Dr. Ian Lochhead has generously provided us with the text of his "Time to Revive the City’s Forgotten Theatre" Op-Ed that was published in The Press.
Time to Revive the City’s Forgotten Theatre
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 underway, 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.
The Majestic is a dominant presence at one of the city’s major intersections where the diagonal of
High Street meets Manchester and Lichfield Street, 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 Street façade.
Originally built as a 1650 seat movie palace with a 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 currently owned by CERA, in other words, by the people of
New Zealand. Its future is made uncertain as Manchester Street 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 nevertheless 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 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. It’s
generous interior space also makes it ideal as a rehearsal venue for groups that may, in fact, perform
in other auditoria within the city. 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
Street? 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 Street means that with
imaginative planning the necessary space can be 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 so desperately 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.