Odeon Theatre

214 Tuam Street, Christchurch

  • Odeon Theatre, Christchurch.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Southern Region Office. Date: 1/07/2006.
  • Original image submitted at time of registration.
    Copyright: NZHPT Field Record Form Collection.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Registered List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1
List Number 3140 Date Entered 26th November 1981

Locationopen/close

Extent of List Entry

The registration includes the building, its heritage fixtures and fittings and the land on CT CB233/87, Canterbury Land District.

City/District Council

Christchurch City

Region

Canterbury Region

Legal description

Lots 1-5, 7 DP 2282 (CT CB233/87), Canterbury Land District.

Summaryopen/close

The Odeon Theatre, 1883, is the oldest, masonry theatre in New Zealand and one of only three intact, purpose built theatres that were built in the nineteenth century. In Christchurch, only the now stripped, timber building that served for three decades as the original Theatre Royal is older.

First known as the Tuam Street Hall or Theatre it was a popular venue for all types of public meetings, entertainment and exhibitions. These varied uses demonstrated the versatility of its internal planning. During the 1880s and 90s the theatre functioned as a roller skating rink in conjunction with the other usual activities. Through the nineteenth century the theatre's use reflected the tastes and interests typical of the time, catering to differing levels of society. One of the most notable and nationally significant uses was for the public meetings held in 1893 when Kate Sheppard led the campaign for women's suffrage from Christchurch. By the turn of the century vaudeville was the dominating entertainment and in 1903 John Fuller and Sons Ltd, the prominent Australasian theatrical firm, began their long association with this building. Use as a theatre rather than a public hall increasingly dominated.

Designed by prominent Christchurch architect T.S Lambert, the building is of brick construction with a majestic stone façade of Italianate design with Venetian Gothic elements. The Luttrell Brothers, also notable architects, modified the interior in 1927, providing the theatre with superior comfort, acoustics and viewing qualities. Lambert's façade continues to make a strong visual contribution to the streetscape, while the auditorium largely retains the appearance given by the Luttrell Brothers, despite later minor alterations.

In 1930, with cinema usage introduced, the theatre was renamed St James. After a brief closure during the depression this continued along with live theatre and the St James hosted some special performers through the 1940s, including the Trapp family singers, Stanley Holloway, Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. With ownership by Kerridge-Odeon Ltd in 1960, changes were made again. As part of a modernising programme the parapet was removed from the façade, minor alterations were made to the auditorium and updated cinema equipment was installed. The theatre was now named the Odeon. The introduction of television led to a decline in cinema patronage and this, accompanied by a reduction in live performances led to the theatre's closure. The Sydenham Assembly of God purchased the building in 1983, using it as a place of worship with associated administration offices. The theatre, which had been one of the city's most notable places for entertainment and public gatherings for one hundred years, took on a new role, serving the needs of a religious group.

The changes in use of the theatre over the years reflect the changes in the nature of popular entertainment. Although some other New Zealand theatres can illustrate similar characteristics, the Odeon's age along with its long and extremely varied use gives it special regional and national importance. The association with Kate Sheppard and the fight for votes for women in New Zealand add to this significance. It also has major architectural values with its imposing nineteenth century façade and its grand interior, an exemplar of theatre design from 1927.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Originally called the Tuam Street Theatre, the Odeon is the oldest intact theatre in Christchurch, the oldest masony theatre in New Zealand and one of only three extant nineteenth century theatres on the NZHPT Register.

The Odeon Theatre has a significant history as the venue for a wide variety of events since its construction in 1883 when it was the largest theatre and public hall in Christchurch. In this way it has played a major role in the lives of Christchurch citizens and people from the wider Canterbury area. It was not only a pre-eminent place for entertainment it was also the city's largest public hall where significant political and educational meetings were held. Among the most notable were the meetings promoting women's suffrage, the campaign led from Christchurch by Kate Sheppard.

