Harrogate’s Kursaal was completed in 1903, the creation of Britain’s greatest theatre designer, Frank Matcham (pictured) and the architect Robert Beale. Conceived and designed as a “Cure Hall” in the great continental tradition, the building provided the major entertainment venue for the rich and famous who came to visit Harrogate and take the waters at one of Europe’s foremost spas. It was renamed the “Royal Hall” following the wave of anti-German sentiment which swept the country after the Great War.
The building’s design was derived from the great ballrooms and music pavilions of Imperial Europe allied with the traditions of the British Theatre movement which was then at its peak. The Kursaal was a truly multi-purpose building. It’s inherent flexibility allowed it to be used for concerts, social gatherings and tea-dances during the day and for music hall, burlesque and glittering balls at night.
One of the Kursaal’s unique features was its 360° ‘circulatory ambulatory’ which provided a place for visitors to gather as they engaged in the social intercourse so popular of the time. Alternatively, members of the audience could enjoy a brief respite from what was happening on stage to take a light stroll completely around the auditorium thus fulfilling the third pillar of the spa experience – ‘taking the waters’; entertainment and exercise!
Matcham’s genius was manifest in many ways. The weight of the upper balcony was taken by two hollow pillars which, together with the use of the basement areas as a plenum cooling chamber, provided a natural and efficient air conditioning system for the auditorium with the minimum use of supporting machinery – an early attempt of energy conservation by the application of brain power!
Yet another ingenious feature incorporated by Matcham was the mechanical system for rapidly clearing the auditorium seats into a hidden store so as to provide a flat floor for dancing or other social entertainment. This gives the building enormous flexibility and is one of the features that sets the Kursaal apart from other types of conventional theatre design with their raked and fixed seating arrangements.
The Royal Hall also marked a major milestone in theatre design by incorporating one of the earliest uses of cantilever construction principles to support upper floors rather than using a plethora of pillars for the purpose.
Harrogate’s Kursaal is the only one built by Matcham, and it represents a unique example of this particular genre of theatre design. It is the only surviving Kursaal in England.