Civic Theatre Building

267 Queen Street, Auckland

  • Civic Theatre Building.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Martin Jones. Date: 18/09/2001.
  • 'Civic Theatre, Auckland', c.1940. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use. Ref no. PAColl-3060-001.
    Copyright: Alexander Turnbull Library. Taken By: Arthur Breckon.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Registered List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1
List Number 100 Date Entered 27th June 1985

Locationopen/close

City/District Council

Auckland Council (Auckland City Council)

Region

Auckland Region

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 199399

Summaryopen/close

The Civic Theatre was built in 1929 as the largest 'atmospheric' picture house in Australasia. Atmospheric cinemas aimed to heighten a sense of escape for the early movie-goer by providing a fantastical environment. The Civic adopted Indian-inspired motifs for its public foyer, including seated Buddhas, twisted columns and domed ceilings. Its main auditorium, designed in a similar style, could hold 2,750 people and is notable for its soft-top ceiling, creating the illusion of an open sky complete with twinkling stars.

Erected by a local entrepreneur, Thomas O'Brien (c.1890-1948), the brick-built Civic was constructed seven years after the first atmospheric cinema in Houston, Texas. It was specifically designed for talking pictures, which had just been introduced to New Zealand. Designed by Charles Bohringer and William Leighton, the cinema contained several innovations, including a tearoom or Wintergarden in its basement, from which patrons could observe the main screen. It also held a rising 'gondola' orchestra pit, and the second largest wurlitzer organ in the Southern Hemisphere. The exterior, of a less elaborate 'picture-box' design, contained shops facing the street and a corner tower to rival that of the nearby St James (see 'St James Theatre, Auckland'). Some major alterations were made, particularly in the 1970s, when the Wintergarden cinema was built in the basement space (now removed). The building has since been restored in a landmark conservation project, continuing to show films as well as being adpated for use as a lyric theatre. It also retains its shops along the street frontages.

Of international significance as the largest surviving atmospheric cinema in Australasia, the Civic Theatre is also nationally important as the first purpose-built cinema of this type. It is the best remaining atmospheric picture house in the country, and an excellent example of early twentieth-century 'picture-box' design. Containing many elements of technological value, the building is historically significant for its associations with the development of the motion picture industry in New Zealand, and the emergence of 'talkies' as a means of mass communication. Recently restored, the interior of the Civic has great aesthetic appeal, and its distinctive exterior is a much valued local landmark. Its value is enhanced by its proximity to other historic buildings used for large-scale public entertainment, including the St James Theatre and Auckland Town Hall.

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Construction Professionalsopen/close

Fletcher Construction Company

Fletcher Construction Company was founded by Scottish-born James Fletcher (1886 - 1974), the son of a builder. Six months after his arrival in Dunedin in 1908, Fletcher formed a house-building partnership with Bert Morris. They soon moved into larger-scale construction work, building the St Kilda Town Hall (1911), and the main dormitory block and Ross Chapel at Knox College (1912). Fletcher's brothers, William, Andrew and John joined the business in 1911, which then became known as Fletcher Brothers. A branch was opened in Invercargill.

While holidaying in Auckland in 1916, James tendered for the construction of the the Auckland City Markets. By 1919 the company, then known as Fletcher Construction, was firmly established in Auckland and Wellington. Notable landmarks constructed by the company during the Depression included the Auckland University College Arts Building (completed 1926); Landmark House (the former Auckland Electric Power Board Building, 1927); Auckland Civic Theatre (1929); the Chateau Tongariro (1929); and the Dominion Museum, Wellington (1934).

Prior to the election of the first Labour Government, Fletcher (a Reform supporter) had advised the Labour Party on housing policy as hbe believed in large-scale planning and in the inter-dependence of government and business. However, he declined an approach by Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage in December 1935 to sell the company to the government, when the latter wanted to ensure the large-scale production of rental state housing. Although Fletchers ultimately went on to build many of New Zealand's state houses, for several years Residential Construction Ltd (the subsidiary established to undertake their construction) sustained heavy financial losses.

Fletcher Construction became a public company, Fletcher Holdings, in 1940. Already Fletchers' interests were wide ranging: brickyards, engineering shops, joinery factories, marble quarries, structural steel plants and other enterprises had been added the original construction firm. Further expansion could only be undertaken with outside capital.

During the Second World War James Fletcher, having retired as chairman of Fletcher Holdings, was seconded to the newly created position of Commissioner of State Construction which he held during 1942 and 1943. Directly responsible to Prime Minister Peter Fraser, Fletcher had almost complete control over the deployment of workers and resources. He also became the Commissioner of the Ministry of Works, set up in 1943, a position he held until December 1945.

In 1981 Fletcher Holdings; Tasman Pulp and Paper; and Challenge Corporation amalgamated to form Fletcher Challenge Ltd, at that time New Zealand's largest company.

Williamson Construction Company - main contract

Bohringer, Charles

Leighton, William

Additional informationopen/close

Notable Features

Registration covers the building, its fixtures and finishes. It includes all recent modifications and extensions. The building lies on the site of early colonial buildings and possible Maori occupation beside the Horotiu stream.

Completion Date

15th August 2001

Report Written By

Martin Jones

Clough, 1996 (2)

Rod Clough, 'Civic Theatre Project: Archaeological Assessment', Auckland, 1996 (held by NZHPT, Auckland)

Conservation Plan

Conservation Plan

Salmond Architects, 'Civic Theatre, Auckland: A Conservation Plan', Auckland, 1996 (held by NZHPT)

NZHPT Heritage Order (20 May 1988)