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Article by Sophie Astin | 13th September 2018

Behind the Façade of Tunbridge Wells

Iconic, beautiful or unusual buildings can be adapted for a new purpose – and whether it’s a bank becoming a pizzeria, a church into a theatre or an industrial building housing a museum, it’s often the ideal solution to reducing urban sprawl and environmental impact. And locally we know only too well how change of use can help keep heritage alive.

Ahead of this weekend's free Heritage open days in and around Tunbridge Wells, take a look at the heritage behind some of our contemporary buildings...

Some buildings are just too beautiful to go to waste, to be demolished and replaced with something else. ‘Adaptive reuse’ is the practice of breathing new life into an old building while conserving resources and historic value. Whether due to environmental reasons, land availability or the desire to conserve a historic landmark, adaptive reuse is fast becoming a solution to some of the modern problems of the built environment.

One very famous example of adaptive reuse is London’s iconic, industrial Tate Modern Museum. Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron transformed it from the obsolete Bankside Power Station into a highly prestigious venue for modern art. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris was once the Gare d’Orsay, a beautiful Beaux-Arts train station that was only used up until 1939 when the introduction of electric trains made the short platforms unusable. This elegant turn-of-the-century museum now houses an unparalleled collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, including works by Manet, Courbet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Renoir.

Double identity

Closer to home, Trinity Theatre and Arts Centre is situated inside the historic Holy Trinity Church building in Tunbridge Wells, originally built as a result of a residents’ application to the Church Commissioners Fund for new churches in 1818.

Celebrated Victorian architect Decimus Burton was already designing residential villas in Calverley Park and agreed to design the building – £10,591 was raised for the construction of the building, local sandstone from Calverley quarry was used and Mr Barrett, a local builder, laid the first stone in 1827. However, the church held its last religious service in 1972 and was left empty until an agreement was finally made that the building would be transformed into a community and arts centre. The lease was signed in January 1977 and following several refurbishments, this imposing building is now a vibrant theatre and arts venue, showing amateur productions as well as comedy nights, films and hosting a highly-successful youth theatre – and a wonderful cafe in the foyer.

Historical haunt

Situated just two miles outside the spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, Salomons Estate was also designed by Decimus Burton. Set in 36 acres of rolling gardens, parkland and woods, the estate has a rich and eventful history preserving the memory of three generations of the Salomons family: Sir David Salomons, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, who courageously campaigned for the political rights of religious minorities; Sir David Lionel Salomons, a scientist, engineer, photographer and inventor; and Captain David Reginald Salomons, whose heroic self-sacrifice during the First World War has been dramatised in The Dreamers, a West End musical.

Sir David Lionel’s passion for photography, lighting and mechanical devices is evident throughout the house – he was the first person in the country to introduce electricity to his home and he also added a private theatre housing one of the finest Welte player pipe organs ever installed in Britain.

At your convenience!

The Forum opened as a new music venue in January 1993 in a building at ‘Fonthill’ on Tunbridge Wells Common. Its past life, however, is a little less salubrious; it was previously used as a public toilet and then as a brass rubbing centre.

Several acts have appeared at The Forum at the beginning of careers that have later achieved significant commercial success – and include Adele, Coldplay, Oasis, Mumford & Sons, and Ellie Goulding.

In 2010, The Forum and one of its founders, Jason Dormon, were featured in The Independent’s Happy List, profiling people who make Britain a better place to live, and in 2012, the NME voted the venue as Britain’s Best Small Venue.

Performance at the pub

The Tunbridge Wells Opera House on Mount Pleasant Road was built by J. Jarvis of Tunbridge Wells and opened in 1902 with a seating capacity of just 1,100. Architect John P. Briggs, who also designed the Grand Theatre, Doncaster, the Grand Opera House, York and altered the Royal Court, Wigan, in 1899, designed the building which, as was reported by the Playgoer: “This fashionable resort is to be congratulated on the approaching erection, by Mr. J. Jarvis, of the imposing Opera House [...] A finer site for a theatre than the central and unique position selected could not have possibly been found in any provincial town, and there is every reason to believe that the house will be very popular, remunerative, and a source of great attraction to visitors.” 

In 1931 the Opera House was taken over and modernised by L. H. Jackson for use as a cinema, before it became a bingo hall during the Sixties and then, in 1996, the Grade II listed building was converted into a Wetherspoon’s pub.

Since 2014 the pub has closed its doors to drinkers for one night a year to return to its origins – as an opera house – and has since hosted performances of opera classics by Edenbridge-based The Merry Opera Company.

Plaques & plates

The attractive weather-boarded building set back from Tunbridge Wells’ London Road, houses Thackeray’s restaurant and boasts a distinctive charm, with wonky floors and bursting with original features. But if only the walls could talk… for this charmingly sagging building was once home to British novelist and author, William Makepeace Thackeray, best known for his satirical works, in particular Vanity Fair, a portrait of English society.

Born in 1811, Thackeray was ranked second only to Charles Dickens during the Victorian era – and Charlotte Bronte even dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him.

Header Image: David Bartholomew (www.davidbartholomew.co.uk

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