The online magazine of Theatre Heritage Australia
Rohan Storey

Rohan Storey

HENRY ELI WHITE (21 August 1876–3 March 1952), also known as Harry White, was a New Zealand-born architect who was the premier theatre designer in both Australia and New Zealand from the 1910s through the 1920s. He designed at over 30 live theatres and cinemas (some dual purpose) including many that were completely new interiors to exiting theatres, but only about 10 survive; which isn’t bad considering how many historic theatres have been lost in both countries since the 1960s. In fact many that still exist are the major (or only) historic theatres in cities and towns across the two countries, including in New Zealand the St. James Theatre, Wellington, St. James Theatre, Auckland, the Hawkes Bay Opera House in Hastings, and the Timaru Opera House, while in Australia there’s the interiors of the Princess Theatre and Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne, and the Civic Theatre in Newcastle (as well as the adjacent City Hall). He also designed cinemas, including many of the surviving Picture Palaces in Melbourne and Sydney, namely the Capitol Theatre and State Theatre in Sydney, and the Palais Theatre in Melbourne, all now used for performances rather than films.

While undoubtedly a major figure in the provision of entertainment venues in both countries, his actual achievements and his background have been somewhat hazy partly because he was a great self-promoter, claiming far more theatres than he actually built, and never completely revealing that he was neither a trained architect nor engineer (which however was not an impediment to calling yourself either in the pre WW1 years). Theatre historian Ross Thorne has winkled out the truth behind the work and the man, publishing a book in 2015 called The Self Styled Golden King, a quote from an employee who saw him that way. This has revealed that his rise was indeed meteoric, moving from his first theatre alterations to designing a complete new one within three years, so he was clearly good at it, and from his own account, had a particular interest. He rapidly dominated the creation of the new theatres in two countries, as well as many other large architectural projects, and lived large on the profits, maintaining a harbourside home in Sydney in the 1920s, as well as a yacht, a luxury car and overseas trips. He also at times relied on staff doing much of the work for him, unacknowledged, a practice and a lifestyle that came to an abrupt end with onset of the depression in 1930, the complete loss of all work, and the rapid closure of his business, never to design another project again.

The early years

White was born on 21 August 1876 at Dunedin, New Zealand, son of English migrant parents Joseph Eli White and wife Susanna. Joseph had established himself as a bricklayer, then a builder and contractor, eventually developing one of the major building companies in the city the 1900s, responsible for many major landmarks in Dunedin. He was prominent in the small community of North East Valley outside the town where served as Councillor and Mayor. [1]

Henry appears to have left school at an early age, and probably joined his father's contracting business. He established his own business as a builder in 1896. He married Margaret Hallinan at Dunedin on 24 December 1900 and they had four children. [2]

In 1903 he relocated himself and his family to Christchurch where he worked as builder and manufacturer of building supplies and equipment, and moved into engineering. He was the builder or contractor for local landmarks including the four storey Royal Exchange building, and equally large Press building, [3] both on Cathedral Square, and both now demolished. In 1909 he won the contract for a major tunnel required as an upgrade of the Waipori River hydro-electric scheme [4] (which is sometimes reported as if he designed the scheme itself).

The same year White's career as an architectural designer began with a commission to improve the Princess Theatre back in his home town of Dunedin by Fuller’s, just then expanding their business in New Zealand. Using his engineering skills he replaced the six posts that supported the balcony along the front that blocked views (up until then a common practice) with three steel posts set back from the front, greatly improving the sightlines. The next year he performed the same 'trick' at the Auckland Opera House. [5]

The year after that he was employed to completely remodel the Theatre Royal, Timaru, which involved inserting a whole new auditorium, with a balcony supported on only three posts set well back from the edge. This was his first foray into architecture as an art, designing the decoration of the interior in gilt Rococo plasterwork, typical for theatres at the time. [6] He followed this with His Majesty's, Blenheim (dem), the next year, his first complete building; the auditorium repeated many of the features he used in Timaru.

