Many people believe the Hawke's Bay Opera House (formerly Hastings Municipal Theatre) escaped unscathed from the 1931 Hawke's Bay Earthquake – and from pictures taken of the building directly after, it appears it had. However, the theatre had suffered considerable damage.

A persistent rumour I used to hear was that the back stage of the theatre was used as temporary morgue after the earthquake.

It wasn't. The YMCA building, about where the National Service Club is now in Market St North, was used for this purpose.

In fact, the back stage was so badly damaged it exposed the seating area to the outside when the roof and walls came down.


The original architect of the building, Henry Eli White, had come back to New Zealand from Australia some years before the earthquake.

His theatre design work had dried up, and he was farming in Auckland and was looking for work. Henry, however, wasn't wanted. The job of restoration went to local architect, Harold Davies.

Harold called for tenders to reconstruct the stage area and the theatre's sidewalls with more bricks and steel frame supports. Fletcher Construction won the contract.

To fund the reconstruction, a loan was received from the Local Government Loans Board.

In August 1931, the Hastings Borough Councillors began to discuss the two pagodas on the two front towers.

Concerned they were an earthquake risk, the councillors had agreed to remove them, but one of them thought it would "spoil the architecture".

Mayor G F Roach got rather cross with the councillors and said the plan had "all been laid out before you and I distinctly asked if you were all satisfied. You all signalled you were".

The matter had to be referred to the building committee, which agreed the existing pagodas would be replaced with smaller ones.

As pictured, the Press reported in January 1932:

"A spectacular feat was performed at the Hastings Municipal Theatre last week when the builders hoisted the first of the three steel trusses into position in the fly gallery above the stage.

"Each truss weighs about five tons and is 74 feet long, and a steel jib crane about 120 feet long was used for the lift. The distance of the lift from the ground was 90 feet, and the great weight of steel was raised at twenty feet per minute."

Next to the theatre was the Royal Café which supplied theatre goers with confectionery. The outside wall of the café collapsed into the store.

Reg Mardon, who operated the store, noted that a particular brand of chocolate bar was left behind by he looters after the earthquake. He later, with a sense of humour, gave it back to the traveller who sold it to him, noting something must be wrong with it as the looters had left it behind.

The store eventually became a thrift shop, and was demolished around the late 1980s-90s.

Many are looking forward to the opening of the Hawke's Bay Opera House after significant earthquake strengthening and alterations since its closure in March 2014.

• Signed copies of Michael Fowler's Historic Hawke's Bay book are only available from the Hastings Community Art Centre, Russell Street South, Hastings for $65.

Michael Fowler FCA ( is a chartered accountant, contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.