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Assembly Rooms, Blake Street
The Assembly Rooms, Blake Street, were built to provide accommodation for dancing and other social activities. The subscribers first asked William Wakefield for a design, but on his death approached Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. The building was begun in 1730, first used in August 1732, but not entirely completed until 1735.
The building has not been left unaltered. After a fire in 1773, alterations designed by Sir John O’Corall were made in the Lesser Assembly Room. The steps in front of the portico were replaced by an internal set in 1791, and a new façade designed by J. P. Pritchett was built in 1828.
In 1859, a plan to ease circulation submitted by J. B. and W. Atkinson involved pulling down the side walls between the Great Assembly Room and two side rooms, one of which was also trebled in size. In 1885, to a plan by Mr. Demaine, a footpath was created through the portico by cutting away the podium around the columns.
In 1925 the building was purchased by York Corporation, who began repairs when they took full control in 1939, and more fully restored it in 1951.
Probably the earliest neo-classical building in Europe, The Assembly Rooms proved to be one of the most influential pieces of architecture of the early 18th century. The design is based on Palladio’s interpretation of Roman architecture, rather than the Italian architect’s own buildings. The Great Assembly Room is based on his reconstruction of an ‘Egyptian Hall’, and the suite of rooms around it, as well as the façade, on those of Roman houses and baths.
Burlington’s façade of a segmental portico with flanking bays was replaced by the present façade in 1828. The original portico was of stone, the remainder of the building of brick, stuccoed on the façade, with a stuccoed timber-framed clerestorey to the Great Assembly room. Except along the south east side, where there is a pentice roof, the roofs are carried on kingpost trusses, later heightened on the north west side. They were first covered with flat tiles, but the low pitch prompted the replacement of some with Dutch glazed pantiles as early as 1732; they now have slates.
Internally, newel stairs to the vaults under the front, and to the roof, opened from within the original portico, but when this was replaced access doors were opened from the Vestibule. The Vestibule, which has apsidal ends and opposed doors, stands between the north and south front rooms which have vaulted apses between a pair of round-headed niches. All three rooms have identical moulded cornices, and both front rooms retain the floors of ‘Bremen Flaggs … with margins of Yelland Flaggs’ ordered for them in 1733. The south room has a stone chimney-piece with eared architrave and a cornice supported by brackets similar to that in the Cube Room, but the cupboards in the niches and plaster roundels over one door are 19th century. In the north west corner of the north room, which was used for refreshments, a doorway led to a servants’ room designed by Burlington and built 1735-38. Probably the earliest neo-classical building in Europe.
The Circular Room, with four round-headed niches and a marble chimney-piece with pulvinated frieze, has a moulded and enriched entablature above which the domed ceiling rises to an octagonal lantern. A wall-painting was executed in 1951. The Lesser Assembly room, as built, had a narrow opening to the Great Assembly Room, opposed doors at each end, two chimney-pieces which formed the pattern for that in the Circular Room, and a ceiling with central panel identical to that in the recess opposite. The outer wall had a tripartite lunette between pairs of round-headed windows. In 1773, the central door to the Cube Room was replaced by an arrangement based on the ‘Palladian’ motif, with doors to each side of a taller, round-headed recess and plaster roundels depicting mythological scenes. This latter recess was intended to house an organ, and above it and the roundels are swags incorporating musical instruments.
A roundel over the door to the circular room formerly had similar swags and additional chains of husks supported by anthemia to each side. A roof-light was inserted in 1849, and in 1859 the side wall to the Great Assembly Room was opened out. At the same time an inserted lower ceiling with coved cornice hid the original ceiling and caused the partial blocking of the four round-headed side windows. A door was subsequently cut through the outside wall, and in 1951 all windows except the tripartite lunette were blocked. The Cube Room, originally designed to be subdivided, has a stone chimney-piece which is an enriched version of that in the south front room, a dado rail and cornice. The coved ceiling with skylight is an afterthought. It was not ordered until 1734, and the wall-plates have housings for a former central tie-beam.
The kitchen, recess and offices, built down the south east side of the building, have been altered beyond recognition. The kitchen had four square windows lit from a light-well, but the offices were top-lit. The recess, lit by a tripartite lunette, had a moulded and dentilled ceiling and music gallery between the columns. In 1859 it was trebled in length, its side wall opened out to the Great Assembly Room, and a lower ceiling with cornice of four fascia, but incorporating the original recess ceiling, inserted. The kitchen was later converted into a cloakroom, and the offices were totally rebuilt in 1951.
The Great Assembly Room has a peristyle of Corinthian columns with entablature above which rises a clerestorey with composite pilasters defining bays containing windows and festoons. The columns are of stone with a plaster skim and moulded plaster capitals. The surrounding aisle, with alternate rectangular and semicircular niches set in the side wall above a band, has a moulded entablature similar to that over the columns, but this is now hidden by an inserted ceiling of 1859. The clerestorey has an entablature, but the ceiling was always plain, despite the rococo detailing of Charles Lindley’s engraving published in 1759. In 1751 the seats in the aisles were brought flush with the columns, and in 1755 the mouldings and scallop shells, carved by John Staveley, painted and gilded by Samuel Carpenter, and shown by Lindley, were added to them. A ‘door of communication’ was opened to the Festival Concert Room to the south west after the construction of the latter in 1824-5, and the side walls were altered in 1859.
The doorcases in the Assembly rooms are all of the same basic type, including a pulvinated frieze, but some are plain, others enriched. Those between the intercommunicating front rooms are plain and of stone; two of the enriched type with multiple-ribboned friezes in the Circular Room are of wood. The remainder have cross-ribboned friezes and are also of wood, except for those between the Vestibule and Great Assembly Room, which are of stone. The royal arms of Queen Victoria are set in the clerestorey of the Great Assembly Room. For the rest, most of the Georgian fittings are gifts made in 1951.
The Trust purchased The Assembly Rooms on 22 November 2002 and it is currently used as a restaurant, but is still open for public viewing and is also available on 5 days a year for functions held by The City of York Council.
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