Then in 1911 Fuller's commissioned his first large theatre, His Majesty's (now St James), Wellington, and on the strength of this he relocated his practice to that city. In 1913 while visiting Adelaide for Fuller’s, he gave an interview outlining his particular interest in the design of theatres, especially sight-lines, and also claimed to have already built or rebuilt nearly 10 theatres in New Zealand. [7] This is quite exaggeration, the real number was more like five, but many more theatres and 'picture theatres' (early ones also had stages suitable for live performances) followed almost immediately after in both in New Zealand and in Australia, with seven in 1916 alone, many of the theatres for Fullers.

The 1910s was something of a high point for theatre and cinema construction, especially in New Zealand where even quite small towns had at least one live theatre. This was the period when the first generation of purpose built ‘picture theatres’ appeared in most suburbs and large towns in Australia and New Zealand, [8] and White designed six of them in New Zealand between 1913 and 1917. He also started designing theatres in Australia as early as 1915, the first being the Tivoli in Brisbane (with a second Roof Garden Theatre on top), in 1916 the refit of Brennan’s Amphitheatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne as the Palace Theatre, and in 1917 the Majestic Theatre in Newtown, Sydney opened (later to become the Elizabethan Theatre).

Just as White was beginning his career, the foremost theatre architect in Australasia of the preceding decades, William Pitt, reached the end of his. Having begun with a splash with Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in 1886, by the late 1890s he had become a theatre specialist, and by 1915 had designed at least 10 major theatres or interiors, but died in 1918 aged 62. With his career starting in 1911 in New Zealand, expanding into Australia in 1915, Henry Eli White soon became the most prolific theatre designer in Australia and New Zealand, and within a decade had already designed more theatres than his predecessor.

It seems that the moment Fullers began sending him off to design theatres in Australia, he opened an office in Sydney, in about 1913, and soon moved his family there as well.

He then settled into a very successful architectural practice though the 1910s and 1920s, designing numerous theatres and cinemas in both countries, as well as other commercial projects, mainly in the Sydney area in the 1920s.

Auditorium styles

As a designer of theatres, it was the interiors of the auditoriums where not only good sight-lines and comfort had to be achieved, but some kind of lush decoration was expected. Theatres in the late 19th century and into the Edwardian era were usually decorated in the lush Rococo and gilt we know as Louis XV, emulating the great European opera houses of the 19th and 19th centuries.

White’s earliest theatres were in this vein, but somewhat naïve, revealing his lack of training as an architect; the Rococo plaster of the Theatre Royal Timaru, St James in Wellington, and the Majestic in Newtown is in thin trails almost meandering over the flat ceilings and walls, though the other elements were more confidant such as the balcony and box decoration. As an architect who could be confidant that few people would see more than one of his theatres, elements were often repeated, such as the tiers of paired side boxes, with columns and caryatids, seen at His Majesty's, Wellington and also in the 1916 Grand Opera House/Adelphi in Sydney (dem). This is not to impugn him too much, as many architects repeated favourite elements.

This was not the only style he employed in this early rush of designs; the exteriors of some of this theatres are early examples of the Spanish / Mediterranean style, notably the 1913 Tivoli in Brisbane, and four smaller theatres, Everybody's, Gisborne, The Cosy, Masterton, the Grand, Petone, and the Majestic, Brisbane, all now demolished. The 1915 Hastings Municipal Theatre (now Hawke’s Bay Opera House) in New Zealand is the only survivor in this style. Art Nouveau also made an appearance, notably the Secession inspired exterior of the Strand cinema in Christchurch, and the interior of the Hawkes Bay Opera House (the one with the Spanish exterior), as well as a large theatre for Sydney that was never built.

From the early 1920s his theatre designs generally adopted a refined Adam style, following overseas architectural trends reacting against Edwardian fussiness—this style probably first emerged in the 1921 rebuild of the interior of the Theatre Royal in King Street, Sydney, and can still be seen at the Princess Theatre and the Athenaeum, both in Melbourne, both early 1920s interior rebuilds. Another major commission was for the Queensland film entrepreneurs Birch, Carroll and Coyle who decided to provide for ‘higher class’ entertainment in a series of grand ‘Wintergarden’ theatres across rural Queensland, built primarily as cinemas, but with capacity for plays. White designed four of these in the mid-late 1920s, especially designed for the tropical climate, in Townsville, Rockhampton and Ipswich, as well as one in Rose Bay, Sydney (all now demolished). Townsville had a Spanish exterior, while Ipswich and Rockhampton featured large rather oddly severe red-brick facades. The three Queensland theatres had matching interiors, in very flat restrained Neoclassical style, with a lattice ceiling providing for ventilation.

