Set the Stage

by Charlie Wellingham

The Scholars were very generously invited to attend the SPAB’s 2014 Repair Course; a full time week of lectures from leading construction and heritage experts, which is held twice a year for professionals and home owners. The highlight of the busy week is always the site visits – when delegates get a chance to witness the practical application of the SPAB conservation philosophy first hand, and discuss some of the challenges that can occur when contending with the realities of site work within historic structures. The first of this year’s visits (and for me, the most interesting) was to Wilton’s, the world’s oldest surviving traditional music hall, in Wapping Docks in East London.

Wiltons Music Hall

Originally the property was 5 individual houses in an early 18th century domestic terrace, which were adapted and enlarged in various ways until 1850 when John Wilton purchased the land and constructed an enormous hall space across the garden plots of all 5 residences. Further acquisitions and ‘knock-throughs’ by Wilton transformed the former bedrooms and family rooms into a dense warren of front and back of house spaces to support the growing popularity of the hall. However Wilton’s ownership was a short one and by 1890 the hall became a centre for the surrounding Methodist community and it remained so amidst increasing dilapidation until 1940 when it was finally abandoned and left to decay. A compulsory purchase and demolition proposal from the council nearly proceeded in the 1960s until it was saved thanks to the campaigning of a group of passionate high profile supporters such as Sir John Betjemen and Spike Milligan, who recognised the cultural significance of this Victorian survivor. It was listed Grade II* in 1970, and finally reopened as a theatre and music venue in 1997.

The hall survives as originally built by John Wilton

The hall survives as originally built by John Wilton

This miraculous rebirth might sound like an expensive and time consuming project given the state the building was in, but upon entering Wilton’s it is clear that this was no highly-polished crisp and gleaming refurbishment; the spaces were occupied with a very ad-hoc ‘make do and mend’ mentality, more in common with squatting than reverent restoration. This gives the entire venue an evocative and ghostly atmosphere (where surface fixed theatre lights cast long shadows across peeling plasterwork, and the deeply textured tooled brickwork that grins through beneath), that seems both wholly appropriate and totally unique.

Seventeen years later and Wilton’s has grown into one of London’s most cherished venues, with a thriving roster of music and theatre, a bustling cafe bar, and a large participation and learning programme, run by Managing and Artistic Director Frances Mayhew (many thanks to Frances for leading the fascinating tour with the SPAB delegates!). Frances has now overseen several complex phases of work with Tim Ronalds Architects, including the structural repair of the hall roof, and will soon be embarking on the front of house works which will increase the amount of (and access to) community studio space. It was particularly interesting to discuss the conservation challenges of repairing the surfaces of a room without damaging the romantically derelict aged atmosphere of the space (an aesthetic that is now synonymous with the Wiltons ‘brand’).

Column at Wilton's

Column at Wilton’s

There is no denying that the worn patina of the rooms contributes to the fantastic building that Wilton’s has become but championing this single flavour (and falsifying the required new work with applied distress to complement the composition) can begin a concerning trend of aesthetic ‘taste’, where the layers of history are a commodity or asset, and may even be tempting to mimic or recreate for rival enterprises. An interior design fashion of exposed dusty brickwork is plausibly foreseeable in light of the success of Wilton’s and the public’s appreciation for its quirky charms. Already instances appear to be increasing in frequency – Asylum Chapel wedding venue in Peckham is another good example. It doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine a revived ‘Anti-Scrape’ movement being required to oppose a thousand proposed Wilton’s wannabes from taking the hammer to their historic interiors. So perhaps this revelry of ruination is acceptable when it is agreed to be ‘authentic’; when the presentation of a dilapidated space ‘as found’ is exactly that – the state it was in when it was recovered and rescued. And what of the new doors that have been hand-painted to match the scruffiness of its 18th century surrounds?

For me the beauty of these neglected surfaces, the tactile erosion which speaks more of the building’s history than any number of interpretation panels, is only increased by the complement of smart and appropriate new design, inserted as required to bring the building back in to use and presented honestly with no agenda to mislead. Does the falsification of the new surfaces amount to set-dressing for a make-believe environment?

Scholar Elgan Jones treading the boards

Scholar Elgan Jones treading the boards

As ever these decisions should be reviewed in their context on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of Wilton’s Music Hall I will concede that this conservation approach is appropriate, if for no other reason than a major source of the theatre’s revenue is as a film set! At the end of the day you only have to walk through that old terraced house lobby and through the small door under the staircase into the cavernously vast and unexpected historic hall to agree; a bit of whimsy and theatricality is exactly what is required in this breathtaking space.

The project certainly gave us all a lot to think about and debate – which is a critical part of our studies as Scholars! Many thanks to Frances and her team for taking the time to explain their journey as client, and the philosophical and practical challenges currently being tackled by the Wilton’s design team in this thoroughly unique environment.

P.S Check out this great blog that documents the on-going phases of work at Wilton’s.

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