Its varied uses meant that it was well known to people from all levels of society for whom it was a special place because of their cultural, educational or entertainment experiences. Changing activities reflect the changes in taste as well as developments in entertainment from the nineteenth to the twenty first century. A range of live theatre and music was always a major part of its usage, with vaudeville and music hall having a particular emphasis in the late Victorian/Edwardian period. As with many theatres throughout New Zealand, the Odeon later acknowledged the prevailing need for cinema, while retaining its facilities for live theatrical productions. It had a one hundred year association with the major figures associated with the entertainment world. As the patronage of cinemas reduced, causing the theatre to close, the building took on the role as a place of worship for the Assembly of God, again reflecting a tendency that has occurred with other theatres.

In many ways the Odeon's history is representative of other New Zealand theatres, but it has outstanding aspects through its particularly long and varied use.

The Odeon Theatre has architectural significance through the qualities of its original Victorian design and the internal plan it was given in 1927. The association with two distinguished Christchurch architectural firms is a further important factor

The building, which was completed to T.S. Lambert's design in1883, reflected nineteenth century architectural concepts of appropriate styles for differing building types. Major theatre designers in England used the Italianate/Venetian Gothic character at this time and Lambert followed the contemporary trend for what was intended as grand addition to the Christchurch architectural scene. Its internal layout was at the forefront of theatre design and the building functioned well for its varied uses. The Odeon is significant as a special example of nineteenth century theatre design and as a rare extant example of Lambert's many notable city buildings. As an architect Lambert was held in highest regard during the late Victorian era, designing buildings of wide ranging types and styles that made a major contribution to the city and suburban environs. The building's façade, despite the loss of its cornice and pediment, retains its impact as a distinct and grandiose architectural feature of the inner city.

In 1927 the Luttrell Brothers' contribution to the building's design gives the Odeon Theatre added importance. They too were among the most significant Christchurch architects, designing many of the city's notable buildings. They were especially renowned throughout the country for their innovative use of modern materials and construction techniques used in multi-storeyed buildings, grandstands and theatres. Their reconstruction of the Odeon's auditorium, stage and proscenium arch gave the theatre the most up to date facilities in New Zealand. Their skills enabled them to construct a well ventilated and heated environment where patrons enjoyed superior comfort and unimpeded views of the stage from all positions. Performers were equally well catered for with superior backstage amenities and stage equipment. The internal form of the theatre remains intact today.

The aesthetic values of the building's exterior are of a high standard which could once more become outstanding with some sympathetic treatment to the pediment and the ground floor. The eclectic architectural features of the first floor are of great importance though. The eclectic Italianate features, created in differing coloured materials by skilled craftsmen, ensure the building retains a strong, evocative presence in Tuam Street and the inner city.

The interior spaces are gracious in their form. From the generous foyer a wide staircase rises to the spacious dress circle and lounge. The elegant, sweeping curve of the dress circle can be best appreciated from the ground floor. The interior finishing represents both the 1927 and the 1960 upgrades. The Luttrell Brothers created the grand coffered-style ceiling while the delicate classically inspired plaster detailing is representative of the taste in cinema décor in 1960. Overall, the theatre has important aesthetic values.

The technological values of the theatre have considerable significance. The building's scale was determined by Lambert in 1883. At that time the structure was at the forefront of theatre design, with the largest stage and seating capacity and the best stage equipment in Christchurch. Lambert also ensured the comfort of the Victorian ventilation-obsessed theatre patrons by installing an “innovative convection system” that was remarkable in contemporary terms.

No less innovative were the Luttrell Brothers in 1927 when they used the external shell of Lambert's building in which to create an auditorium of the highest quality. It is an illustration of their skills and understanding of the most modern building materials and techniques and also of the understanding of the practical requirements for a theatre that could function well through the following decades. The specific aspects that were acknowledged as ground-breaking included the greatly improved sightlines, largely achieved by the cantilevered dress circle that eliminated the need for supporting columns. The excellence of the acoustics is a further feature which has remained a measure of the theatre's value as a superb entertainment centre. Like Lambert, the Luttrell Brothers provided the best in contemporary heating and ventilation systems, while ensuring the most complete comfort and convenience for both patrons and artists. .

The social and cultural significance of the Odeon Theatre is very great as its history reflects the changes in taste of popular entertainment and illustrates the changing patronage for both live performances and cinema. The popularity of the wide ranging events, exhibitions lectures and entertainments also reflects the emphasis such activities were given in the past, often by those with limited leisure time and money. All levels of society used the theatre and frequently mixed for the same event or production.

