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White, Henry Eli (1876–1952)

by Julian Thomas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Henry Eli White (1876-1952), theatre architect, was born on 21 August 1876 at Dunedin, New Zealand, son of English parents Joseph Eli White, bricklayer, and his wife Susanna, née Scholfield. On leaving school, Henry joined Joseph's contracting business and learned bricklaying, painting, plumbing and carpentry while studying engineering and architecture. Finding it difficult to work with his father, he established his own business as a builder in 1896. 'Big Henry' was over six feet (183 cm) tall and weighed more than 16 stone (102 kg). He married Margaret Hallinan at Dunedin on 24 December 1900; they were to have four children.

Although his first major project was a tunnel on the Waipori River hydro-electric scheme, White gravitated towards theatre design: he was interested in using steel frames and reinforced concrete, and in the problems of ventilation, acoustics and visibility posed by auditorium design. By 1905 he had established himself at Christchurch. With the contract to build His Majesty's Theatre, Wellington, for (Sir) Benjamin Fuller in 1912, White moved his thriving practice to that city where he also built the Midland Hotel.

By 1915 White was building theatres in Australia for Hugh McIntosh and was well placed to take advantage of the boom in theatre investment in the 1920s. He adapted from the American architect John Eberson the 'atmospheric' style, one which was supposed to evoke an exotic garden or courtyard and used Spanish, Moorish, Venetian and Indian motifs. White's theatres in Sydney (where he made his headquarters) included the Capitol, the St James (for the Fullers) and the Majestic (Elizabethan) at Newtown. His only significant industrial project in Sydney was the Bunnerong power station, begun in 1925. He designed over 130 theatres, among them the Tivoli, Brisbane, and the St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand.

Sydney's baroque State Theatre (opened in June 1929) is White's best-known work. The building, which includes shops and an office block in Market Street, cost Union Theatres Ltd £1 million in an attempt to entice middle-class film-goers. The auditorium was divided into three levels of comfort and expense. Much loved by audiences for its excessive Art Deco ornamentation, its interior made lavish use of marble, gold and ivory decoration, and featured paintings, sculpture and exotic objects (such as the 'Fujiyama cameo', removed during World War II). The cinema's lavatories were named the 'Empire Builder's', 'Pompadour', 'Futurist' and 'Pioneer' rooms.

The Depression marked the end of White's architectural career. He won a competition to design a college at Auckland, but plans were shelved; he closed his office and lost money through farming in New Zealand. By 1937 he was back in Sydney. His plans for a block of flats at Point Piper were disallowed by Woollahra Municipal Council. Although his cement manufacturing project near Bathurst fell through, dolomite was discovered on the site and during World War II his company supplied it for windows and light bulbs made in Australia. White spent much time sailing and big-game fishing.

Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 3 March 1952 at Kings Cross, Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites. He had reputedly earned over £1 million in architectural fees, but was not an astute businessman; his estate was sworn for probate at £1147.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Thorne, Cinemas of Australia via USA (Syd, 1981)
  • J. Tulloch, Australian Cinema (Syd, 1982)
  • Theatre (Sydney), Aug 1914, p 20
  • Parade, Mar 1960, p 30
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 1925, 2 May 1928, 23 Dec 1930, 1 Oct, 5 Nov 1937, 23 Feb 1938, 7 Sept 1955
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 7 Sept 1955
  • private information.

Citation details

Julian Thomas, 'White, Henry Eli (1876–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-henry-eli-9074/text15995, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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