Theatre Royal

78 Rutherford Street, NELSON

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The Theatre Royal, Nelson is the oldest purpose-built theatre building in New Zealand still being used for its original purpose. It is also a rare remaining example of a nineteenth-century theatre constructed from timber. The theatre was designed by local architect William Bethwaite of Bethwaite and Robertson, and built by Mr C W Moore in 1878. It has two storeys and is of timber construction; the upper front façade had three double-hung windows with semi-circular heads. The lower façade had three sets of double panel doors with curved heads. The veranda, with a central extension out to the Rutherford Street curb, was a notable, original feature. The auditorium contains a ground level, which originally had bench seating and could seat about 600; and a dress circle, which originally could seat about 200. However, on opening night, 18 July 1878, it was said that nearly 1,000 (in a town of only approximately 6,000 people) crammed into the theatre. With more spacious and comfortable seating arrangements, it now seats about 350 people. Alterations were made to the building over the years - in particular, in the early 1900s a projection box was added to the front to enable movies to be shown. This meant the veranda was removed and the appearance of the theatre was altered for about 70 years. The movie projection box was removed in 1976, when a veranda was also reinstated. The auditorium, however, has retained much of its original character. A major refurbishment was carried out from 2008 to 2010, retaining as much of the heritage fabric as possible, while replacing what was necessary for safety and modern theatre functioning. The auditorium still retains much of the look of a Victorian theatre, while the stage, its fly tower above, and back stage facilities were rebuilt. The façade was remodelled, with extra windows installed on the ground level to open it up to the street, but the second storey and veranda look more like the theatre did in its early days. As a live performance venue in Nelson for over 130 years the theatre has significant social, cultural and historical associations. It has been used for a great variety of live performances, movies, and public events. Changing activities reflect changing tastes and developments in entertainment since the nineteenth century. On a number of occasions the local community has raised money to save or refurbish the building to keep it functioning as a theatre. The Theatre Royal, Nelson is considered to have outstanding significance as the oldest purpose-built nineteenth-century theatre still being used for that purpose, and one of only two nineteenth century wooden theatres to survive as theatres.

Theatre Royal, Nelson. Image courtesy of | PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite | 19/11/2012 | Phil Braithwaite
Theatre Royal, Nelson. Auditorium and stalls | 05/06/2010 | Theatre Royal



List Entry Information


Detailed List Entry



List Entry Status

Historic Place Category 1


Private/No Public Access

List Number


Date Entered

10th October 2011

Date of Effect

10th October 2011

City/District Council

Nelson City


Nelson Region

Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Pt Sec 153, Pt Sec 154, Pt Sec 1208, City of Nelson (RT NL9A/834), Pt Legal Road, Nelson Land District and the building known as the Theatre Royal, Nelson thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 for further information).

Legal description

Pt Sec 153, Pt Sec 154, Pt Sec 1208, City of Nelson (RT NL9A/834), Pt Legal Road, Nelson Land District

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