The use as a public hall also represents the political and educational interests of the general public, particularly through the first four decades of its use. This pattern of use and history can be seen in some other significant New Zealand theatres, but the Odeon's special social and cultural values are based on the greater length of time and the extremely varied usage.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Odeon Theatre's history is representative of many other theatres in New Zealand. As was the case in other settlements in colonial New Zealand it was initially beyond the resources of local government to build theatres and public halls. It was a group of local businessmen who formed a company to build this large hall/theatre in central Christchurch.

Its usage followed a similar pattern to early theatres elsewhere which began as a venue for live theatre and were later converted for cinema usage. For some, like Christchurch's Regent Theatre (Category I), this has meant major alterations to the interior to cater for the contemporary popularity of smaller, multiplex cinemas. Some theatres, like the Odeon or the Theatre Royal in Christchurch, retained live theatre amenities and continued a dual role.

Although the history of the Odeon Theatre has these representative aspects, its longevity and diversity make it special and unique.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

From the time of its opening the theatre has been associated with many notable persons in the public and political and entertainment worlds. Of special importance is the association with Kate Sheppard, the leading figure in the suffragette movement. The theatre was owned and managed for many decades by the giant Australasian firm James Fuller and Sons, leading theatrical figures/impressarios who spread vaudeville throughout New Zealand. There is also association with the major New Zealand cinema company Kerridge-Odeon which purchased the theatre in 1960. The company's founder Robert Kerridge (1901-1979) was knighted for his services to the cinema industry in 1962.

Among the many performers at the Odeon were Sir Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who toured with the Old Vic Company. Stanley Holloway, the Van Trapp family singers and New Zealand's rock singer, Johnny Devlin were further stars who filled the theatre.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place

The building holds many memories for the older generation of Christchurch citizens who visited the theatre as a significant part of their social life during its cinema and theatre phases. Recent community efforts that have been made to ensure the retention of the building and the formation of the Odeon Theatre Trust are demonstrations of the esteem in which the building is held.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

The design of the Odeon Theatre ranks it as one of inner Christchurch's special heritage buildings. The street frontage's grand 'freely treated' Italianate styling indicates its nineteenth century date, while the interior is in the form it was given in 1927. The interior's décor is a superb representation of both the 1920s and 1960s.

The Luttrell Brothers' construction of a steel braced cantilevered dress circle was at the forefront of building technology, giving the auditorium its practical and aesthetically pleasing appearance.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places

The Odeon Theatre is the oldest intact theatre in Christchurch. (The second Theatre Royal, built in 1876 as replacement of an earlier building on the site, was gutted and has been used as a warehouse since 1908.) It is one of only three nineteenth century theatres on the NZHPT Register and is the oldest of masonry construction in New Zealand.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape

The building is an important element of the Tuam Street environs which feature a number of heritage buildings of varying architectural styles. This is an area recently identified by the Council for potential development promoting the heritage character. There are other nineteenth century buildings in close proximity, a near neighbour is the handsome 1912 building, formerly Laurie and Wilson, Auctioneers, while across the street is the Moderne former Miller's Store of the 1930s, now the City Council premises. At the Tuam and High Street intersection are two grand buildings originally built as the A.J. White stores. The 1878 store is Venetian Gothic in style while its contrasting Edwardian neighbour harmonises in scale and form.

The Odeon Theatre makes a key contribution to this grouping.

Summary

The Odeon Theatre is New Zealand's oldest masonry, purpose built theatre. While there are older theatres on the Register, only Nelson's timber Theatre Royal has an earlier date than the Odeon. Others, like the Globe Theatre, 1867, were not purpose built as theatres. Christchurch's former Theatre Royal,1876, a timber structure which ceased functioning in 1906, has been stripped out and is used as a warehouse.

It has national significance as a theatre designed for varied uses which continued over a one hundred year period. Many theatres were built and continued as live theatre venues, while others were adapted from theatre use or were purpose built as cinemas.