In the later 1920s White changed direction again, probably inspired by his first commission for a large ‘Picture Palace’, the Palais in St Kilda, Melbourne, in 1926-7, which he deigned in a broadly Neoclassical style but with the sumptuous attention to detail, golden-hued textured surfaces, indirect lighting, and eclectic styling typical of these temples of entertainment. His live theatres of this period were very much in this vein, with the St James, Auckland and the Civic Theatre Newcastle (which are versions of each other) adopting an elaborate Spanish flavour.

Cinema design

White also designed plenty of cinemas throughout his career, which often included staging facilities for intermission shows, and were usually known as theatres. Though there were other more prolific designers in this field, he is known for designing major ‘Picture Palaces’ in Sydney and Melbourne, all of which still exist (unlike most of this live theatres). His first, the Palais Theatre, was one of and is now the largest in Australia with nearly 3000 seats. In Sydney, he was the architect for the interior remodelling that produced the Capitol Theatre at the Haymarket in Sydney in 1928 as well as the 1929 'Louis XIV' style State Theatre. While White took the credit for both of these at the time, though they were in fact designed ‘in association with’ one of the premier cinema designers in the US, John Eberson, who invented the idea of the 'atmospheric' cinema interior, designed as if it was outdoors, with elaborate courtyard walls, fake trees and a dark blue domed ‘sky’. Eberson is likely largely responsible for the design of the Capitol, which is a mirrored version of Melbourne’s State (later the Forum), with his plaster studio sending out the statuary and most likely other elements that complete the illusion of a ‘Florentine Garden’.

Whatever its sources, the palatial State, with its lavish use of marble, gold and ivory decoration, paintings and sculpture, is the most sumptuous ‘Picture Palace’ in Australia, and we are so very fortunate that it is still with us. The street foyer is an elaborate Gothic fantasy with a gilded fan-vaulted ceiling, the lobby a grand domed classical room with Baroque curved stairs, and the auditorium features rococo detailing, multiple crystal chandeliers and a coffered domed ceiling. Even the 'retiring rooms' are elaborate, ranging from the clubby 'Pioneer Room', to the delicately painted 'Butterfly Room', and the angular 'Futurist Room'.

Other projects

White not only designed theatres and cinemas, but by the mid-1920s took on number of other projects, in a variety of styles. The six-storey Midland Hotel (1925, demolished) in Wellington was Spanish style, the State Shopping Block above the State Theatre was 1920s Commercial Gothic, matching the style of the theatre’s street foyer, while the large office building above St James’ Theatre was Neoclassical. He was also responsible for three tall, narrow ‘chambers’ buildings in Sydney, each in a different style, but only one remains to show his versatility. Hengrove Hall, adopted an elaborate Tudor style (based on the grand 15th Century country house in Suffolk). The other two were early examples of Art Deco, with Stanton House in a restrained vertical Art Deco style, and Chalfont in a more decorative rectilinear Jazz Moderne. His biggest and most challenging project was the design for the massive Bunnerong Power Station in Mattraville, Sydney, in a bold Stripped Classical style with a large cornice (though the built version was much simplified); the construction which took many years was beset by delays, disputes and a Royal Commission which found that one of the contracts was corruptly awarded (there is now nothing left of the site).

