The owner of the St James Theatre says Labour’s signature housing policy KiwiBuild could be the answer to re-starting the stalled renovation of the classic Auckland venue. 

Steve Bielby is pushing the Government to take on the financing of an apartment tower next door that is the key to opening the theatre’s doors once again.

Work can’t start again on the restoration until there are toilets, lifts, kitchens, disabled access, office spaces and car parks – all things a development next door was to provide. In December, just a week before Bielby was to sign construction contracts for the St James, financiers pulled the plug on the St James Suites. The Li family has since abandoned it and returned deposits for what was a fully sold out apartment tower. The restoration project is also at a standstill.

Bielby now sees a great opportunity, with Labour’s KiwiBuild programme. If the plans could be tweaked to turn the tower into 450 affordable units, it would likely fit the parameters for Kiwibuild. 

“I’ve been to Wellington every week for the last few months. We are ready to go (with the St James restoration) tomorrow, fully consented and funded to start construction. This is our last chance. The longer this building is left, the more it’s going to cost to fix it.”

If the government doesn’t come to the party, Bielby’s enthusiasm for the project is not endless and he will exit.

You’d think this is one project the Arts and Heritage Minister would get behind. Trouble is she’s too enthusiastic – Jacinda Ardern is the St James’ patron and can’t really lobby on its behalf. 

Efforts to save and restore the 1928 theatre have been going on for nine years. Inside it’s a beautiful mix of cultural confusion, in Spanish-Renaissance style, with Egyptian, Greek and Roman elements thrown in. The ornate plasterwork has been preserved, including a massive ceiling rose. There are royal boxes and a grand marble staircase. It is listed as a Category 1 Historic Place. 

In 2007 a fire led to a complete re-wire of the building but sprinklers have still not been installed, and without those it’s a no-go area. 

Bielby has been showing small groups around the inside for Archaeology Week, with supporters scrambling to get a place on such a tour. 

Everyone seems to have a special memory of the St James; the concerts, the shows, the nightclub, the rumours of what went on upstairs. Bielby says the team found a tray full of slides at the site of the former nightclub and were about to throw them out when a librarian from the central library next door raced out to rescue them for what might prove to be heritage value. “We got nasty emails from the mayor’s office over our reckless treatment of heritage … she went through every slide … and they were all pornography. The rumours that illicit screenings had been going on turned out to be true.” 

In storage – elaborate fret work and other heritage items set aside for restoration. Photo: Alexia Russell

The floor of the theatre has been dug up, and two new piles were laid before work stopped. The rubble of unfinished demolition inside a grand auditorium gives the interior a shelled feeling. Excavators found the remnants of a butcher shop underneath the floor – a dripping pit the giveaway – and cobblestones from it will be preserved. Thousands of bottles were also found, from a former china shop. This is where the earthquake proofing will be done – with triple pendulum base isolators installed. The building will end up sitting on, essentially, $3 million roller skates. “It will go from being probably the most dangerous building in Auckland to one of the safest,” says Bielby. 

At the back of the stage is the south wall which will have to come down – it is a 30 metre high block of unsupported and unreinforced concrete. Other exterior walls have had to be removed because the concrete was full of calcites, allowing air to get into the reinforcing behind it and rusting it, putting it in danger of collapse. That has led to some heritage experts accusing Bielby of “facadism” – “but I had to remove some things, not because we wanted to, but because we were forced to”. 

He wants also to restore touches that could have been forgotten, such as the griffins that were on the outside and spat water through their mouths when it rained. “I’m trying to rope Peter Jackson in to design it.” 

The St James has not been demolished

Tina Plunkett runs the Save the St.James Theatre Facebook page. She has lost count of the number of times in the past five years people have insisted “the St James has been demolished! I’ve seen it!” What they’ve seen from Queen St is the building next door come down in preparation for the apartment development. 

It’s a tough job trying to update a Facebook page when there’s no progress to post. “Everybody asks me all the time, ‘what’s happening to it? Is it saved?’. 

A couple of years ago, with funding in place and a plan to support it, the answer was yes. But now – 

“The answer is, no.” 

The apartment site next door to the St James – that’s the Civic Theatre across Queen St in the background. Photo: Alexia Russell

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