The Civic Theatre is one of the most elaborate Atmospheric Theatres in the world.
Thomas O'Brien toured extensively in many countries to observe cinema architecture before employing Melbourne architects Bohringer, Taylor, and Johnson to design the Civic. They were already well know for the theatres they had designed in Australia but today the Civic remains the only example of their work with an intact auditorium.
The Civic therefore has a specifically Australasian architectural significance. The decorative plasterwork which adorns the exterior and interior of the building was the work of Arnold Zimmerman, a swiss born decorator and scenic artist who arrived in Sydney in 1923 and whose work came to the attention of the architects.
The Civic was constructed by the Fletcher Construction Company in only 33 breakneck paced weeks from July to December 1929. Over 100 men worked on the production of plaster buddahs, elephants, panthers, horses, eagles and decorative mouldings out of 500 tons of plaster cement, 20 tons of modelling clay and 500 tons of fibre. The scale and workmanship involved in the huge task were at the time quite unequaled in New Zealand's building history.
Constructed of reinforced concrete, the Civic Theatre contained numerous innovations including a Wintergarden in the basement,rising ‘gondola’ orchestra pit, and the second largest Wurlitzer Organ in the Southern Hemisphere.
The interior is home to many of the memorable features of the Civic, with the theatrical night sky being a centrepiece. Alongside this is the Civic's Grand stage with its minarets and the grand proscenium arch. Two other prominent features in the Civic are the ‘Bright eyed’ panthers and plaster decorative elephants. There are Indian-inspired motifs in the public foyer, including seated Buddhas, twisted columns, and domed ceiling.
The Civic Theatre was built relatively late in terms of the great period of ‘atmospheric theatre’ building. Unfortunately the opening coincided with the onset of the depression and the cinema never prospered. O’Brien was struggling financially, due to resources being sorely stretched on construction and operation. With rumours of insolvency, late in 1931, O’Brien left for Australia where he later died in 1948.
Demolition was proposed for The Civic Theatre as early as 1940 and the building has since undergone major alterations. In the 1970s the Wintergarden cinema was built in the basement, but has since been removed. In 1994 alterations and conservation works were approved, from which a complex and exciting restoration and conversion to a live lyric theatre eventuated.
Some Excerpts above are from the Auckland Council website: more details HERE