Jericho Rock Archer / Stuff
The St James Theater has been undergoing earthquake reinforcement and overall renovation for over four years.
For project manager Chris Kooge, the curtain lifting for the first time in more than four years will be the crowd’s most excited when the newly refurbished St James Theater reopens.
Kooge has looked after the 110-year-old Wellington Heritage building since earthquake-reinforcement work and improvements to staging, lighting and sound began in April 2019.
The theater is finally open to the public again after its $42 million facelift, with Kiwi singer-songwriter Teeks (Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi) first performing in Matariki this weekend alongside the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
It has been the source of stress and setbacks due to Covid-19 and has also produced a few secrets and surprises. The project was originally expected to be completed in December 2021.
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“I don’t know what I’m doing now — the sniff of a greasy cloth is long gone,” Kooge said. “Pure adrenaline and a lot of coffee … but I’m looking forward to the first show and can just give it back to the audience.”
Construction to reinforce the St James Theater began in April 2019 and was originally set to be completed by the end of 2021. (Video originally published in June 2021).
Construction crews were warned through the risk management assessment to be wary of ghost sightings in the theater.
They didn’t discover anything strange, but they did have fun with keep the mood light.
“A few times we’ve had some megaphones and plaintive music just watching people’s reactions.”
Designed and built in 1912 by Henry Eli White, the Category 1 Grade II listed building is home to the Royal New Zealand Ballet and one of Wellington’s favorite theatres. In 2015, it was found to be earthquake prone, but is now well above minimum standards.
The technical difficulties encountered were to be expected for an old building, Kooge said. They had walls that had to be built differently than they expected, bits of concrete weren’t done as well as they should have been, and a consistent run with different code standards.
“We’ve had everything you can think of, but it was just another step in the process. You were trying to figure out what the solution was, how to get around it, and break through and move on,” he said.
Spencer Brown, project director at Beca, said the construction was to strengthen the theater’s two buildings: the auditorium and the ballet building.
“Each building has to operate independently under an earthquake. So in the auditorium, the main reinforcement we’ve put in this building is that we’ve put in two big scissor walls, which are basically reinforced concrete, to withstand the earthquake loads,” he said.
Kooge said all the decorative plaster had been restored and a rediscovered chandelier now graced the auditorium ceiling.
He was proud of his team, who still smiled and laughed despite the challenges.
“I started this job and I had no children. So they’re only small, but I’m looking forward to one day, when they’re old enough, to bring them here to a show and go… this was Daddy’s job.”
Mayor Andy Foster said the theater had played an integral role in the city’s history.
“It accentuates old-world glamor with modern technology, and will once again bring dance, drama, opera, comedy and music to Wellingtonians – and reclaim its status as a historical heritage.”
It is the first of a number of key council buildings to open or reopen and will be followed by Tākina, Wellington’s Town Hall, and then Te Matapihi – the central library.
The St James Theater will open to the public on July 2, with tours and performances.