Blackpool architectural gem hidden in plain sight

For more than 120 years, the Empress Ballroom has stood proud as one of the architectural jewels in Blackpool’s crown.

And today, the Gazette can exclusively reveal these stunning up close images of the iconic venue’s ceiling as landmark repairs are carried out.

Work is still ongoing on the roof at the Winter Gardens Empress Ballroom

Work is still ongoing on the roof at the Winter Gardens Empress Ballroom

Expected to cost in the region of £750,000, the repairs are being done after a plasterwork panel fell from the ceiling back in September, causing a series of high-profile gigs to be cancelled.

The pictures taken from the high-level platform installed for the repairs reveal the detailed, ornate patterns on the ceiling, as well as the extent of discolouration caused by nicotine thanks to more than a century of smoke in the palace of entertainment.

Winter Gardens managing director Michael Williams hailed the images as unique in the ballroom’s 120-year history.

“We believe, from our archives and through speaking to staff over many years, that the panels have never been painted in their 120-year life, and as such no one has been up close to them in this way,” Mr Williams said.

“The introduction of chandeliers was done from above and below, but this is the first time in the room’s history that there has been that level of access.

“Being able to go up there and to physically touch that wonderful ceiling is amazing.

“For many years, I’ve sat there underneath it during various events, having no idea quite what was hidden in plain sight.”

Since early November, after two months closed, the ballroom reopened with eight scaffolding pillars holding a working floor at height while surveys were carried out on the ceiling.

Surveys had originally been scheduled to take place during 2018 in the ballroom, and other Blackpool Council-owned venues such as the Tower Ballroom, but the incident in the Empress – which happened in the early hours of the morning while the room was not in use – brought forward these plans.

The repairs are now under way with a deadline for completion in time for the Blackpool May Dance Festival which opens on Sunday May 20.

As well as the repairs, protective structures are being put in place to allow for safe use of the ballroom for its varied calendar of events – from tea dances to rock concerts.

Mr Williams added the project was giving architects and heritage and conservation officers a real insight into the ceiling structure.

“Once the work is done, it will be good for another 120 years,” he said.

Blackpool Council’s head of planning and built heritage Carl Carrington said seeing the panels up close had been a fascinating experience, revealing unseen details in the room.

“If anyone has been this close since it was built, it’s at least as long ago as the very beginning of the 1930s when art deco touches were being put into the Winter Gardens,” he said.

“If you go in with a sponge and water – the nicotine is so thick. We’re trying to work out what to do with this, as there’s not a long time before the scaffolding comes down,

“The original interior was a creamy, stone white colour, with that in mind, you can see how stained it is. They’re trying to match that colour, but there’s no colour pictures – just black and white – but you can tell from the contrast in those how light it must have been.

“When complete, the ceiling should be much lighter and the gilding work will show much more.”

As a local heritage expert, Mr Carrington admits he was ‘reluctant’ to step into the ceiling-height platform – scared of what might greet him.

“When you see it from a distance, it’s so spectacular, often these things when you see them up close the detail is crude and no so refined as you imagine; but that wasn’t the case,” he said.

“It was distressing to see cracks and the damage caused over the years but it’s still spectacular.

“There’s even little touches, jokes playing on the building’s title as the Winter ‘Gardens’ in the panels – things feature like hoes and forks, which you don’t realise until you’re up close, you’d think it was traditional imagery from the classical designs from afar.”

Mr Carrington said in the short term, the works will secure the ceiling and the continued use of the Empress Ballroom, allowing the significant profits it generates to be ploughed back into the whole Winter Gardens’ complex’s upkeep.

He said the works were expected to cost around £750,000, although the final costings could not become clear until the project was complete.

History of the Empress Ballroom

The Empress Ballroom was designed by Mangnall and Littlewood and opened in 1896.

In its time, the ballroom has housed major political and trade conferences, pop concerts and exhibitions; among its regular visitors these days are the British Homing World Show of the Year pigeon fanciers event, Rebellion Punk

Festival, the several Blackpool Dance Festival events, as well as countless awards celebrations throughout the year.

The ballroom is widely praised for its acoustics, due to the materials used in its barrel-vaulted ceiling.

According to the Winter Gardens’ website the ‘spring-mounted dancefloor – one of the last remaining in the UK – gives the Empress Ballroom that extra bounce when the biggest stars take to the stage, while its balconies give visitors a unique 360-degree view of one of the greatest arenas in the UK.’

The Empress has a capacity of 3,500.

It has hosted the Blackpool Dance Festival, in May, since 1920, and is known as ‘dancing’s golden pleasure dome’.

Among the famous bands to have appeared at the Empress are The Rolling Stones, The Stone Roses, Oasis, The Prodigy and Elbow.