The buildings' elaborate Victorian character has a significant streetscape impact, a physical reminder of the original architect's abilities and the style of grandiose public buildings constructed in the nineteenth century. The modifications which took place reflect the later architects' design and technical skills, as well as the building's adaptability.

The theatre has major social and cultural importance in what it reflects of society's changing tastes in entertainment, its patronage by all levels of society and the impact of the public meetings that were held here. Of special importance is the link with the prohibitionists, Kate Sheppard and the suffrage movement during a momentous era in New Zealand's pioneering social and political history. The building is a physical reminder of those significant past uses.

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Construction Professionalsopen/close

Luttrell, Alfred Edgar And Edward Sidney

Alfred (1865-1924) and Sidney (1872-1932) Luttrell established one of New Zealand's foremost Edwardian architectural practices when they arrived in Christchurch in 1902. The brothers had left Australia on the eve of Federation to pursue a more rewarding career in New Zealand.

Alfred had been based in the Tasmanian town of Launceston for nearly 15 years, and had taken his younger brother into partnership in 1897. The two men assumed different responsibilities within the firm, Alfred acting as the principal designer and engineer while Sidney co-ordinated building programmes and dealt with clients.

Their chief contribution to New Zealand architecture was in the introduction of the Chicago "skyscraper" style, as seen in the New Zealand Express Company buildings in Christchurch (1905-7) and Dunedin (1908-10). Alfred's habitual use of concrete construction, both mass and reinforced, is another significant feature of his work. The grandstands at Trentham racecourse are his most important work in reinforced concrete and also reveal Sidney's close involvement with the racing world, which led to numerous commissions for the firm.

S and A Luttrell ran their own contracting firm for many years, designing a wide variety of building types throughout the country. They were the unofficial Diocesan architects for the Roman Catholic Church in Christchurch during the second decade of the twentieth century.

Lambert, T S (1840-1915)

Thomas Stoddart Lambert (1840-1915) served articles and studied in Edinburgh before coming to Christchurch in 1874 where he worked for three years in Frederick Strouts' office. He established an independent practice in 1877 and rapidly gained a reputation as a sensible and economical architect. He designed a variety of structures including churches, warehouses, business premises and schools (serving as Education Board architect for four years). He was the architect for Christchurch's second Theatre Royal in 1876 gaining valuable experience for his commission to design the Tuam Street Hall five years later. The Odeon is now one of only few surviving examples of his many prominent inner city buildings. The Synagogue, 1880, Canterbury Farmers' Association Building, 1882, United Services Hotel, 1883, and Young Men's Christian Association Building, 1884, have all been demolished. In 1893 he moved from Christchurch and continued his practice in Dunedin and then Wellington.

Additional informationopen/close

Notable Features

The first floor exterior remains as an example of Victorian architecture of striking character, designed to provide a visual indication of the theatre's grand public function. The auditorium's 1927 layout is a very well designed example of the most up to date contemporary theatre design. The décor is indicative of both 1927 and 1960 design, represented most fully in the ceilings.

Construction Details

Exterior: Brick on concrete foundations; façade of stone. Corrugated iron roof.

Interior: timber flooring, steel cantilevered dress circle support, plaster finish and decoration, marble-clad concrete stair with original kauri banister.

Historical Narrative

The Christchurch theatre known today as the Odeon, was completed in 1883 and was first known as the Tuam Street Hall/Theatre. It has hosted many large gatherings, serving for 100 years as a public hall as well as a place of entertainment and then since 1983 as a place of worship.

In colonial Christchurch the first town hall was a timber Gothic building constructed in 1857, with a further larger brick and stone structure built beside it in 1862-3. These were the earliest places for public meetings. The first entertainment venue was the short-lived Canterbury Music Hall which opened in 1861 with basic facilities. In 1866 the first Theatre Royal was built but it had an inadequate stage and was demolished and replaced in 1876 by a grander structure on the same site. (This second Theatre Royal continued in use until 1906 when the present Theatre Royal was built across the street.) A group of local businessmen recognised that there was need for a more capacious building to adequately cater for the needs of the growing community. They formed the Public Hall Company Ltd and in 1881 commissioned the widely respected local architect Thomas Stoddart Lambert (1840-1915) to prepare plans for a large public hall in Tuam Street. When construction was underway in early 1883 it was decided to modify the internal layout in order to make the building suitable for live theatre. This gave it a prime function within the developing city, fulfilling the need for both a large public meeting place and theatre, with its style and size reflecting the civic aspirations of the Christchurch settlers.

