Wilton’s Music Hall

A JCT Standard Building Contract was behind the curtain at Wilton’s Music Hall – a conservation project of such sensitivity that the works behind the scenes were vital to keeping this piece of East End history as authentic as possible…

For local Stepney residents, and the wider theatre-going community, Wilton’s Music Hall is a treasure – one of only very few purpose-built music halls, built in London from the 1830s, to have survived in anything like its original form. Since its reopening as a concert hall and theatre 18 years ago, part of its charm has been the fact that it remained in some state of dereliction – a patina representing its many years as a focus for theatrical and East End history. Far from a museum piece though, Wilton’s is a living, running theatre, concert hall, and public bar, presenting a large number of plays, opera, puppetry, classical music, cabaret, dance and magic shows, alongside a year-round programme of education and heritage activities, such as workshops, talks and tours. Given Wilton’s extensive programme of activity, by 2004 the building’s structural and technical issues needed to be addressed. This however did not detract from the trepidation felt by those involved that Wilton’s unique atmosphere would be erased.

Wilton Music Hall’s life as a venue began in 1839 following the construction of a concert room behind a complex of five houses, including a large ale house. Its present layout (and name) was established through the acquisition of the site by the impresario John Wilton in 1859. A series of alterations and reconstructions throughout the 1860s incorporated the concert room, houses and ale house into one complex. In 1877, a serious fire left just the four walls and the 10 barley-twist columns that still support the balcony today. Wilton’s was eventually closed in 1881 for failing to comply with the fire safety regulations of the time. Rebuilt along the same lines, Wilton’s passed into the ownership of the East London Methodist Mission as a base from which to assist with the extreme poverty and squalid living conditions that had become prevalent in the East End at the end of the 19th Century. The mission remained open for 70 years, through some of the most testing periods of the East End’s history, including the London blitz of World War II.

Eventually Wilton’s faded into dereliction, and was scheduled for demolition by the 1960s. A campaign, led by the poet, John Betjeman, helped to save the building and it was Grade 2* listed in 1971. The foundation of the London Music Hall Trust in 1982 has helped to maintain its status as a thriving theatre and community space since.

The underlying priority for the restoration has been to make the building safe, sound and usable – whilst adopting a conservative, sensitive and careful approach to repair works. This has meant preserving and retaining all the historic fabric where possible, avoiding misleading or out-of-place restoration, and using great care in the application of new materials. Addressing the problems of structure, fire, sound, heat and access, and making the building safe and usable, whilst retaining the building’s sense of history, has presented some unique challenges.

Everything that was possible to preserve and reuse was done so: broken fireplaces, Georgian brickwork, window frames, fragments of plaster, disused roofing materials, part of an old railway track that was built into the works in 1859, pulleys and cables from a doorbell mechanism, ceramic electrical fittings, pipes for gas lighting, wooden mountings on walls, fragments of old staircases that lead nowhere have been retained, even abandoned bird’s nests and holes deemed to be aesthetically pleasing. Where possible, brickwork has been stabilised with the use of dowels rather than being completely rebuilt. Floor and ceiling boards where removed, numbered and returned to their original locations.

In recognising that it was not possible for the new works to take on the same quality of texture and character that comes with age, it was chosen to adopt the materials and building techniques of the original building without any attempt at artificial ageing. Instead of ‘pretending to be old’, the use of the same materials and methods has ensured that major contrasts have been avoided. Among the new works included the reconnection of adjacent walls that had come
apart, providing a new stone and timber stairway, installing new partitions, windows, doors and openings, strengthening public loadings by using double joists and introducing steel beams midspan, reconstruction of hearths and the hall floor, stiffening roof trusses in the hall that were forcing the wall to collapse, and providing acoustic ceiling linings for the lobbies and hall.

In addition, front-of-house facilities have been significantly expanded. The terrace area previously fronting the hall which could only be partially occupied now has full use. This has been able to establish a series of connected bars on the lower floors of three of the properties. Upstairs, previously derelict rooms have been renovated, providing a new rehearsal room and more bar and entertainment areas. A new workshop is in placein a now damp-proofed basement. The fourth property now houses the artists’ changing rooms. A new lift increases access dramatically, but the characteristic difference in floor levels between the once-independent properties remains.

Another series of major upgrades – which were able to be installed discretely, without detracting from the building’s appearance – were the opportunity to upgrade the services, ventilation and acoustics. All services were renewed,including sound insulation, fire-proofing, heating and ventilation, performance systems in the hall, AV in each of the properties, fibre-optic and Cat6 data installation, plug-in points for lighting rigs, air handling for the hall and studio, new boilers, radiators, fire and security alarms, and CCTV.

In total, Wilton’s has gained a ventilated and acoustically separated hall, new bar space, exhibition room, chilled cellar, basement workshop, commercial kitchen, lettable rooms, offices, and learning and participation room, dressing rooms, new showers and WCs, and most importantly, the ability to safely access and use every part of the building.

As a result of the restoration, Wilton’s Music Hall has achieved a remarkable feat: almost looking exactly the same as it did before. Achieving this – allowing the building to still tell its story, keep its sense of mystery and character, whilst providing a complete update of structure and services, and providing new facilities – is challenging and requires the careful co-ordination of a myriad of skills and disciplines to ensure that the philosophy underpinning the works and the desires of the client is carried through. The use of the JCT Standard Building Contract helps to underpin this ethos – it is a contract that has been tried and trusted through history, yet is always contemporary, and can take centre stage when the demands of a project are as complex and unique as they were here.

RIBA National Award 2016
RIBA London Award 2016
RIBA London Conservation Award 2016
RIBA London Building of the Year 2016
‘Highly Commended’ RICS Awards 2016, London, Building Conservation
New London Architecture Restoration Award 2016
New London Architecture Ashden Stainability Award, Commendation 2016

Wilton’s Music Hall – Project Summary
Start date: July 2012 (phase 1) July 2014 (phase 2)
Completion: February 2013 (phase 1) September 2015 (phase 2)
Gross internal floor area: 675m2 (phase 1) 845m2 (phase 2)
Cost: £740,000 (phase 1) £1.95m (phase 2)
Contract: JCT Standard Building Contract Without Quantities
Client: Wilton’s Music Hall Trust
Architect and CDM co-ordinator: Tim Ronalds Architects
Main contractor: Fullers Builders (phase 1) William Anelay (phase 2)
Structural engineer: Cambridge Architectural Research
M&E consultant: Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor: EC Harris (phase 1) Bristow Johnson (phase 2)
Theatre consultant: Carr & Angier
Acoustic consultant: Ramboll
Access consultant: All Clear Designs
Conservation plan: John Earl
Project manager: Richard Maidment (client’s adviser)
Approved building inspector: London Borough of Tower Hamlets

© Photos: Helene Binet. Design: Tim Ronalds Architects