Another major project, possibly his finest non-theatre work, was the Newcastle City Hall, which was built along with the Newcastle Civic Theatre next door; the town hall, with its tall sandstone square tower and Ionic colonnades, is considered an outstanding example of the Inter-War Academic Classical style in NSW. [9]

The shameless self-promoter

White’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography states that he “...designed over 130 theatres.”, [10] but this number is certainly an exaggeration since nowhere near this many (live) theatres in the 1910s and 20s in all the cities and towns of Australasia. It seems that White was prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandisement, as theatre historian Ross Thorne discusses in his book. Thorne's research, looking at contemporary reports as well as the collection of plans held at the State Library of NSW, has found about 40 theatres and cinemas altogether, of which the majority have been demolished or completely altered. He also suggests that White may not have been the principal designer for all the works his office produced, for instance the early appearance of the Spanish style in 1914–15 was during the tenure of office manager architect Lewis Kaberry, who went on to design many theatres later as Kaberry & Chard once he left (for instance the Spanish style New Malvern in Melbourne in 1921) [11]. As well as the State and Capitol in Sydney that were essentially Eberson designs, his major projects in the late 1920s were certainly overseen by his staff rather than White, and may have been designed by them as well. Eric Heath, who left in mid-1928, went on to design the elaborate Spanish style Plaza Theatre in Sydney, and George Newton Kenworthy, who left in 1929, went on to design a number of theatres and cinemas in the 1930s, notably the Cremorne Orpheum.

An extravagant lifestyle

By the late 1920s White was able to maintain a flamboyant life-style, with a large harbour-front house in the exclusive Sydney suburb of Point Piper, a yacht and a luxury car. He was frequently absent, on his yacht, and on trips overseas, and relying on his staff to supervise his big projects.

In 1929–30 his office was at its most successful with the Bunnerong power station just completed, the office building at St James, the three chambers buildings, and the State Theatre and State Shopping Block all being completed. It was October 1929 that the stock market crashed, and like all architects in Australia, White faced the prospect that new projects, especially large ones, were no longer around, and some mooted or about to start were cancelled.

White was no exception, but his next move was still a bit of risk—in 1930 he won a competition for a college to be built in Auckland, [12] and so he moved there, and closed the now quiet Sydney office. But the funding for the college dried up. While other architects got by on small jobs or took on second jobs, White’s activities in the next few years, other than owning a farm near Hamilton, New Zealand, are a mystery. However by 1935 he was back in Sydney at his Point Piper house (by now heavily mortgaged), which became a reception centre managed by Claire Whitcombe, a woman from New Zealand who was his partner, but not his wife; she had moved out, taking their two sons, who seem never to have seen their father again. Though replacing his car with an older one (but still a Rolls Royce), he kept his yacht, sailing and winning races in 1936. In 1937 he proposed a nine-storey block of flats for his houses' garden, but this was rejected by Woollahra Council. [13]

After a stellar career as the premier theatre architect in Australasia for nearly 20 years, as well the designer of a number of other high profile large scale projects, White’s career had crashed completely in 1930, and he never designed another project again. Aged only 55, perhaps he simply thought it was time to retire, despite his evident enthusiasm for life, or the crash shook his confidence, and disrupted his professional life so much, that he couldn’t come back.

Nevertheless, full of ideas, in 1940 he started a new venture, opening a dolomite quarry at George's Plains, near Bathurst, but it closed in 1948 not having earned much. He then finally sold the Point Piper house, and moved to a small flat at Kings Cross with Claire.

He died there aged 75 on 3 March 1952, survived by his estranged wife and two sons, and was cremated with Anglican rites. [14] He had reputedly earned over £1 million in architectural fees in his heyday, but after 22 years with no architectural work, his probate was only valued at £1147. [15]

