The Royal Exchange, Cathedral Square, 1905

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The Royal Exchange’s beautiful tower, dome and decorative facade is taking shape as the building nears completion. Fresh to the shores of New Zealand,  the Australian architect brothers and partners, Alfred Edward (1872 – 1932) and Edward Sydney “Sidney” Luttrell (1865 – 1924) were commissioned to design a building.  Their concept was a mixture of decorative British and American neo-Baroque elements design which exuded the new found confidence of the Edwardian age.

The Royal Exchange, Cathedral Square Nearing Completion 1905
The Royal Exchange, Cathedral Square Nearing Completion 1905. Source: The Weekly Press, 12 Apr. 1905, p. 41. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0092

One year after its opening in May 1905, the Royal Exchange showcased the very latest, chic Edwardian glamour, yet still sat comfortably beside its equally grand neighbours – the Christchurch Post and Telegraph Office and the Australian Mutual Providence Society Building, opposite on the Worcester Street corner.

Named after one of its tenants – the Royal Exchange Assurance Company – housed commercial tenants including the furniture company, McKenzie and Willis on the first floor; two warehouses; and professional rooms for doctors, solicitors and accountants. There was also a very smart Royal Cafe on the second floor filled with parlour palms, pretty tables and waiting staff.  Patrons accessed the cafe by way of two separate electric lifts which were the first to be installed in the country.

A large photograph of the Royal Cafe’s ceiling was published in New Zealand’s first architectural periodical called “Progress” in March, 1907.

In 1928, the Royal Exchange had the following businesses still in it:-  McKenzie & Willis; Grierson & Davis Wine and Spirit Merchants; Salon Celia; Campbell’s Tobacconists; the D.M.A. Ltd; Josephine’s Kitchen; Cameron Smith Chemists; James M Craig Chiropractor; and a confectioners.

Source: Evening Post, Volume CVII, Issue 121, 27 May 1929, Page 14. Image: Papers Past.

However soon after, the building’s tenants’ leases were ended when, the owner following the world wide trend of movie going, he decided to transform the building’s into a movie palace.

On 21 April 1928, the prospectus of The Regent Theatre Buildings (Christchurch) Ltd appeared, offering the public 40,000 shares at £1 each in the building which was valued at £160,000. With the help of Christchurch architect, Mr. J. S. Guthrie, the Edwardian building was converted into the latest, fantastic state of the art picture theatre. Renamed the Regent, the theatre could seat 1,600 patrons. Although the building’s Edwardian exterior remained untouched, the interior was completely gutted and redesigned using the most luxurious fittings and fashionable Spanish theme of the day. Adorned with huge wall mirrors framed in gilt and marble, picturesque porticoes and towers, stucco walls, fountains, bronze lion heads, Spanish chairs and chesterfields, moody shaded electric lights and a wide marble staircase, this theatre was glamour and escapism on a grand scale.

However the piece de resistance was inside the state of the art theatre. It possessed the largest movie screen in New Zealand and Australia as well as the latest in movie projector.

As patrons were ushered to and seated in their velvet cushioned seats, they would look up at the dome shaped ceiling painted as an open sky.  But it did not stop there – the sky’s light and colours changed from night to day.  As it darkened, tiny stars in the night sky would appear and twinkle upon the captivated audience.  Gradually the light would brighten and the reds of dawn would move to a clear blue sky with white fleecy clouds floating past.  The sun’s rays would grow brighter as the day progressed, lighting up the heavy curtains framing the proscenium before the rainbow colours of evening would slowly appear.

Imagine the absolute delight of the patrons who sat in the Regent theatre on the grand opening night of Saturday, 16th August 1930, to see the musical comedy “Paramount on Parade” in what was the first big year of sound films.

The theatre remained in its almost original state for near on fifty years apart from the tower being removed at some stage. The last movie screened in the theatre was Rocky II starring Sylvester Stallone. Unfortunately, soon after that, a suspicious fire broke out on 5th November 1979 and gutted the building’s interiors.

The owner, Kerridge Odeon reopened the new Regent Theatre as a twin theatre, on 18th November, 1981.  The exterior remained as it was.  The debut screening was New Zealand made, “Race for the Yankee Zephyr”.  After the building was sold to the Carter group in the mid-1990s, it underwent a transformation once again.

The Hoyts-owned Regent on Worcester opened as a muiltiplex on the upper levels in 1996, and the Southern Encounter Aquarium in the downstairs southeastern corner in 1997.  The rest of the building was taken up by ground-floor shops and food outlets, a suite of offices on the first and second floors and a single apartment built into the dome facing the Square.

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