The Tuam Street Hall opened 20 July 1883 with a fundraising soiree in aid of the Young Men's Christian Association. There was a full house of 2,200 people to appreciate the qualities of the new facility which featured an 'innovative convection system' to ensure adequate ventilation, cloakrooms on each floor and a gentlemen's smoking room in the façade's crowning pediment. The large stage area was equipped with the most up to date theatre apparatus, spacious areas for storage and nineteen dressing rooms. The exterior, described as being in 'the Italian style, freely treated' and 'the grandest in Christchurch' , was constructed of brick, with stone used for the façade. Large windows featuring wrought iron arcading separated the three carved timber doorways that gave access to the theatre. Above this, the principal section of the façade was elaborately detailed. Divided by classically styled pilasters into five bays, three round-headed windows ornamented with barley twist columns are located in the central bays. They are surmounted by blue and white stone striped voussoirs. An elaborately detailed cornice was capped by a small central pediment which housed the gentlemen's smoking room.

Through the nineteenth century the Tuam Street Hall was advertised as the venue for events under various names. In November 1883 an item in the Lyttelton Times announced that it was to be called the Queen's Theatre but it was still frequently referred to as the Tuam Street Hall. Grand operatic events were interspersed with classical concerts, vaudeville and comic reviews. There were also many exhibitions like winter shows and in 1894 the Canterbury Industrial Exhibition . Well attended public meetings for a variety of purposes took place, including political and evangelical gatherings. Through the 1880s and 90s when roller skating was a popular pastime, the hall was used as a skating rink, with seating hastily replaced as required for normal usage.

One of the most significant groups to use the hall for public meetings was the Women's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) in which Kate Sheppard played a leading role. It was under the umbrella of this group that the campaign to gain women's franchise was begun, with Kate Sheppard appointed national Superintendent of the Franchise and Legislation Department in 1887. Sheppard's vigorous campaigning and organisation brought a successful outcome and though she was a convincing public speaker she was initially reluctant to chair large meetings, arranging for supportive men of eminent status to take this role. It was at the meeting in the Tuam Street Hall on 25 September 1893, which was held as a thanksgiving following the successful passing of legislation to allow women to vote, that she first took the chair. In the few weeks before the 28 November election there was frantic activity to ensure women placed their name on the electoral role and the Tuam Street Hall was the place where many women did so and also voted on the momentous day.

There was another name change for the Tuam Street Hall in 1894 when the Lyttelton Times advertised an aria concert 'in the Opera House, late Tuam Street Theatre'. D.R.Dix took over the management of the theatre in 1902 and presented a well patronised vaudeville review for the next two years, beginning a new phase in the theatre's history. The theatrical company John Fuller and Sons noted the success of Dix's venture and purchased the theatre in 1904. It was renamed Fullers Vaudeville House and linked into their large chain of vaudeville houses through New Zealand and Australia.

Beginning in Dunedin in the nineties as a family entertainment in Dunedin, John Fuller and Sons made Fuller a household word in the country. They became promoters of vaudeville and variety and, later, theatre owners and entrepreneurs, importing artists from overseas for revues, musicals, melodramas and opera.

The entertainment brought to Christchurch by Fullers gave the theatre much use through the next decades. There was a slight set back in 1906 when competitive shows were staged in His Majesty's Theatre, newly opened in Manchester Street and Fullers Vaudeville House closed briefly to renovate the back stage facilities in order to better attract visiting performers. This was followed by Christchurch City Council action condemning the theatre as a fire hazard, an injunction which was rapidly overturned through meeting requirements. In July 1917 Fullers relocated their programmed performances to His Majesty's Theatre, a move which only lasted until November that year when the recently built theatre was gutted by fire and action returned once more to Tuam Street. Performances at the building were again advertised as being in The Opera House. In 1927 Sir Benjamin Fuller visited, commenting that he thought that the time for vaudeville was passed, musical comedies being more popular. It was decided that the theatre be closed and the interior totally reconstructed.

