St James Theatre

Moray Place, Dunedin

  • St James Theatre. March 2014. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Shelley Morris - Madam48. Taken By: Shelley Morris - Madam48.
  • St James Theatre. Interior March 2014. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Shelley Morris - Madam48. Taken By: Shelley Morris - Madam48.
  • St James Theatre. Example of original architecture. March 2014. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Shelley Morris - Madam48. Taken By: Shelley Morris - Madam48.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Registered List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1
List Number 7205 Date Entered 23rd June 1994

Locationopen/close

City/District Council

Dunedin City

Region

Otago Region

Legal description

lot 7 DP 2570 part sec 27, lot 2, 3, 4, 5 & part lot 1 DP 2528, part sec 27, 28 & 29 blk XIV town of Dunedin

Assessment criteriaopen/close

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

Historical:

St James Theatre has historical significance due to its continued operation for over seventy years.

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

Aesthetic:

The interior features an elaborate array of Indian Saracenic detailing, in plaster and murals, designed by artist John Brock.

Archaeological:

The theatre was built on the site of earlier commercial buildings and houses, and has the potential to provide archaeological evidence.

Architectural:

The extensive 1928 rebuild was designed by Edward Anscombe. The theatre is a rare example of a surviving "atmospheric" theatre.

Technological:

Various technical innovations relating to the showing of motion pictures have been incorporated into the theatre, in addition to the fly tower over the stage which was installed in 1928. This tower is full sized and most of the equipment is still present and capable of handling full-stage productions. The original elevating stage, along with a separate lifting organ platform, remains intact. In December 1954 a Vista Vision screen (26' x 16') was installed. In 1967 a Todd-AD screen (60' x 30') was installed.

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

Social:

St James, as a cinema and theatre, has contributed to the social life of Dunedin from 1916 to the present day.

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

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

Atmospheric Theatres in the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

The St James Theatre, Dunedin, is a fine example of an atmospheric theatre. Atmospheric theatres enjoyed a relatively brief period of popularity between the years 1924 -32. The design was a distinctive type, which differed in several ways from the picture palace which preceded it, and which had developed in the first quarter of the twentieth century out of the opera house convention. The latter had relied on set-piece architectural historicism to create a palatial setting

for theatre patrons, and in time had become quite luxurious earning the epithet "hard top" in the theatre trade. Atmospheric theatres by contrast relied on two distinctive developments intended to achieve the illusion for the theatre patron of sitting in an exotic environment. These were (1) the use of exotic historic architectural design themes to create the illusion of a romantic courtyard or amphitheatre, and (2) the use of special concealed lighting effects to further the illusion of the courtyard/amphitheatre by creating a night sky effect on the ceiling of the auditorium.

The illusion of the courtyard/amphitheatre was cleverly done by creating in plaster the design features of a pergola, such as classical or eastern columns with entablatures or architraves, and blind arcades, again in either classical or exotic eastern architectural forms. These were, in some of the most elaborate theatres, invariably set against vast murals in the same architectural theme painted on the side walls of the auditorium, thus creating the illusion of perspective. The proscenium arch usually became the centre-piece of this creation, with the architectural theme being carried through it in various forms, while the rest of the auditorium became in effect part of the pergola. Special lighting effects then came into play to reinforce the idea of sitting outside. This involved a ceiling of smooth plaster painted electric blue, and curved from behind the side walls without interruption or blemish. Onto this ceiling the illusion of a night sky was projected, usually through the use of a special light projector located out of sight in the projection box. This projector used interchangeable discs to throw onto the ceiling such effects as stars, clouds, Aurora Borealis, flames, lightning, and all manner of natural phenomena.

Combined with other concealed lighting effects, such as lights behind plaster columns or arches, the illusion was complete.

The acknowledged creator of the atmospheric theatre was the American John Eberson. By the close of 1932 over 1 00 atmospheric theatres were built in America and this type of theatre was intended for silent movies and live performance of sound. The latter was achieved by the introduction into the theatre of the "unit orchestra" - the most famous manufacturer of which was Rudolf Wurlitzer. This instrument supplied all the sound effects necessary for silent films, including even fire engine sirens, telephone bells, and smashing crockery sounds.

Four notable movie palaces built between 1925 and 1931 in the USA have been recorded by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation as having been preserved (ref Information Sheet No, 16, 1981). These are: St Louis Theatre, 1925, St Louis Missouri; Loew's Penn Theatre, 1927, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the Fox Theatre, 1928, Atlanta, Georgia; Paramount Theatre, 1931, Oakland, California.