List of works


  1. 1911 Theatre Royal, 118–122 Stafford Street, Timaru, New Zealand (new auditorium and backstage. [16]
  2. 1912 His Majesty's, High Street, Blenheim, New Zealand (demolished 1970s). [17]
  3. 1912 St. James Theatre, 77–87 Courtenay Place, Wellington, New Zealand.
  4. 1912 His Majesty's (later the Majestic), Victoria Avenue, Wanganui, New Zealand (demolished 1970s now Majestic Square). [18]
  5. 1915 Tivoli Theatre and Roof Garden, Albert Street (now King George Square), Brisbane, Queensland (interior rebuilt 1927, building demolished 1965). [19]
  6. 1915 Hastings Municipal Theatre (now Hawke’s Bay Opera House), 106 Hastings Street, Hastings, New Zealand. [20]
  7. 1916 Palace Theatre, 30 Bourke Street, Melbourne (new auditorium and lobbies for the 1912 Brennan's Amphitheatre). White redecorated and altered the boxes in 1923. Proscenium removed 1955, converted to nightclub 1980s, all decoration removed 2016.
  8. 1916 Everybody's Theatre, Gisborne, New Zealand (demolished). [21]
  9. 1916 Grand Opera House (renamed Tivoli Theatre 1932), 329 Castlereagh Street, Sydney (interior rebuild of the Adelphi, demolished 1969).
  10. 1917 Majestic (renamed Elizabethan Theatre 1955), 1 Erskineville Road, Newtown, Sydney (destroyed by fire 1980). [22]
  11. 1919 National (Amphi-)Theatre/ Fullers, 73 Castlereagh Street, Sydney (interior rebuild of National Amphitheatre, rebuilt Art Deco style 1934 and renamed Mayfair Theatre, demolished 1984). [23]
  12. 1921 Theatre Royal, 100 King Street, Sydney (interior rebuild, demolished 1972). [24]
  13. 1922 Princess Theatre, 163 Spring Street, Melbourne (new auditorium and rearranged lobbies).
  14. 1924 Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne Athenaeum, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne (construction of theatre within existing hall).
  15. 1925 Wintergarden, East Street, Ipswich, Queensland (demolished 1979). [25]
  16. 1925 Wintergarden, Alma Street, Rockhampton, Queensland (closed 1974, auditorium demolished c2005, rest demolished 2013). [26]
  17. 1926 St James Theatre, Elizabeth Street, Sydney (demolished 1971). [27]
  18. 1927 Star Theatre, Bronte Road, Bondi Junction, Sydney (demolished 1981). [28]
  19. Theatre Royal, Main Street, Lithgow, NSW (extensive reconstruction) Became nightclub in 1991, building for sale in 2019. [29]
  20. 1927 Wintergarden, Sturt Street, Townsville, Queensland (demolished 1991). [30]
  21. 1928 Wintergarden, 622 New South Head Road, Rose Bay, Sydney (demolished 1987). [31]
  22. 1928 St. James Theatre, Auckland (originally His Majesty's), 314 Queen Street, Auckland (closed since 2007).
  23. 1929 Newcastle Civic Theatre, 375 Hunter St, Newcastle, NSW.


  1. 1913 Alhambra (later Tivoli), 11 Karangahape Road, Auckland (demolished c1980). [32]
  2. 1915 Majestic Theatre (later Odeon), Queen Street, Brisbane (demolished 1981). [33]
  3. 1916 The Strand (later Mayfair, then Cinerama), Queen Street, Auckland (demolished 1984). [34]
  4. 1916 Everybody's Theatre, Hastings Street, Napier, New Zealand (destroyed in 1931 earthquake). [35]
  5. 1916 The Cosy, Queen Street, Masterton, New Zealand (demolished 1988). [36]
  6. 1916 Grand Theatre, 250 Jackson Street, Petone, New Zealand (remodelled 1930s, now apartments). [37]
  7. 1917 Strand Theatre (later the Plaza), Cathedral Square, Christchurch, New Zealand (demolished). [38]
  8. 1922 Regent Theatre, 124 Little Malop Street, Geelong (only very altered exterior survives). [39]
  9. 1927 Palais Theatre, Lower Esplanade, St Kilda, Melbourne.
  10. 1927 Capitol Theatre, Campbell Street, Haymarket, Sydney (interiors only, designed with US theatre architect John Eberson).
  11. 1929 State Theatre (designed with US theatre architect John Eberson, and includes the attached high rise State Shopping Block, now offices), 49 Market St, Sydney.

