The Colosseum was built in 1888 as a roller skating rink. It also served as a cinema, boot factory, and public venue before being demolished in 1931 to make way for New Regent Street.
In 1888, Robert Henry Donnolly leased a parcel of land situated between Armagh Street and Gloucester Street, which belonged to the estate of G. W. S. Lyttelton. Although the site had traditionally been used for circus performances, Donnolly, as the owner of skating rinks in Hobart, Sydney, and Dunedin, intended to build a new rink for the Christchurch public.
The rink was designed by Thomas Cane and built by contractor, Dan Reese. The brick building was designed to be the longest skating rink in New Zealand. The front façade of the building, which faced Armagh Street, had a gabled end and featured a large lunette window. After passing through the main entrance, the visitors entered into the main hall where, to their right, was the pay window. Further to the right was the cloakroom and then a room with lock boxes where patrons could leave their skates on site. Beyond this were the men’s restroom facilities. To the left of the entrance were the same facilities which catered to women. At the end of the main hall were two swing doors which led into the main floor. To the side of the doors were stairs which led up to the gallery which overlooked the main floor of the rink. The gallery could seat up to 1500 people.
The main floor of the rink was constructed from black pine timber laid on sleepers of tōtara. Set within the sides of the wall of the rink were five emergency exits. At the end of the building was a brick engine house with dynamos which were used to generate the electricity.
During the construction of the building, a worker, Robert Russell, fell to his death. As a result, Donnolly donated a penny from each hire of skates on the opening night to the family of Russell.
The rink opened as the Palace Rink on 2 October 1888 with a performance by an Australian skater, A. Gibson. In his speech, Mayor Charles Louisson commented that “The building had been constructed for a pastime which might go out of fashion, and Mr Donnolly had had the sagacity to have it built so that it would be suitable for other purposes.”
Although it was purpose built for skating, the rink was also used for a venue for cycling demonstrations, including one event where members of the Bicycle Touring Club competed against members of skating team. Fancy dress carnivals were also held at the rink.
As the fashion for skating declined, it became unfeasible to operate the rink. By March 1891, the building had been purchased by M. O’Brien and Company for use as a boot factory. Some minor changes were made to the layout of the building, including the transformation of the gallery into the proprietor’s private office.
The factory closed and the building was reopened in February 1902 as the Colosseum Skating Rink. To improve the venue, new sleeper joists and flooring were installed along with electric arc lamps. The building could also be entered from Gloucester Street.
By May 1908, the building was renovated to become a concert hall with the Gloucester Street entrance becoming the hall’s main entrance. A large screen was installed for the showing of films by the Royal Pictures Syndicate while a pathe machine was used to project the films.
Harry Liston who had formerly worked for West’s Pictures was in charge of the production. The initial screening, on 11 May, attracted a large crowd. The first films shown were The Sculptor’s Dream, The Lazy Man, In Shanghai, The Buckjumpers, Bathing Under Difficulties, and A Wedding in Brittany. The accompanying music was conducted by F. Collins.
Although the building had gas radiators it was poorly heated and after a frost the attendants had to clean the seats before screenings.
In 1909, Fuller’s Pictures started to screen films in the Colosseum. During the First World War, the Colosseum also hosted charity events to raise funds for war related efforts. One such event was the Café Chantant held on 19 and 20 March 1915. In January 1916, the building hosted Wirth’s Circus which including performances by Mussa Mamiev, a Cossack rider, and seals.
The building reverted to its use as a roller skating rink in June 1917.
By 1919, the building was considered to be ‘in a state of decay’. There were bulges in the wall, spaces between joints in the roof span, and the gallery was affected by a musty smell of rotting timber. For this reason the building was unable to host the New South Wales State Orchestra in January 1920.
The building was further damaged when it was used to host the Prime Minister, William Massey at a speaking event held on 3 December 1919. To prevent overcrowding, the doors were closed after the building had reached its capacity. However, a group who wished the interrupt the Prime Minister’s speech battered down the doors with poles. The building fell into disuse following this. Although a caretaker was appointed to look after the property, vagrants and children made use of the damaged doors to enter the building without permission.
By September 1920, the property had been purchased by John Fuller Limited which planned to build a new cinema on the site. In November 1922, the building was used as a studio for an Annette Kellerman film, Venus of the South Seas, where the sets for twenty four interior scenes were erected.
In October 1924, a section of the building, facing Armagh Street, was sold to a company based in Christchurch and by 1925, the International Used Car Company was operating out of the Colosseum. No longer intending to erect a cinema on the site, in 1927 the property was sold by John Fuller Limited to Sutton Investment Company who leased it to White Diamond Taxi Cab Company.
In December 1930, the Regent Street scheme was finalised. This involved the construction of a new street lined by shops on the site of the Colosseum. Demolition of the former Colosseum building commenced on 13 January 1931. New Regent Street officially opened on 1 April 1932.