Of these four one, the Fox Theatre, has been preserved and restored as it was originally, ie as an atmospheric theatre. The Fox is noted for "its opulent Moorish style and huge Moller organ with 3,000 pipes". The mammoth 5,000 seat Fox was built in 1928." Another known atmospheric theatre which has been restored in the USA is the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb, Illinois, 1928-9. The Egyptian Theatre creates the illusion of an ancient Egyptian temple through the extensive use of architectural elements in plaster copied from the tomb of Tutankhamun. There are mural paintings on the walls of the auditorium, concealed lighting behind columns, and a night sky on a smooth blue painted ceiling.

In Australia five atmospheric theatres were built: the Capitol, Sydney 1927-8; the State, Melbourne, 1928-9; the Ambassadors, Perth,1928; the Empire, Goulburn,1929-30; and the Plaza, Paddington, Queensland, 1930. The State in Melbourne is considered by some to be still an atmospheric theatre. The only atmospheric theatre that has been the subject of a conservation plan, is the Capitol in Sydney (1928). James Semple Kerr states "The Capitol is the only atmospheric theatre to survive substantially intact in Australasia." (ref. The Haymarket and the Capitol. A Conservation Plan for the Area Bounded by George, Campbell, Pitt and Hay Streets, Sydney, James Semple Kerr for Ipoh Garden" National Trust, NSW. May 1990. P.27( 1 )).

In New Zealand the Civic Theatre, Auckland is the best known example of an atmospheric theatre and survives substantially intact. The Civic and the St James are thought to be the only two remaining atmospheric theatres in New Zealand".

ST JAMES THEATRE DUNEDIN:

The original St James was built in 1916 as a venue for live performances and presenting silent motion pictures. This theatre was much smaller than the existing theatre.

In 1928 the theatre was largely rebuilt, with the 1916 theatre incorporated into a new structure, and the whole renamed the Empire Deluxe". The design features of the atmospheric style can be seen in the auditorium of the remodelled theatre which was decorated in an elaborate Indian-Saracenic pastiche in plaster and painted murals". The central feature was a proscenium in the form of a giant layered multifoil arch supported at either end with barley-twist columns, and featuring an array of domes, minarets, and arabesque tracery" The murals along the wall of the auditorium were in a similar vein and contemporary photographs reveal a spectacular display of courtyards, pools, turbaned figures, bulbous domes, minarets, Saracen arches, beyond which lies a painted landscape of cypress trees and distant views.

Both murals and proscenium were highlighted with blue neon lights, while the roof represented a night sky with twinkling stars and a cloud which moved across it". The murals were covered over in 1967, to "modernise" the appearance of the theatre".

On 22 September 1993, a mural believed to cover the side walls of the theatre was uncovered by the removal of some of the existing wall linings of the auditorium". A coloured photograph of the mural revealed by this exercise appears in the February/March 1994 issue of New Zealand Home & Building, pp"143-144. It shows what is clearly a substantial part of the 1928 mural which was painted on the auditorium walls by Dunedin stained glass artist and watercolourist, John Brock". The portion of the scene revealed can be identified in the 1928 copy photographs of the St James auditorium on file, viz the kiosk, or ornamental urn with a roof, which is shown with Cyprus trees to the right, and steps behind leading up to an arcade, appears on the left wall of the auditorium as one faces the proscenium, roughly mid-way between the front of the dress circle and the proscenium arch". The ornamental urn is at the base of a large building behind with a tower on the corner, and faces onto an ornamental pool painted at the base of the mural (see 1928 photo)".

It is reasonable to assume from this evidence that the 1928 murals on both side walls of the St James auditorium, have survived intact underneath wall linings nailed onto a light timber framing which in turn is nailed into the murals".

The upstairs lounge continues the theme of the atmospheric theatre". One of the most interesting features is the coffered shallow-vaulted ceiling with inset geometric tracery". There are also bays set under Saracenic arches and Moorish multifoils, with decorative timber panelling and faceted pilasters".

A new entrance to the theatre was constructed in 1934, opening from Moray Place. This entrance was designed by the Dunedin firm of Mandeno and Fraser, who were also responsible for designing the Dunedin Town Hall. The foyer inside this more recent entrance of the St James is decorated in the ocean-liner style popular with cinemas at this time, featuring stepped arches stripped classical and deco detailing, and plain styling in wood, tiles and painted surfaces. This is visually and stylistically quite distinct from the eastern motifs of the upstairs lounge and auditorium".

