Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Warehouse Wednesday: The Royal Spa Centre

Regular readers will have spotted not a lot of actual model making going on around here recently. The reason is simple - time. As well as my magazine work, I'm doing some front of house work at a local theatre and since it's panto time, that's eating into the time available. 

Because of this, it seems appropriate to use the theatre as this weeks building photo, complete with a short history I wrote some time ago for a local magazine. 

In the late 1960’s, the former Leamington Spa Borough Council decided to embark on the building of a new multi-purpose complex. It was to be suitable, not only for shows and concerts but also conferences, exhibitions, dances and even some sporting events.

A central location was required. The one chosen on Newbold Terrace was occupied by Harrington House, a large and impressive Gothic building constructed in 1869 to a Pugin design, by William Gascoyne. Described as both “one of the most outstanding Victorian Buildings in the town” and also an “Unrestrained Gothic mansion, rampant and bristling with ugliness”, the building succumbed to demolition in 1967. Had the outcome of World War 2 been different, it is rumoured that Harrington House might well have become Hitler's seat of UK government.

The new building was designed by Coventry born architect, Sir Fredrick Gibberd. Ten years earlier he had been responsible for the iconic Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, had designed Didcot power station as was at the time working on the London Central Mosque. Initial designs were considerably larger than the building that eventually emerged. The green circle at the front was introduced part way through the process to use the space no longer required and provide a more pleasant aspect to the frontage .

Total cost of the new building was £410,000, slightly above the initial £405,428 estimate. Savings were made by abandoning the footbridge intended to connect the site to the nearby Jephson Gardens, although this was a late change and the bridge appears on the architects official painting.

Tenders for construction were accepted in 1970 and the pace of progress was such that the foundation stone was laid in November of that year by the secretary general of the Arts Council.

In June 1972 Sir Anthony Eden, who had become Lord Avon, told a packed audience in the Avon Hall (now the Main Stage) which had been named after him, that “The civic effort you have shown is so immensely encouraging. You have demonstrated what can be done, which is just the message needed in these times.”. Another dignitary described the venue as “the most modern general hall in the world.”

After the speeches on the opening night, the audience were treated to a concert by the Warwickshire Symphony Orchestra playing Tchaikowsky’s B flat minor piano concerto. The Courier (the local paper) reviewer praised the acoustics in the new hall saying that “every note and nuance however soft could be heard distinctly. The good will sound very good in this building.”

Not everyone was so pleased with the new venue. Two letters to the paper the following week expressed dissatisfaction with the new seating claiming that you would need to be “Seven feet tall” to see the acts properly on the stage. After several revisions over the year including two complete changes of the seats, the current tiered arrangement hopefully solves all these problems!

Worse was to come. Tuesday nights had been earmarked for youngsters and at one of the very first discos to be held, teenagers scratched walls, pulled a door of its hinges and flooded the toilets. The then manager, Harry Wood, threatened that anyone caught damaging the centre would face a lifetime ban.

In addition to the Avon Hall, the building housed a smaller venue called the Newbold Hall (now The Studio) with 208 seats built as a film and lecture theatre. Films were not shown immediately as the projection equipment didn’t arrive until the September after opening. Some visitors may remember the Junior Film Club established in 1990 with an annual membership fee of £2 plus £1 entry for the film (£1.70 for non-members) which was rapidly followed by leasing the hall to become the Robins Cinema for a few years. More recently it has been refitted to act as both cinema and performance space for small shows.

If you'd like a look around, the Spa Centre appears on Google Maps

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