Wanganui Opera House
69 St Hill Street, Whanganui
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
Private/No Public Access
28th June 1984
Horizons (Manawatu-Wanganui) Region
Pt Res 8 Town of Wanganui Pt 16A/450 - Opera House
The Wanganui Opera House was built in response to an upsurge of theatrical entertainment in Victorian New Zealand, and also a Wanganui Borough Council decision that Queen Victoria's record reign should be marked. The Wanganui Borough Council began discussions about the proposed erection Municipal Opera House in 1897. In the following year a national competition was held to find a suitable design, and the winning entry was submitted by Wellington architect George C. Stevenson. Nicholas Meuli, a well known building contractor in Wanganui, was contracted to build the opera house. Stevenson died before the foundation stone was laid in July 1899 and supervision of the construction was undertaken by James Tawse, a retired building contractor. The building was completed in five months at a total cost of £5,200, and was opened on 9 February 1900 by the Premier, Richard Seddon.
The building was designed in keeping with the neighbouring Council Chamber building. A feature of the building was the domed ceiling above the Dress Circle. The building was initially lit mainly by electricity from a gas-fired generator. The internal supply of electricity proved problematic, and was eventually replaced by an external supply from the tramway system. Other changes included the erection of a porch over the main entrance to the building in 1920. Although films had been shown in the Opera House from the first year of its opening, in 1920 alterations were undertaken to enable the theatre to show films on a regular basis, and it became the home of the Paramount Municipal Picture Theatre. In 1937 the Opera House was closed for several months while repairs were undertaken following a fire which started in the sweet stall. In 1938 an annexe was added to provide better storage facilities.
In 1988 the cost of running the Opera House was considered too great for the council and it was decided to offer the building to the community to run. In 1989 the Friends of the Opera House was formed, undertaking to restore and refurbish the Opera House. Between 1990 and 1999 the number of seats was reduced from 1,000 to 830, exit doors were installed at either side of the building, the stage replaced, and an annexe added to provide room for set construction and catering. During 1999/2000 celebrations were held to mark the centenary of the building. As part of these celebrations a Royal charter was given to the Opera House, and the name changed to the Royal Wanganui Opera House.
Although the building does not have the facilities required by a modern opera house, its excellent acoustics have been recognised by international artists. It is an important survivor of a distinctive era of theatrical entertainment.
Stevenson, George C.
No biography is currently available for this construction professional
Nicholas Meuli (1856?-1926)
Having emigrated from Switzerland in 1877, Nicholas Meuli entered the construction industry in Whanganui as part of James Tawse’s company. Then in 1886 he branched out on his own. Meuli became a well-known local personality and one notable example of his work is the Wanganui Opera House (1899). Meuli was also responsible for the construction of all of the early buildings at Wanganui Collegiate School’s Liverpool Street campus, including Big School, the original boarding houses, the Headmaster’s Residence, Chapel, and a few years later Harvey House.
The practice was founded in 1955 by Sir Miles Warren in Christchurch where he was later joined in partnership by Maurice Mahoney in 1958; the partnership went on to design buildings that are now regarded as the benchmark of New Zealand Modernism: Harewood Crematorium (1963), College House (1966), Canterbury Students' Union (1967) and Christchurch Town Hall (1972), are amongst many examples of their mid- to late-twentieth century works.
Sir Miles was knighted in 1985 for his services to architecture and in 2003 named one of ten inaugural ‘Icons of the Arts’ by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.
Since 1979, the practice has expanded to Wellington, Auckland, Queenstown, Sydney and Melbourne, where they have nurtured some of New Zealand’s finest architectural talent. Sir Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney retired in in the early 1990s. Currently, Warren and Mahoney is an insight led multi-disciplinary practice working across all disciplines of architecture.
The practice has a long association with the refurbishment and restoration of historic buildings in New Zealand and has worked closely with Heritage NZ to achieve best outcomes for these heritage buildings while ensuring the highest possible standards of modern functioning requirements are met. They are conversant with the ICOMOS New Zealand Charter for the Conservation of places of Cultural Heritage Value and the Burra Charters for the conservation of buildings.
Source: List Entry Report for Wanganui Collegiate, List No. 9620 (9 Jun 2015)
1899 - 1900
Construction of a porch over main entrance
Staircase from stage to fly floor removed to create new scene dock
Alterations to convert theatre to movie theatre
Modification of seats with central aisle to allow grand procession of Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII)
New annexe built
Fire in sweet stall
Fire in annexe
Refurbishment of orchestra pit
1991 - 1992
Seating reduced from 1000 to 830, and other alterations
Extension of annexe
25th September 2001
Report Written By
Penny Robinson, A Grand Victorian Lady, The Life and Times of the Wanganui Municipal Opera House, 1899-1999, Wanganui, 1999
New Zealand Architect
New Zealand Architect
John Thomson, 'Wanganui's First, New Zealand's Last Victorian Theatre', vol. 4, 1981
Penny Robinson, Royal Wanganui Opera House: A Record Reign, 2016.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.