The rebuilding of the theatre competed in 1928 was designed by Edward Anscombe". Anscombe was born in Sussex and came to New Zealand as a child. He studied architecture in America and returned to Dunedin in 1907, and soon after designed the School of Mines Building for Otago University. The success of this design gained him the position of architect to the University. Five of the main University buildings were designed by Anscombe, as was Otago Girls High School and several of Dunedin's finest commercial buildings. He is notable as the designer of the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington, 1939-40.

The extensive mural work in the St James was executed by Dunedin stained glass artist and watercolourist, John Brock. Most of Dunedin's stained glass produced between 1895 and 1940 was designed and executed by Robert Fraser (1869-1947) and John Brock (1889-1973). Brock is noted for using brighter coloured glass than Fraser, and excelled at landscapes. Brock's stained glass work is described in Phillips and Maclean's book In The Light of The Past pp.86-87.

Assuming that the Brock murals have survived according to the original design of the St James Theatre, Dunedin, the St James can be considered to be a surviving atmospheric Theatre of the same quality as the Civic Theatre in Auckland. On a comparative basis the Civic and the St James exhibit the following essential atmospheric theatre design features: Eastern architectural motifs of an Indian/Saracenic origin (Persian in the case of the Civic.) These elements are arranged in the dress circle lounge areas of both theatres and along the side walls of the auditorium of the two theatres to create the illusion of an

amphitheatre .The open air effect is emphasised by the elaborate proscenium arch which again, in the case of both theatres, carries through the exotic eastern architectural theme in the design of the arch. The ceiling of the auditorium of the Civic is of the characteristic smooth caved type necessary for the projection of the night sky, and indeed the Civic night sky projection has survived depicting the Southern Hemisphere. Similarly the ceiling of the St James is of the same smooth caved type necessary for the projection of the night sky . The St James on this basis, can be considered to be the only other known surviving atmospheric theatre in New Zealand after the Civic Theatre, Auckland. The only major difference between the two theatres, is that the St James does not have the exotic architectural theme carried through into the design of the exterior of the building. However this was due to historical circumstance and the fact that the present St James was built on to an existing earlier theatre. The John Brock murals also enable us to enlarge our understanding of the work of John Brock, who is in fact nominally known only for his stained glass work.

(j) the importance of identifying rare types of historic places:

The St James is a rare surviving example of an atmospheric theatre in New Zealand, with the Civic in Auckland being the only other known example.

Conclusion:

St James Theatre, Moray Place, Dunedin, is recommended for registration as a Category I as a place of special and outstanding historical and cultural heritage significance and value. Its significance and value may be attributed to its spectacular design and ornamentation as an atmospheric theatre. It also has rarity value as an atmospheric theatre, as the St James, Dunedin and the Civic, Auckland are the only known examples of atmospheric theatres in New Zealand to survive substantially intact.

Linksopen/close

Construction Professionalsopen/close

Anscombe, Edmund

Anscombe (1874-1948) was born in Sussex and came to New Zealand as a child. He began work as a builder's apprentice in Dunedin and in 1901 went to America to study architecture. He returned to Dunedin in 1907 and designed the School of Mines building for the University of Otago. The success of this design gained him the position of architect to the University. Five of the main University buildings were designed by Anscombe, as well as Otago Girls' High School and several of Dunedin's finest commercial buildings including the Lindo Ferguson Building (1927) and the Haynes building.

Anscombe moved to Wellington about 1928 and was known for his work as the designer of the Centennial Exhibition (1939-1940). Anscombe had travelled extensively and had visited major exhibitions in Australia, Germany and America. The practice of Edmund Anscombe and Associates, Architects, had offices in the Dunedin, Wellington and Hawkes Bay districts, and Anscombe's buildings include the Vocational Centre for Disabled Servicemen, Wellington (1943), Sargent Art Gallery, Wanganui, and several blocks of flats including Anscombe Flats, 212 Oriental Parade (1937) and Franconia, 136 The Terrace (1938), both in Wellington. As well as being interested in the housing problem, Anscombe held strong views concerning the industrial advancement of New Zealand.

(See also http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/dnzb/ )

Additional informationopen/close

Home and Building

Home and Building

February/March 1994, pp 143-144

Associated Group Media, Ltd, Auckland.

Otago Daily Times

Otago Daily Times

24 September 1993

13 October 1993

A copy of the original report is available from the NZHPT Southern region office