Town Hall and Civic Theatre
88 Tay Street & 101 Esk Street, Invercargill
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
Private/No Public Access
22nd November 1984
Secs 5/7 17/18 Pt 16 Lots 1/2 DP4623 Blk III Invercargill Tn
The Invercargill Town Hall and Civic Theatre is a prominent landmark on one of Invercargill's main streets. It officially opened in November 1906 and was built for the local council, which had previously been housed in the former Southland Provincial Council Chambers. Two events in the early 1900s led to the local council holding a competition for the design of a new town hall and civic theatre. One was a fire in 1900 that destroyed the former immigration barracks on the Tay Street site; a site that had long been promised to the local council by the government. The fire cleared the way for the land to be transferred. Secondly the Royal Theatre closed at the end of 1902. This had been the centre of entertainment in Invercargill and its closure left the city with few other places for performances.
The proposal to build a combined theatre and town hall was controversial. Some residents felt that the erection of a theatre should be a matter for private investment, not public money. Others opposed the project because of their religious beliefs, believing that theatre was sinful. However, the proposal to raise the loan for the building was eventually passed by the city ratepayers.
In its call for designs the council announced that it was seeking a 'handsome and pleasing looking building' without 'unnecessary ornamentation', which would cost no more than £15,000. Fifteen designs were submitted and the competition was won by local architect, E.R. Wilson (1871-1941), who designed a two-storey building in an Edwardian Baroque style. Wilson's building combined municipal offices and council chambers with a 'modern' playhouse and hall. In effect he designed two separate buildings, with the municipal offices in front and the theatre behind, connected only by the dress circle staircase rising from the front entrance hall.
The theatre itself was said to be similar to theatres built in London around the same time and was one of the first 'true theatres' in New Zealand, with the audience seated close to the stage. It seated up to 1,350 adults and could be used for either opera or theatre. The theatre was lit by electricity generated on the site, still comparatively rare in New Zealand at that time. Over the years it was also used for film screenings, concerts, boxing and wrestling matches. It was also noted for the facilities it provided backstage for performers. Films were shown in the theatre from 1919 to the 1950s.
The Tay Street frontage is the most elaborately decorated part of the building. Symmetrical in design, the central entrance is flanked by wings on either side. Of particular note is the plaster decoration on the three pediments. A contemporary newspaper report on the building soon after it opened mentioned that 'the style of architecture is similar to that of our best street blocks, thus setting off the city's principal buildings on a larger and grander scale as a town hall should.'
The combination of city hall and up-to-date theatre was seen as unusual at the time of the building's opening. Town halls in the early twentieth century generally included some form of public auditorium and often doubled as places of entertainment. The Auckland Town Hall (also registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust Pouhere Taonga) is one example of this. It was less usual to have a purpose-built theatre attached to the town hall, and indeed the town hall part of the Invercargill complex had its own lecture hall on the first floor, which could seat 360 people.
In the 1960s new council offices were built and the majority of the city council vacated the Invercargill Town Hall and Civic Theatre. However the Council Chamber and committee room continue to be used by the city council. The Town Hall and Civic Theatre play an important part in Invercargill's social and cultural life and the building is historically significant as the centre of city governance for most of the twentieth century. It is architecturally significant as a fine Edwardian Baroque building and an impressive part of the Tay Street townscape. It remains an important symbol of civic pride in Invercargill, even more so since its renovations in 1984.
Wilson, E R
Edmund Wilson was born in Invercargill, the son of Henry Fitz Wilson, a merchant and Dorothy Eleanor Richardson. The Wilson family was prominent in Invercargill: Henry Wilson was chairman of the Hospital Board, the Bluff Harbour Board and the Invercargill Savings Bank. He was a warden and choir member of St John's Church. Edmund Wilson served a seven-year apprenticeship with the local firm of McKenzie and Gilbertson. He may also have served some time with noted Wellington architect Frederick de Jersey Clere. In 1902 he married Elizabeth Alice Mary Dickinson. They had three sons and two daughters.
Amongst Wilson's commissions in Invercargill were the Town Hall and Civic Theatre (1906), St Catherine's Girls' College, the fire station, and various retail stores. He designed many churches, both in Southland and elsewhere. These included St John's Anglican Church, Invercargill (1913), St Mary's, Merivale (1927), St Andrew's in Southbridge, Mid-Canterbury, and St Michael's, Kelburn, Wellington (1920). He designed town halls in Otautau and Bluff. Kew Hospital, which came near the end of his career, was among his most important commissions. Edmund Wilson was also a vestryman, lay reader and choir member of St John's. Two of his brothers were Anglican clergymen. Wilson was a President of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. Wilson died on 13 October 1941 and was buried in St John's Cemetery, Waikiwi, Invercargill. His wife, Elizabeth, died in 1955. Wilson's practice was inherited by Baxter Hesselin McDowell, now McDowell Architects, who retain his original plans.
1905 - 1906
Alterations to council offices, and the Victoria Concert Chamber converted to office use.
Earthquake strengthened and renovated. Grand entrance to entire entertainment complex was created, and staircase rebuilt.
6th March 2002
Report Written By
New Zealand Historic Places
New Zealand Historic Places
Carruthers, Carolyn, 'Living History', July 1995, no.54, pp.8-9
Shaw, 1997 (2003)
Peter Shaw, A History of New Zealand Architecture, Auckland, 1997
John Gray, Civic Theatre Invercargill Conservation Report, April 2001
NZIA Local Award Winner 2006, Category: Heritage/Conservation
2000 Frontage repainted and lighting of the facade installed. This lighting of the facade received the top award at the National Rexal Lighting Design Awards and the Illuminating Society of Australia and New Zealand International Award for Excellence.
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.