Harrogate’s Kursaal was completed in 1903, the creation of Britain’s greatest theatre designer, Frank Matcham and the architect Robert Beale. Conceived and designed as a “Cure Hall” in the great continental tradition, the building provided the major entertainment venue for the rich and famous who came to visit Harrogate and take the waters at one of Europe’s foremost spas. It was renamed the “Royal Hall” following the wave of anti-German sentiment which swept the country after the Great War.
The Royal Hall today is:
- A priceless part of our national heritage.
- A marvellous Frank Matcham creation.
- England’s last surviving Kursaal.
- A Grade II* listed building of unique architectural and historic importance.
- A vital part in the cultural life of North Yorkshire.
- A regional entertainment centre
- Theatre; concert hall; conference and banquet venue; exhibition hall; dance hall; cinema; town hall
|Matcham’s genius was manifest in many ways. The weight of the upper balcony was taken by two hollow pillars which, together with the use of the basement areas as a plenum cooling chamber, provided a natural and efficient air conditioning system for the auditorium with the minimum use of supporting machinery – an early attempt at energy conservation by the application of brain power!|
|The building’s design was derived from the great ballrooms and music pavilions of Imperial Europe allied with the traditions of the British Theatre movement which was then at its peak. The Kursaal was a truly multi-purpose building. Its inherent flexibility allowed it to be used for concerts, social gatherings and tea-dances during the day and for music hall, burlesque and glittering balls at night.|
|One of the Kursaal’s unique features was its ‘circulatory ambulatory’ which provided a place for visitors to gather and socialise. Also, members of the audience could enjoy a brief respite from the entertainment to take a stroll around the auditorium thus fulfilling the third pillar of the spa experience – ‘taking the waters’; entertainment and exercise!|
|Yet another ingenious feature incorporated by Matcham was the mechanical system for rapidly clearing the auditorium seats into a hidden store so as to provide a flat floor for dancing or other social entertainment. This gives the building enormous flexibility and is one of the features that sets the Kursaal apart from other types of conventional theatre design with their raked and fixed seating arrangements.|
|The Royal Hall also marked a major milestone in theatre design by incorporating one of the earliest uses of cantilever construction principles to support upper floors rather than using a pillars.|
|Harrogate’s Kursaal is the only one built by Matcham, and it represents a unique example of this particular genre of theatre design. It is the only surviving Kursaal in England.|
In September 2000 massive structural problems were discovered in the Royal Hall. Large areas of the 100 year-old concrete which made up much of the internal structure was found to be in a highly advanced state of decay. The situation was considered to be so dangerous that the Upper Balcony and some other parts of the building had to be immediately closed to the public. In November 2001, further structural problems were identified and these caused the building to be completely closed to public access.
The Royal Hall then remained closed until its re-opening in April 2008 following a major £10.7 million restoration project.
‘From time to time, we all need to be taken out of ourselves and uplifted in a place of beauty and inspiration. That is what restoring the Royal Hall is all about’. – Edward Fox
The original discovery of concrete corrosion turned out to be just one of a number of serious structural problems. The north-east section of the building was found to be suffering from subsidence and mortar cementing the foundation’s brickwork was decaying from the effects of salt corrosion.
Taken together, the structural problems affecting the Royal Hall would have been terminal. Without major restoration, the Royal Hall would have had to be closed and permanently boarded up. The only solution was a major rebuilding programme on both the interior and the foundations of the building.
The fundamental nature of the restoration work needed provided an unrepeatable opportunity to return this magnificent and historic building to its original splendour. All of the ‘temporary fixes’ and unco-ordinated alterations which had so disfigured the Royal Hall over the decades were removed, and the building was faithfully reinstated back to Matcham’s original vision, when it was described at its 1903 opening as “a palace of glittering gold”.
The Restoration Project
In September 2000 Harrogate Borough Council embarked on a Development Study to provide a detailed restoration plan for the Royal Hall. The £800,000 cost of the Study was jointly met by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Council.
In September 2003 the results of the Study were submitted to HLF for grant approval. Unfortunately, the full restoration project was costed at £13.7 million whereas there was only £8 million immediately available – £6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £2 million matching funds from the Council.
In July 2004 the Council’s project management team embarked on a second, supplemental study to determine exactly what was achievable within the available funding. After a three month study, the team recommended that a phased programme could be achieved with an initial phase costing £8 million. The initial phase would carry out the necessary structural repairs; enable public access and usage, and provide a basis for future restoration work as and when further funds became available. However, there would no funding available under the core scheme to provide a theatre bar; new dressing rooms; new soft furnishings such as carpets and drapes and, very importantly, to restore the interior décor which, at this stage, had become extremely dilapidated. Another major shortcoming of the core programme was that it was envisaged that no restorative work would be carried out to the Dress Circle with the result that the capacity of the Royal Hall would be reduced by some 250 seats – an obvious problem from the standpoint of operational and financial viability. A major requirement was that the work should be undertaken in such a way as to contain the risk and possibility of the contract costs over-running.
Following the appointment of the main contractor (HBG Construction Ltd) in October 2005, restoration work started in June 2006 to carry out the core building works. This was a 61 week contract which was due to be completed on 27th June 2007. However, the success of the Trust’s fund-raising campaign meant that additional works were reinstated as additional funds became available and the contract end-date was extended to 28th January 2008. The entire restoration programme was completed on budget and on time – so much so it can justly be described to be an exemplar for this type of project.
The Royal Hall was formally opened by the Trust’s Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales, on 22nd January 2008. There then followed a ten week period for fitting-out and commissioning and the building re-opened to the public on 27th April 2008 with a Gala Concert by the Hallé Orchestra followed by a grand banquet for 500 VIPs and supporters of the fund-raising effort.
The Trust’s initial target was to raise £1.8 million but the support was so overwhelming that £2.7 million was eventually raised. This enabled the full restoration to be completed, something few thought possible at the outset of the project. The Trust’s additional funding enabled the following crucial works to be included in the restoration:
The RHRT Today
Since its re-opening works to improve the Royal Hall have continued. The Trust has carried out many projects to enhance the building and experience for visitors, some of which are shown below, and it continues to raise funds to this end.
With the help of our volunteers and stewards, we run free Open Days to allow the general public access to the Royal Hall. As the building is primarily an event venue, the open days are not on set dates, so please refer to our website for these. In 2018 between February to August we welcomed over 1800 visitors.
Some of our completed projects include:-
- The installation of new stained glass windows in the North-West and South-West annexes.
- New safety handrails in the Heritage Lounge.
- The installation of a mural in the South Ambulatory by artist David Venables which provides an illustration of the magnificent gardens that graced the rear of the Royal Hall when it first opened.
- New period bars in the North and South ambulatories.
- New ‘star’ dressing rooms in the basement.
- Improved acoustics to the stage area
- Development of the Heritage Lounge to incorporate high-quality cabinets for the display of Royal Hall memorabilia and to create an inter-active audio-visual system which allows visitors to view educational modules covering various aspects of the heritage and history of Harrogate and the Royal Hall.
- Exterior electronic blinds have been fitted behind the upstairs windows in the Grand Hall to give a blackout when required.
- Additional handrails on the exterior steps have been installed, now giving 6 sets of handrails.
- Sanding and sealing the whole of the Grand Hall ballroom floor.
- New Signage.
- Improvements to the Canopy.
- Permanently fixed monitor screens in the stage wings and dressing rooms through the last £3,000 donation.
Mural of gardens to the rear of the Royal Hall by David Venables