Other designs

  • 1913 Wonderland Amusement Park, Dominion Exhibition, Auckland (demolished). [40]
  • 1925 Midland Hotel, 151 Lambton Quay, Wellington, New Zealand (demolished 1980s). [41]
  • 1925–29 Bunnerong 'A', Bunnerong Power Station, Matraville, NSW (demolished 1987). [42]
  • 1926, Law Court Chambers, 191 Queen Street, Melbourne (demolished). [43]
  • 1926 Fox Film Corporation Film Store, Goulbourn Street, Sydney (demolished). [44]
  • 1929 State Shopping Block attached to the State Theatre, 49 Market St, Sydney.
  • 1929 Newcastle City Hall, 290 King St, Newcastle, NSW.
  • 1929 St Ignatius College (east wing), Riverview, Lane Cove, Sydney. [45]
  • 1929 Hengrove Hall (medical suites), 193 Macquarie Street, Sydney. [46]
  • 1929 Stanton House offices, Pitt Street, Sydney (demolished). [47]
  • 1930 Chalfont Chambers, 142-44 Phillip Street, Sydney (demolished). [48]
  • 1930 St James Building office block, above the lobby of the earlier St James Theatre, Elizabeth Street, Sydney (demolished 1971). [49]


1. Ross Thorne, Henry White: the self styled golden king, People & Physical Environment Research, Palm Beach, NSW, 2015

2. Julian Thomas, “White, Henry Eli”. Australian Dictionary of Biography,

3. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

4. Julian Thomas, op. cit.

5. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

6. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

7. “Theatre building, the modern idea. Mr. Henry E. White speaks”, The Mail (Adelaide). 25 January 1913,

8. “Story: Theatres, cinemas and halls”. Te Ara—The Encyclopedia of New Zealand,

9. “Newcastle City Hall”, New South Wales State Heritage Register, Office of Environment and Heritage,

10. Julian Thomas, op. cit.

11. “New Malvern Picture Theatre”, Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic.), 9 June 1921. p. 26,

12. “Sydney architect”, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), 23 December 1930. p. 6,

13. “Point Piper Flats”, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), 5 November 1937. p. 10,

14. “Death at 75 of noted city architect-engineer’, The Sun (Sydney, NSW), 4 March 1952. p. 7,

15. Julian Thomas, op. cit.

16. “Theatre Royal”, Heritage New Zealand,

17. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

18. “Theatre Royal”, Heritage New Zealand,

19. “Tivoli Theatre and Roof Garden”, Cinema Treasures,

20. “History”, Hawkes Bay Opera House,

21. "Stage gossip", Otago Witness, 5 April 1916,

22. “Majestic Theatre”, Dictionary of Sydney,

23. “National Amphitheatre”, Sydney Architecture,

24. “Theatre Royal”, Dictionary of Sydney,

25. “Golden age of Ipswich picture shows”, The Queensland Times, 19 January 2013,; “Ipswich was mad for movies”, Queensland Times. 16 October 2016,

26. “Price tag and big plans for eyesore CBD block revealed”, The Morning Bulletin. 26 March 2018,

27. “St. James Theatre”, Cinema Treasures,

28. “Hoyts Star Theatre”, Cinema Treasures,

29. “Lithgow history: the past leading lady of cinema theatres”, Lithgow Mercury, 31 January 2018, ; “Theatre Royal”, Cinema Treasures,

30. “Winter Garden Theatre Archive”, James Cook University Library,

31. “Wintergarden Theatre”, Cinema Treasures,

32. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

33. “Odeon Theatre”, Cinema Treasures,

34. “Cinerama Theatre”, Cinema Treasures,

35. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

36. “Cars in Queen Street, Masterton, NZ, 1940s”, transpress nz,

37. “Grand Theatre”, Cinema Treasures, ; “Old Wellington Region”, Facebook Groups,

38. “Strand Theatre”, Kete Christchurch,

39. “Regent Theatre”, Cinema Treasures,

40. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

41. “Midland Hotel”, Some lost Wellington buildings,

42. “Bunnerong Power Station”, Dictionary of Sydney,

43. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

44. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

45. “St. Ignatius: Additions to College”, The Sydney Morning Herald. 28 January 1930,

46. “Commercial Chambers ‘Hengrove Hall’ Including Interiors”, Search for NSW heritage,

47. Ross Thorne, op. cit.

48. “No title”, Construction And Local Government Journal, XXXIX (1102), New South Wales, Australia. 8 May 1929. p. 14,

49. “St James Theatre”, Cinema Treasures,