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A building ahead of its time

When His Majesty's Theatre (later to become the St James) was built in 1912, it was the largest vaudeville and picture theatre in Australasia.

Its designer, Henry White was an architect/engineer of exceptional skill who was well-known on both sides of the Tasman. Besides the St James, he designed 120 theatres, including the Auckland St James, the Hastings Municipal Theatre (now known as the Hawke's Bay Opera House) and The Plaza in Christchurch.

His Majesty's was the first entirely steel-framed and reinforced concrete theatre in this part of the world and boasted the latest theatrical and mechanical stage appliances. Designed for vaudeville, it was lower and broader than usual, allowing for greater intimacy between actors and audience.

Inside, the auditorium was highly ornamental, featuring elaborate cherubs, plaster curlicues and painted and gilded lyres, horns, harps, dancing cupids and masks representing Comedy, Drama and Opera. In the mid 1980s, the St James Theatre, although recognised as one of the country's most valuable treasures, faced the threat of demolition.

The people of Wellington refused to sacrifice the theatre without a battle.

The St James Campaign, prompted by photographer Grant Sheehan and led by the late Peter Harcourt, mobilised sufficient support to ensure the preservation of the building.

The Wellington City Council formed the St James Theatre Charitable Trust in December 1993, and agreed to provide $10.7 million towards refurbishment and upgrading. Other founding sponsors, the Lottery Grants Board and the Community Trust of Wellington, provided funding, and the Trust was expected to raise further funds towards the estimated $21.4 million cost of the redevelopment.

On January 22 1998, the Trust announced Westpac as sole Gold Sponsor with naming rights to the theatre. This, together with other sponsorship and funding initiatives, brought the total amount raised for the redevelopment to $19.6 million.

The rejuvenated St James now provides a permanent home for The Royal New Zealand Ballet and offers the best stage for dance in the country. The refurbished auditorium and back of house facility is of an international standard, achieved at a cost few originally thought possible.

Front of house, an impressive new entrance foyer leading to generous hospitality spaces on the first floor enhances the theatre experience for the public, sponsors and patrons.

The Jimmy, a street level cafe and bar, open all day and into the evening, adds to the vibrancy of Wellington's Courtenay Place theatre precinct.

Through diverse programming and partnerships with local and international tour promoters, the St James Theatre has once again become a focus for the performing arts of this country.

The St James has been recognised by New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a Category I building of outstanding cultural and historical significance and is considered one of the finest lyric theatres in Australasia.

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