St. James, 1929

My mother remembers the St. James theatre in the 80s. Cheap lino on the floor, broken boards, scungy walls and maintenance long forgotten. The Facebook page about it, and the news clippings trotted out once in a while, remembered an earlier time: visits from the queen, operas and fine plays, marble staircases and velvet seats.

I remember it as a set of boarded doors, in front of which I didn’t walk alone at night, and as a huge beige shape sitting strangely on the main street of the city. The whole exterior was covered over sometime last century. No-one was allowed to tear it down – it’s a 1929 theatre complex in a country colonised by Europeans less than 200 years ago – but it was fire damaged, abandoned, and unsafe.

Now it’s been purchased by that Big Bad Wolf of stories about historic architecture: a property developer. But it’s okay, this isn’t a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale. No one dies, for one.

(Well, someone did, I’m informed, but that’s an unrelated tale. All historic theatres should have a resident ghost.)

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The developers are restoring the entire theatre inside and out to its original condition and decoration scheme. Painstakingly, from photographs of its 1929 opening, and to general much-deserved applause. It will be a theatre again. It will be a concert hall again. And on top of the old theatre, they’re building an 18-storey apartment block which the city sorely needs.

I’m a firm believer in restoration and conservation, but not for the sake of it alone. I believe things must have use – whether education, or exemplary beauty, or a more practical purpose. Although only the entrance hall has been restored since work started a month or two ago, the St. James is open. Sort of: there’s a café where the downstairs bar used to be. When we first went there was still plastic on the walls protecting the paint and there was scaffolding in the middle of the floor where the restorer was working on the ceiling moulding. The seats had been pulled out of someone’s storage container, there wasn’t a price list yet, but there was a coffee machine and a couple of baristas with ghost stories to tell, and it was wonderful.

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I’ve been back several times since. The coffee’s good, but that’s almost beside the point: this is restoration as it should be, a revival that’s as much about the act of it as the end result. It’s just fun.

The white-haired ladies wandering through, arm in arm with orthapedics clicking on the marble floors and talking about their visits with their mothers long ago, were a finishing touch. I think buildings are important because of their use. The St. James has a use again, and even the statues on the walls are shimmering with it.

(Or maybe that’s just the gold paint.)

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