The Luttrell Brothers, the Christchurch architects chosen to refit and modernise the theatre, were experienced in theatre design and renowned for their advanced construction techniques and innovative use of modern building materials. They put their skills to good effect creating a new interior within the shell of the 1883 structure, leaving only the fly tower and the original façade. A verandah was added across the street frontage, a shop window was removed from the ground floor and Lambert's timber framed sash windows were replaced with sympathetically designed iron framed ones.

Internally a thoroughly modern theatre was created. In the auditorium unobstructed views were made possible because cantilevered steel girders supported the new curved dress circle. The total seating number was reduced from 2,200 to 1,300 and a lounge was provided at mezzanine level after ascent on a new marble stairway which featured a balustrade with the 1883 kauri banister. The new proscenium arch was much larger and fitted with a fire curtain.

The owners and the general public immediately acclaimed the theatre for its comfort, convenience for both patrons and performers and the quality of the sight lines and the acoustics. It has continued to be ranked highly in Christchurch because of these qualities. Reopened as the New Opera House on 3 December, 1927 and described as one of the most handsome and modern theatres in the dominion, reviews and theatrical productions continued while the Fullers contemplated the future viability of cinemas. By October 1929 it had been decided to equip the theatre for talkies but continue usage for live theatre. The first talkie was screened in 1930 in what was now called the St James Theatre, with management taken over by the Christchurch Cinema Company Ltd. The effects of the depression closed the theatre as a cinema for a time and then the older varied uses returned with audiences enthralled by vaudeville, ballet, performing dogs, musicians, comedians and wrestlers. There were great events through the 1940s when the St James hosted star performers of international repute including Stanley Holloway, the Trapp family, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Competition from the cinema industry increased and in 1960 the large chain Kerridge-Odeon Limited became managers.

With the objective of updating the exterior, Kerridge removed Lambert's cornice and pediment and improved the interior to suit the more sophisticated tastes of contemporary cinema goers.

The overall form of the theatre, as the Luttrell Brothers had created it, was retained, but by reducing the number of back stall seats there was space to provide a coffee lounge. The dress circle ceiling was raised by 1.2 metres to allow full vision of the new 70-millimetre projection system and this area was re-plastered with classical motifs painted in pastel colours. With the marble stairs now carpeted and a ticket box featuring cladding of Queenstown's colourful stone, the overall effect was an 'opulent revelation'. Now named the Odeon, it was launched into a grand period as the most modern of theatres. This 'golden age' was relatively short lived with the increasing popularity of television eroding attendance numbers until defeat was acknowledged in 1983 by closure.

The Sydenham Assembly of God purchased the theatre which, with the removal of cinema related equipment, adapted very well for its new ecclesiastical purpose. Although their use of the building continued until 2003 the Assembly of God had the continuing worry of the structural report that was prepared for the building in 1985, identifying the urgent need for major earthquake strengthening at an estimated cost of $790,000. The costs for this and other issues like heating led the group to sell the building in 2003 to 3H Property Development Group. In May 2004 a building consent for demolition of the building was lodged with the Christchurch City Council. This was not progressed. The Odeon Theatre Trust was formed in 2004 with the objective of securing the building's future, by establishing a new use and achieving public ownership. In December 2006 the building's ownership was changed, bringing a new spirit of optimism for the building's future.

Completion Date

27th April 2007

Report Written By

Pam Wilson

Bowman, 2006

Ian Bowman, Odeon Theatre, Christchurch. Heritage Assessment Report prepared for Southern Regional Office, June 2006 [NZHPT]

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Malcolm, Tessa K. 'Sheppard, Katherine Wilson 1847 - 1934' updated 22 June 2007, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/.

Wilson, 1984 (2)

J. Wilson, Lost Christchurch, Springston: Te Waihora Press, 1984.

McEwen, 1988

A. McEwan, From cottages to 'skyscrapers': the architecture of A.E. and E.S. Luttrell in Tasmania and New Zealand. M.A. Thesis, University of Canterbury. 1988

A fully referenced Review Report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region Office