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Ghosts of clients past haunt Willmott theatre restoration

Restoration job conjures up an unusual stakeholder for its main contractor to work around as well as huge heritage challenges.

Project: Darlington Civic Theatre Restoration
Client: Darlington Borough Council / Theatre Hullabaloo
Contract type: NEC Option A – Design and build
Region: North-east
Main contractor: Willmott Dixon
Start date: June 2016
Completion date: October 2017

Modern construction projects on tight and complex sites can throw up a host of unusual and challenging situations for contractors to work around.

Because while most contractors are dealing with interested clients, clerks of works, stakeholders, deliveries and demolition, the team working on the restoration and expansion of the Darlington Civic Theatre have an extra interested party – the ghost of the theatre’s first owner and managing director Signor Rino Pepi.

Darlington Civic Theatre 1

Darlington Civic Theatre 1

Source: Tom McGuire

The theatre is being stripped back to its bare bones in places

Haunted house

“There are rumoured to be several ghosts that haunt the Darlington Civic Theatre, one of them being Signor Pepi,” says Willmott Dixon operations manager Sean McNicholas.

“He is seen in the private box he used that is linked to his apartment in the building. Some of the guys on site have reported unusual noises and we had some progress photos taken that some claim show ghostly figures, but I haven’t seen anything.”

It’s a complicated project for the team and the ghostly presence is least on Mr McNicholas’s mind as he looks to bring the much-loved Darlington building back into use in time for next year’s pantomime season.

“The building is a massive part of the community in Darlington,” Mr McNicholas says. “The locals are incredibly interested and supportive of what we are trying to do here. We’ve been doing two site tours a month since we started and they have all been full.”

“Some of the guys have reported unusual noises and we had some progress photos taken that some claim show ghostly figures”

Sean McNicholas, Willmott Dixon

Originally opened in 1907, the Edwardian theatre is a grand red-brick building that features ornate stone cornicing, turrets, towers and finials on the outside of the structure and equally impressive fibrous plasterwork throughout its interior.

The theatre’s Grade II-listed status underlines the importance of its architectural heritage and puts more pressure on the team to deliver a new building that is not only fit for purpose as a modern theatre, but also retains the quality workmanship that the original craftsmen lavished on it.

Ghostly goings-on

The spectre of Signor Pepi is not the only paranormal presence reported at the Darlington Civic Theatre.

Although the figure of the theatre’s first managing director is perhaps the building’s most famous, there are several other ghostly goings-on that have been reported over the years.

‘Jimmy the Flyman’ is said to haunt the theatre, particularly the area where he is said to have met a grisly end entangled in the ‘fly ropes’ from which scenery and lanterns were suspended or ‘flown’.

Other apparitions include that of Gordon the old stage doorkeeper, who can be encountered checking the doors and locking up the theatre.

He is accompanied on stage by the form of a young lady who stands in the wings at stage left and casts an approving (or disapproving) eye over the rehearsals and performances, particularly those of ballets or dance groups.

The area around dressing room 12 is said to be haunted by the sobbing spirit of a young girl called Arabella, who is thought to be connected to a building that predates the theatre and has been heard crying on several occasions.

But it is still the spectre of the flamboyant Signor Pepi that has the most witnesses.

He is seen keeping a close watch on goings on throughout the theatre, even touching staff to ensure they know he is supervising their work.

The left-hand box above the theatre is his favourite location. He used to have a small bedsitting room and kitchen linked to the box by a secret door and would often enter through this to watch the performance accompanied by his wife and Pekinese dog.

He died heartbroken at home without witnessing the performance that world-famous ballerina Anna Pavlova gave at Darlington.

Whenever Anna Pavlova’s Swan Lake signature tune is played, Signor Pepi cannot resist slipping into his box for a look at the one performance he never saw.

“It’s a challenging project,” Mr McNicholas admits. “But if you don’t get excited by this sort of project you shouldn’t be in construction.

“This is the sort of scheme that gets you up in a morning. For all these challenges, we have to come up with a solution to the different nuances the building throws up. It is fantastically rewarding.”

The completed scheme will be built on an extended footprint that includes the theatre and two adjoining buildings, an old fire station and a residential property, both of which are of a similar age to the theatre.

The façade of these adjoining buildings is being retained and used to accommodate the extra box office space, café-bar, improved circulation space, disability access and a new facility for children’s theatre company Theatre Hullabaloo.

Old meets new

Tying the old and the new buildings together will be a new steel-framed extension that will be erected across the rear of the theatre.

This three-storey addition is founded on an array of 120 CFA and SFA piles 300 mm diameter, which are augured 25 m beneath the building into the surrounding bedrock. In addition, pile caps 750 mm wide and 900 mm deep work with a 250 mm-deep suspended reinforced concrete ground-floor slab.

“If you don’t get excited by this sort of project you shouldn’t be in construction”

Sean McNicholas, Willmott Dixon

“The water table is quite high here as we are so close to the River Skerne, so there were a few concerns about that,” Mr McNicholas explains. “But we also used CFA because of the danger of installing piles so close to the adjacent structures. These are 100-year-old buildings and we need to minimise any vibration through to them.”

Skeletal remains

Within the main theatre building the team has stripped back the stalls, dress circle and upper circle of the auditorium to the reveal the bare bones – and amazing craftsmanship – of the original structure.

“The timber is in very good condition throughout, considering its age – with the exception of some of the windows,” Mr McNicholas says.

“The quality of the Edwardian craftsmen is there to see. You can still see the saw and chisel marks where the timbers have been adapted to fit. This really is a beautiful bespoke building.”

Beautiful it may be but the needs of a 21st century theatre and those of its audiences are different to those of a century ago.

Now more seats are required to attract the bigger shows and with more legroom to attract the audiences.

Providing both has been a difficult task for the designers, but careful restructuring of the rake of the stalls and circles will see capacity edge above the 1,000 mark – considered an essential requirement for the larger travelling productions.

“You can still see the saw and chisel marks where the timbers have been adapted to fit”

Sean McNicholas, Willmott Dixon

The ornate fibrous decorative plasterwork throughout the theatre will be replicated by experts from the Middlesbrough-based contractor James Paul Services, with the elaborate cornicing and designs throughout the building offering plenty for the team to get stuck into.

An increased mechanical and electrical load, internet and multimedia requirements, plus stringent fire protection systems have posed further considerations for the team compared with those faced by the original builders.

Darlington Civic Theatre 5

Darlington Civic Theatre 5

Source: Tom McGuire

Stage and existing fibrous plasterwork boxes protected and new orchestra pit

“There is no doubt this is a difficult project to work on,” Mr McNicholas adds. “There are challenges at every turn. It is a real test of professionalism and craftsmanship that you don’t get on run-of-the-mill projects.”

With a team as enthusiastic as those on site at the Darlington Civic Theatre, there really is no need for the ghost of Signor Pepi to worry about the future of his beloved theatre. 

Timber windows prove tricky for treatment team

Across the project there are hundreds of windows that will need to be fully treated, repaired and replaced where necessary.

Bearing in mind they have been in situ for more than 100 years, the team at specialist contractor Woodtech decided to go against initial plans to refurbish them offsite.

“Some were so fragile we didn’t want to risk taking them out and treating them away from the site,” Mr McNicholas says.

“There are all types of timber windows, some of which have stained glass. We are treating the timber and cutting out and replacing where necessary, including the oak sills and frames.”

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