finished hurts. As I pull at the base of a blood-red seat up in The Gods, dust plumes around me. I don't mind. I breathe in. It smells old and musty. The place reeks of history. That counts for something.

Surely, one day, we'll see bands and rappers and stand-up comics and fashion shows and ballets and operas and movies and magicians and maybe even the Queen return to enjoy a fully refurbished Saint James Theatre.

At the end of his tour, Farrant sweeps his hand around and declares: "That's the magnificent beast."

It's an apt description, but as he holds open the doors for us to return outside, I hear him muttering something else: "I just hope it happens before I retire."