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Cathedral Square in the 1930s - a rare photo

Dorothy - 24/11/09

Cathedral Square in the centre of Christchurch city has been the subject of citizen discussion and undergone redesigning throughout its existence. From 1851 the area was set aside for 'educational and ecclesiastical purposes', but the planned school, Christ's College, was given land near the Botanic Gardens, and the foundations were laid for the Cathedral in 1864. From then on more and more business enterprises were centred in the Square and by the 1930s it was the centre for local tram transport and for picture theatres. When James Buick took two photographs of Cathedral Square he was probably wanting a pictorial record of picture theatres where he had worked as a projectionist the Plaza, the Crystal Palace and the Grand. Fortunately for readers of NZine those photos have been made available for use in the magazine by his daughter Kay Barrett.

In this article comment will be centred on the photo showing the Plaza Theatre.

Photo taken by James Buick looking south across Cathedral Square
Photo taken by James Buick looking south across Cathedral Square
Photo source: Kay Barrett
Click here to view a larger version

The first question to be asked about the photo was "When was it taken?"

Four sources of information proved helpful in finding the answer.

  1. The Celluloid Circus by Wayne Brittenden
  2. Round the Square A History of Christchurch's Cathedral Square
    Published 1995 by the Canterbury Branch of the NZ Federation of University Women

  3. Article from the Christchurch Press 18.7.1991 Where some statues go walkabout by Joan Woodward

  4. Internet research regarding films shown in the photos

For those looking at the photos in the twenty first century they are a historical record of developments in the Square in the 1930s. Cathedral Square was an entertainment focus for the city from early in the twentieth century as picture theatres opened in the area.

Wayne Brittenden in The Celluloid Circus when discussing picture theatres in Christchurch writes, "In the forties and fifties Cathedral Square provided the most concentrated cluster of picture theatres in the Southern Hemisphere."

The theatres were of course in competition and to attract more patrons they would undergo periodic renovation. Fortunately this assisted me in my search for a date for James Buick's photo.

The Plaza Theatre
This theatre began its life as the Strand, opened in 1917. The Art Nouveau architecture was a new development in the Square. The front of the building was ornately decorated and featured a huge brightly lit billboard set between ornamental pillars.

In 1933 the interior was re-designed to make a more intimate theatre, but the exterior was largely unchanged except for the name. The theatre reopened as the Plaza. Luckily the bill board remained and in James Buick's photo it is advertising "A Successful Calamity" starring George Arliss. Along the edge of the veranda are the words "GEORGE ARLISS THE SCREENS MOST POLISHED ACTOR".

Research on Google revealed thatA Successful Calamity is a 1932 film directed by John G. Adolfi and starring George Arliss and Mary Astor. It is based on a play by Clare Kummer.

Jean Dick, a Christchurch resident, told me that she saw the film when young and it made such a deep impression on her that she still remembers it over seventy years later.

A summary of the story gives us an idea of popular taste at the time.

Henry Wilton is a successful financier who is returning to America after a year away in Europe helping to arrange war debt repayments. He looks forward to being back with his family but when he arrives in his hometown on the train the only one there to meet him is his butler who tells him that he is home a day earlier than expected, and that all of his family have engagements that evening. Henry further finds that his wife has redecorated his bedroom in the Art Nouveau style. His business rival Partington backs out of a deal for the purchase of stock. Meanwhile, the family rarely spends much time together, and Henry becomes tired of their hectic social life. When the butler tells him that the poor can't go out too often, Henry decides to feign poverty to test his family's attitude and loyalty. He tells his wife and children that he is ruined, and they support him. They decide to give up their plans and stay home for dinner, which makes the servants rush to produce food. Furthermore, his wife regrets her extravagance, his daughter gives up her engagement to a man of wealth for the man who she is really in love with, and his son decides to get a job as a pilot, and goes to Partington for a letter of introduction. Partington is delighted to hear that Henry is ruined, and decides to sell the stock he holds as it will lose its value. Henry then buys Partington's stock at a low price by acting through a third party. Avenged on his rival, Henry comes home and tells his children that he is not ruined after all, but they tell him that his wife has gone out and seems to have deserted him. However, she comes back and tells them that she had gone out to pawn her jewellery in order to help him, and that she was happiest when they were poor and could not go out, and were thus able to spend time as a family.

George Arliss plays the leading role as Henry Wilton.

The film showing at the Plaza suggests that the photo was taken in 1933.

The statue of John Robert Godley
In James Buick's photo Godley's statue is standing in some rough ground suggesting that it had just been moved.

In her article from the Christchurch Press 18.7.1991 Where some statues go walkabout Joan Woodward writes, "the Godley statue was restored to its original site in April 1933." The original site was where the statue now stands in the centre of Cathedral Square.

The Godley statue in 2009
The Godley statue in 2009
Click here to view a larger version

Based on the evidence available at present the date of the photo seems to be in 1933. The Post Office clock shows 11.10 am. It was clearly taken on a sunny morning, and judging by the warm clothes worn by the people it was probably in the winter of that year.

The second photo of the Square taken by Mr Buick will be discussed in a coming NZine article.

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