Time to revive forgotten theatre

MAJESTIC DEMOLITION: The Majestic Theatre on Manchester St is being demolished despite city councillors seeking withdrawal of the demolition notice granted under Section 38 of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act.
David Hallett/ The Press
MAJESTIC DEMOLITION: The Majestic Theatre on Manchester St is being demolished despite city councillors seeking withdrawal of the demolition notice granted under Section 38 of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act.

The Majestic Theatre survived the earthquakes and should be restored to its former glory, says DR IAN LOCHHEAD.

After it opened in May 1930, the Majestic Theatre played a significant part in Christchurch's theatrical life, but since fire damage in 1970 and subsequent sale and conversion into the Majestic Church in 1979 this role has been largely forgotten.

With reconstruction of the 1907 Theatre Royal now well under way, and work on the restoration of the Town Hall complex soon to commence, it is time to reconsider the future of the Majestic. Designed by Alan Manson, who continued the architectural practice of the Luttrell Brothers, the designers of the Theatre Royal, the Majestic bridges the historical spectrum between the Edwardian Theatre Royal and the modern Town Hall.

Majestic Theatre
Majestic Theatre

The Majestic is a dominant presence at one of the city's major intersections where the diagonal of High St meets Manchester and Lichfield streets, its art deco detailing giving it a distinctive, and now rare, stylistic character. Structurally the building was innovative, being Christchurch's first fully steel-framed building and one of the first steel-framed theatres in New Zealand. The building was also multi- functional, with office space incorporated behind the Manchester St faade.

Originally built as a 1650-seat movie palace with a Moresque-Spanish Hispano-Moorish style detailed interior, the Majestic became a venue for live performance in the 1950s when a stage and fly tower was added. Owned by the Kerridge Corporation, it rivalled the Theatre Royal as the city's premier theatrical venue.

When J C Williamsons brought the Royal Ballet to the Theatre Royal in 1959, Kerridges responded by presenting dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet at the Majestic the following year. During the 1960s many of the world's leading artists performed there, from the Beatles to the great Russian cellist, Rostropovich. The Christchurch Symphony played there, as did the New Zealand Opera Company. But the opening of the Town Hall in 1972 and the decline of the Kerridge empire resulted in the Majestic's eventual sale and loss as a performance venue.

What is the current state of the Majestic in post-quake Christchurch? Now located in the area designated as the Eastern Frame, it is owned by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), in other words by the people of New Zealand.

Its future is made uncertain as Manchester St is designated for widening by nine metres under the Accessible City plan. Yet like other steel-framed buildings in Christchurch, the Majestic performed well in the earthquakes, although the 1950s fly tower sustained damage. Engineering reports indicate that the building can be economically repaired. In a city where so many buildings have been destroyed, can we afford to demolish yet another heritage building that has the potential to play a valuable role in Christchurch's future?

The Majestic's location, close to the Christchurch Central Development Unit's (CCDU) Blueprint's designated Innovation Precinct, is certainly in its favour. As a venue for small- scale conferences and symposia it offers possibilities for sharing ideas and showcasing the innovations that this part of the city will undoubtedly generate in the future.

It is also close to CPIT, another potential user of the space. As a performance venue of moderate size that can be repaired and strengthened for a much lower cost than that of a new building, it also has the potential to meet the needs of community-based performing arts groups that will not be able to afford the much higher hire costs of the Town Hall and Theatre Royal.

Its generous interior space also makes it ideal as a rehearsal venue. In addition, its office space has the potential to accommodate the administrative functions of community performing arts organisations or other creative enterprises.

Does it make sense to shut down such possibilities simply for the sake of widening Manchester St? Leaving aside the wisdom of creating a multi-lane road bisecting the CBD and the Eastern Frame, the open space opposite the Majestic created by the diagonal of High St means that with imaginative planning the necessary space can surely be found to widen this intersection while still retaining the Majestic. Now imagine the High, Manchester and Lichfield street intersection as it might be in the near future. To the west the sparkling steel and glass Stranges' Building, now nearing completion; to the south the 1880s Excelsior Hotel, reconstructed by the Christchurch Heritage Trust; to the north the restored and strengthened Canterbury Building Society building, designed by Peter Beaven in 1960; and to the east a restored Majestic Theatre bringing cultural life and energy to this part of the city. Add to this the presence of the tram and its tourist traffic. Architecturally diverse with buildings spanning 130 years of the city's history, with varied and innovative activities going on, isn't this just the kind of central city hub the new Christchurch needs? If the CBD is to have a future this is the sort of magnet we need to bring it back to life.

What is needed to make this happen? First, Cera needs to think creatively about the future of the Majestic, rather than thinking of it as just another demolition contract to manage. The key stakeholders, Cera, the CCDU, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, the Christchurch City Council and the city's educational and performing arts organisations need to get together to consider the multiple roles the Majestic can still play in Christchurch's future. If we can't manage to keep the Majestic what does the site's future hold? An empty lot, surrounded by cars desperately trying to get somewhere else? That is not the kind of city I want to live in. Do you?

Dr Ian Lochhead is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury and a member of the Historic Places Canterbury group, Save The Majestic.

The Press