A run-down 18th century chapel, bought for just £25 by a group of Calderdale theatre lovers back in 1988, has been transformed into a £6.6m arts centre.
The new-look Square Chapel in Halifax opens to the public on Thursday, June 8, and now boasts a multi-purpose auditorium with state-of-the-art projector and sound system and cafe bar, as well as new changing rooms and toilet facilities.
It’s been a long journey for supporters of the arts venue, which was in such a poor state of repair when it first opened that it had no glass windows and audiences were given blankets to keep them warm. Teams of volunteers staffed the theatre and ran the bar. Today the Square Chapel Arts Centre employs 20 full-time and part-time staff. Among its patrons are Huddersfield-born playwright Sally Wainwright and actors George Costigan and Timothy West.
As Sofia Cann, Marketing and Communications Manager, says: “Previously it was all done on a shoestring, but now we are on a par with other theatres.”
The story of the Square Chapel is as compelling as many of the productions it hosts. Completed in 1772 the Georgian congregationalist chapel was one of only a handful of square churches ever built. But by the 1980s the Grade II listed building had fallen into disrepair and was threatened with demolition until the theatre-lovers stepped in with a vision to turn it into an arts centre for both professional artists and the community.
To effect repairs and refurbishments, volunteers gave their time and labour. Materials were donated and gradually the arts centre took shape. Today, it attracts almost 30,000 people a year to events and activities. It’s home to a youth art group, workshops, tea dances, writing classes and lectures as well as performances by theatre companies, singers and orchestras, and is also a popular film venue.
However, to bring the chapel firmly into the 21st century, it was decided that a major refurbishment was needed and a fund-raising campaign began. As well as nearly £5m of Arts Council England funding, the campaign attracted donations from individuals, businesses and groups. “We had lots of individuals who wanted to donate because they felt so strongly about the arts centre,” said Sofia. “It was quite amazing.”
Excavations for the new extension, which will offer direct access to the historic Piece Hall (itself undergoing a major renovation project) involved a team of archaeologists who unearthed hundreds of bodies from the chapel’s graveyard. Martin Clarke, Head of Tech and Operations, explained: “We found lots of graves, and footings for old buildings, which the archaeologists were very excited about. Among them were a couple of lead-lined coffins that had to be re-interred straight away. There were some really intact graves – the people still had their hair and clothing – which we’ve been told is because the site is on a slope and well-drained. All the remains have been re-interred at the top of the site and still in the same denomination – it’s about respect.”
The newly-completed arts centre is a melding of the old red-brick chapel and a contemporary glass, polished concrete, blonde wood and aged-copper extension. Perhaps the most striking feature is the geometric painted ceiling of the entrance foyer and 66-seat cafe, which also has a vast etched glass window that looks out onto an outdoor space with room for a further 30 diners. It has retained its theatre space but now has an additional 115-seat auditorium.
The most understated feature, but one that links past and present, is the footprints of 21st century builders captured in the polished concrete floor. As Martin says: “In the red brick chapel there are bricks with children’s handprints from when they were made and now we’ve got builder’s footprints that the archaeologists of the future might well be interested in.”
Square Chapel Arts Centre’s new facilities will be officially launched in September but the venue is open to the public from 10am on June 8.
For details of its current season’s events visit squarechapel.co.uk