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HomeNew ZealandAuckland's St James Theatre restoration now 'do or die', Swarbrick says

Auckland’s St James Theatre restoration now ‘do or die’, Swarbrick says

The interior of the dilapidated 1920s St James Theatre in Auckland.

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The public recently got a rare chance to take a look inside the dilapidated St James Theatre.
Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

The future of Auckland’s St James Theatre is set to be decided in Parliament, as pleas for its restoration ramp up.

The 1920s theatre has hosted some of the world’s biggest acts including James Brown, Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell, but the venue just off Queen Street has sat dormant for the past six years.

Renovation plans have fallen by the wayside, with plans to build an apartment building next door to provide funding also languishing.

Amidst a music venue shortage across New Zealand, a group called Save the St James – alongside Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick – are fighting to restore the venue to its former glory.

RNZ visited the crumbling theatre to find out what it is going to take to bring the theatre back to life.

On a gloomy Auckland day, Swarbrick opened the doors of the St James Theatre, offering a rare chance for members of the public to get a peek inside.

Water drips from a patchy ceiling, as the crowd files in to take photos and wander around the historic venue.

The ground level no longer has seats – or even a floor, just a mixture of dirt and rubble.

There’s graffiti on the walls, and mould laying waste to the carpet in the foyer.

The third storey of the St James Theatre in Auckland.

The third storey of the St James Theatre.
Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

One visitor, Jeff Hayward, said he had been going to the St James before most of those in the group were even born.

“I’m born and raised in Auckland, I’m 73 now. I came to shows here in the 70s. In its heyday I saw Joni Mitchell, Chrissie Hynde. A lot of famous names of theatre have walked the boards here.”

Assessing the state of the building, Jeff was struck by what a loss it would to the city.

“This is once again another tragedy on a scale with His Majesty’s Theatre, which was demolished by callous developers and I have to say corrupt council that rushed through a demolition that should never have been allowed. Now this has been allowed to deteriorate like this over years,” he said.

“Most of Auckland, great Victorian era and Art Deco architecture has been allowed to be demolished. We once boasted majestic picture palaces up and down Queen Street, they’re all gone.

“Other countries preserve their artistic heritage. Other than The Civic, Auckland doesn’t seem to care, and this is just unbelievably tragic.”

Jeff Hayward says it's unbelievably tragic that Auckland doesn't seem to care about its artistic heritage enough to preserve it.

Jeff Hayward says it’s unbelievably tragic that Auckland doesn’t seem to care about its artistic heritage enough to preserve it.
Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

As he wandered amongst the debris of what was once the orchestra pit, Jeff seemed resigned to the theatre being laid to waste.

“It’s heart breaking to be here. When this is gone, everyone is going to say ‘why did we allow Saint James to be destroyed?’ And then the same old thing has played out time and time again. In Italy or London this would be celebrated. Here? Not enough people care.”

The owner of St James Theatre Steve Bielby and Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick who is supporting the fight to try and get the theatre restored.

St James Theatre owner Steve Bielby and Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
Photo: Benjamin Brooking

But all is not lost. Owner Steve Bielby has been involved with the St James Theatre since 2010 and bought it in 2014.

Although it has continued to deteriorate, he said there was reason for optimism.

“I’m probably the most optimistic I’ve been about this project in a long time. It was certainly challenging for us in in 2017 when it fell over. We came together as a team and worked out what we did wrong, and what we did right. Hopefully we’ve reworked it and come up with something this time that will fly.”

Some of the debris on the floor of the St James Theatre in Auckland.

Some of the debris on the floor of the St James Theatre. Its caretaker of 25 years says in recent times it has been about keeping pigeons, water and street kids out of the deteriorating building.
Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

Discussions about saving the St James are currently underway with Ministry of Arts Culture and Heritage.

“They’re engaging, there’s not a deal done yet, so we’re just talking.

“Council have already committed $15 million to the project, and yes, the building won’t happen without that. But we need government to come along and at least match that. There might be more required, depending on what do we want at the end.

“What sort of theatre do we want at the end? Do we want one that can do state-of-the-art shows? Or are we happy with one that does concerts and comedy kind of thing? It all depends on the end use.”

Watch: Avantdale Bowling Club filmed their ‘Years Gone By’ music video inside the theatre:

Brian, who has been the St James’s caretaker for the past 25 years, was at the theatre’s abandoned bar.

“Our biggest issue really has been keeping the street kids out. Keeping the pigeons out, keeping the water out, that’s been relatively easy. Keeping street kids out, it’s hard work.

“[People are breaking in] … often three times a week, definitely weekly. During the school holidays. It tends to get worse.”

Brian has been caretaker at the St James Theatre in Auckland for the past 25 years.

Brian has been caretaker at the St James Theatre in Auckland for the past 25 years.
Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

Brian said showing up to work and realising there had been a break-in was no fun.

“It’s scary, you don’t know whether they’re still here. It’s a big building to walk around.”

Brian believed the St James could be restored, but said things needed to happen quickly.

“I think a lot of public needs to know that it is saveable. All we need is central government to agree, to come up with some funding towards it, and I think we’ve got a chance. If we don’t get to do some urgent repairs within the next two to three months, we’ve got a problem.”

Chlöe Swarbrick is also backing the campaign to ‘Save the St James’.

The exterior of the St James Theatre in Auckland.

The exterior of the St James Theatre.
Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

Despite the theatre falling to pieces, the Auckland Central MP said it could be done.

“The St James, interestingly enough, is in better shape than the Civic was 20 years ago when the Civic was undertaken to be done up and to be fixed for all to enjoy.

“The St James Theatre stands to fill quite a big hole, particularly young local musicians looking to get a foot in the door and continue building their career, and those who can’t quite get the radio play that’s necessary to get into a 12,000 venue like Spark Arena.”

There was massive support for the theatre to be restored, but the clock was ticking, Swarbrick said.

“There’s huge public support, and it’s been actually really sad since I first came into this space about three years ago now, it was in a better shape than it is at the moment.

“We’re now in a situation where there’s a huge amount of water that’s flowing through whenever it rains, and that increases, then resulting in collapsing of parts of the ceiling which you can see above us and at the front part of the stage. More and more of this is going to happen.

“People then say ‘you know you could water proof that’ and sure we can do a certain extent of waterproofing, which is again an excess cost to try and put it in a mothballing state. But we’re not having a Morphling conversation anymore, this is kind of do or die.”

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