Earthquake strengthening set to close Wellington's St James Theatre for a year

The yellow-stickered St James Theatre in Wellington will close for earthquake strengthening in 2018.
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

The yellow-stickered St James Theatre in Wellington will close for earthquake strengthening in 2018.

Wellington's historic St James Theatre could be closed for a year while it is earthquake strengthened, leaving the national ballet scrambling for a temporary home.

The closure is likely to happen towards the middle of 2018, about the same time that major earthquake strengthening work is expected to begin on the Town Hall.

That will leave Wellington - which many consider to be the arts capital of the country - without arguably its two most important performance venues.

The strengthening work is expected to keep the St James closed for up to a year.
ALEX LIU/FAIRFAX NZ

The strengthening work is expected to keep the St James closed for up to a year.

The 1600-seat St James Theatre, built in the heart of Courtenay Place in 1912, was yellow-stickered in 2015 after an engineering assessment estimated it met only 20 to 30 per cent of new building standards.

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Wellington City Council building resilience manager Steve Cody said council officers were drafting a strengthening proposal to be taken to councillors for sign-off.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is looking for a temporary base while the work is done.
RNZB/SUPPLIED

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is looking for a temporary base while the work is done.

"Assuming the councillors accept the plan, work is expected to start next year and is estimated to take around 10 to 12 months."

The project would take the St James up to 67 per cent of code and Cody said the proposal would be presented to the council in the next eight to 10 weeks.

The news comes not long after a council-commissioned report warned that the commercial lure of Auckland, earthquake effects and the closure of buildings was threatening Wellington's reputation as the 'capital of culture'.

Wellington's Opera House is undergoing the final stages of earthquake strengthening after its recent restoration.
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington's Opera House is undergoing the final stages of earthquake strengthening after its recent restoration.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) occupies levels 2 and 3 of the St James theatre building and will need to relocate when works begin.

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RNZB executive director Frances Turner said all of the ballet's Wellington performances would be performed at the Opera House until the St James Theatre was operational again.

But options are being explored to find a large fit-for-purpose dance studio to accommodate rehearsal for the full company of 36 ballet dancers.

The ballet also required a smaller dance studio, locker rooms, offices, and space for physiotherapy and pilates, as well space for a wardrobe and costume department.

"The council has been very understanding of our needs ... we've been working very professionally and collegially to find suitable premises in Wellington for the duration of the strengthening project," Turner said.

The company's displacement would not mean a move to Auckland, Turner said.

The strengthening work was expected to begin after the biennial New Zealand Festival, which runs for a month between February and March in Wellington next year.

The Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (Wreda) operates the St James Theatre, the Opera House and the Michael Fowler Centre.

Wreda general manager of venues and projects David Perks said while it was disappointing the St James would be closed, the end result would be a more resilient historic Wellington building.

"In the meantime we're working with the council to maximise the use of the other civic venues, in particular the Opera House and Michael Fowler Centre," Perks said.

Opened in 1914, the the recently restored Opera House is also yellow stickered.

City council spokesman Clayton Anderson said the Opera House was closed over Christmas, while there were no bookings, so targeted strengthening work could be done to bring it above 34 per cent of code.

"We're still working on it but plan to be finished within the next couple of weeks. No bookings have been affected."

Circa Theatre will also undergo a non quake-related revamp of its foyer, which will not affect showings.

Circa was strengthened in 1994 when the building was moved from Harris St to its current location on Taranaki St.

The earthquake-prone Town Hall, which was shut in 2013 for strengthening, is unlikely to open again before 2020 with a $58m revamp planned.

 - Stuff

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