Sara Colohan writes on the history of London's Hippodrome. Published by www.londoncalling.com
The Reincarnation Of London’s Hippodrome
It’s been a good year for recycling some of London’s abandoned historic buildings. Art Deco Atlantic Bar and Grill has been transformed into the stylish eatery and cabaret venue Zedel, The Pigalle Club and the famous L’Eclipse Anglaise (now The Rose Club) have both had extensive facelifts but none can compare in magnitude and scale to the transformation of London’s Hippodrome. Father and son team Jimmy and Simon Thomas invested over £40 million into this severely damaged and somewhat forgotten edifice on Leister Square, and firmly believe, over their watchful eye, its revival will redefine London’s night life.
This month the London Hippodrome Casino will open its doors after more than two years as a building site. It will house a 180 seated cabaret theatre, a 150 cover restaurant, four private dining rooms and five bars, and hopes to attract tens of thousands of new visitors to the Leicester Square area.
The current guise is indeed impressive, with many of the original features restored, but on delving into the rich history of the building we found the new owners had a hard act to follow. The original Hippodrome was designed in 1900 by renowned architect Frank Matcham, (also responsible for the London Coliseum, Hackney Empire, Victoria Palace and London Palladium) It opened as a circus and variety spectacular with performing animals including horses, snakes, polar bears and elephants. If that wasn’t impressive enough, it had its own troop of acrobatic dwarves diving from the theatre ‘Gods’ into an illuminated pool containing 100,000 gallons of water. Side entrances to the stalls could be flooded so that boats could be floated around the auditorium. A hard act to follow indeed, by anyone’s standards.
Over the years, the artistic direction of the venue varied from hosting the 1910 UK premier of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to Parisian dancing girls The Follies Bergeres in the 1940’s. Gutted in 1957 it reopened with its most famous production Talk of the Town featuring world class performers including Judy Garland, The Andrews Sisters, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. In more recent years, award winning cabaret La Clique brought a new audience to the venue and was it’s final breath of life before The Hippodrome closed its doors in 2009 in wait for the biggest refurbishment of its illustrious career.
It’s clear by looking around the grand hall as it stands today, the new custodians of the Hippodrome have tried to keep the essence of the original Matcham theatre alive. The architect behind its current transformation, Paula Reason told us about using the history of the building as her inspiration and the challenges that this presented.
“The biggest challenge was the extent of the ‘unknowns’ the building unveiled at each turn, which were both good and bad. We discovered spaces that had been covered up for more than 100 years, we tied the main auditorium into the adjacent Cranbourn Mansions – an ex Bachelor Pad, to extend the volume of the building. We used the old drawings to work out the original entrance points and features and then developed these areas in sympathy with the original but suitable for the future. Some of the remaining original Matcham masonry became pointers, showing us the original scale and form of the building. It was so exciting when we worked out the original layout of the main entrance.”
Of all its clumsy disfigurations through out the years, ‘Operation Pickaxe’ was the darkest. Triggered by a falling lump of plaster onto an unsuspecting audience member in the 1950’s, it cleared the way for willful, substantial damage wrought to the infrastructure. Almost all the original plasterwork was pulled down along with most of the buildings original framework.
“We have tried our best to restore it to its former glory, reinstating hundreds of original features, including the central ornate glass elevator but there was so much damage done during Operation Pickaxe it was painstaking work. We removed all the false ceilings and studied the original plasterwork design and remolded it. Using a combination of different historical references from original drawings, newspaper articles, posters and programmes we tried to stay true to the origins of the building and make The Hippodrome the unique destination in the heart of London’s West End again. There’s really nowhere else like it in the world.”
Whether we enjoy a flutter or not, the splendor of the grand hall is undeniable and the new proprietors must be commended for remaining historically and architecturally sympathetic to the original Matcham design. It’s also commendable that the Hippodrome has created over 400 new jobs, much welcomed by job seeking Londoners in the current economic times.
There’s certainly no argument that this impressive transformation marks a grand new beginning for this much loved venerable theatre.
The Hippodrome Casino opens 12 July.
Opening week features Tony Christie and Miss Polly Rae’s Between The Sheets See www.hippodromecasino.com for more deatils.
Camille O’Sullivan. Architect, singer, performer…superstar