In 1988 six local theatre lovers bought a run down Square Chapel for just £25. Their vision was to turn it into a vibrant Centre for the Arts for professional artists and the community.
Built in 1772, Square Chapel is a beautiful red brick Georgian Chapel and one of only a handful of square churches ever built.
Years of neglect had taken its toll on the Grade II* listed building, which had fell into a state of dangerous disrepair and remained seriously threatened with demolition until it was bought by the Square Chapel Trust. It was structurally unsound with no windows, half a roof and a wall on the verge of collapse.
As the building work got underway and eventually the structure was deemed safe, there was no reason why concerts could not begin straight away. Staff had to work with what they had as funds were still being raised, so the earliest concerts took place in the dark, undecorated auditorium. The audience and performers wore hard hats because of potential plaster falling from above and they were given blankets to stop them getting cold as the building had no glass windows or heating.
Three years later, windows and doors were finally installed as well as fully functioning toilets. Then in 1993 an office area and a dressing room was added but the Centre also needed a bar. Struggling with money, the Trust did not have any spare funds to build one so they enlisted the help of volunteers who used donated materials. Old bricks from the building were used and the bar itself was made out of old kitchen units. The ceiling was covered with material to hide the exposed lighting and roof, a simple trick that is still in use today.
Fast forward to the present day and Square Chapel attracts almost 40,000 people per year to events and activities and has gone from being run by volunteers back in 1995 to employing 20 full and part time staff.
Square Chapel has presented shows such as Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers; comedians Phil Jupitus, Rhod Gilbert and Jerry Sadowitz; folk musicians Ralph McTell, Maddy Prior and Waterson:Carthy; supports rising stars, new theatre companies and young talented musicians; provides the community with workshops, lectures and a versatile space, and is home to the Orchestra of Square Chapel.
Thousands of pounds have been raised and countless hours of time and energy have been freely given to ensure Square Chapel survives. It is an amazing story of hard work and determination, which still continues. There have been many achievements, lots of happy memories, and much laughter. It is a great triumph to reach this point, and as Square Chapel continues to grow, the future looks brighter and bigger than ever!
The brief history on these pages is adapted from Jessica Sutcliffe's book, Square Chapel, Halifax - the History and Architecture. The book is on sale at the Box Office.
The origins of the building Square Chapel was built in 1772 and designed by the 18 year old Thomas Bradley (it is believed that Bradley also designed the Piece Hall in Halifax).
When it was first constructed it must have been an astonishing sight, a commanding red box set in green fields and uncompromisingly modern. It was very large and the sixty-foot-long trusses were approaching the limits of timber technology.
Even its colour was striking for it was built in fashionable red brick with stone dressings, and the contrast of these materials may have been emphasised by being painted. There are traces of paint on brickwork and stone on all four walls which have been analysed and found to contain a mixture of lime, linseed oil and bull's blood.
The esteemed preacher and former collier Titus Knight, who was almost certainly responsible for having Square Chapel built, became its first pastor. He wrote a poem, Hhadash Hamishcan, to counteract criticism of the expense.
It was a time when religious ferment was rife in the hills of West Yorkshire. John Wesley visited the chapel in July 1772 and described it thus: "My old friend, Titus Knight, offered me the use of his new meeting, larger than Dr Taylor's at Norwich ...and finished with the utmost elegance; but I judged more people would attend in the open air, so I preached in the cow market to a huge multitude."
The nineteenth century
In the years that followed Knight's death, Halifax was expanding rapidly and the nineteenth century saw an astonishing acceleration in the pace of industrialisation.
Square Chapel continued to flourish. A town map of 1825 showed an extension attached to the west end which presumably was used for vestry purposes and later to house some sort of school. By 1855 it seems that the school extension had become too small and land was sought to build a new one, but a decision was eventually made to build a new church instead.
The architect Joseph James designed an impressive church in gothic style with a spire, 235 feet tall.
The last service held in Square Chapel was on 12 June, 1857. The building now became a Sunday School and major alterations were made to the interior. The pulpit and galleries were taken out and replaced by a floor at gallery level. The space below was divided with a wide central corridor and several rooms to either side.
The twentieth century
Church and Sunday school flourished side by side but the later years of the nineteenth century saw a gradual decline in the church's fortunes which carried on and accelerated into the twentieth century. Square Church closed its doors in 1969 and two years later was destroyed by fire. Now only the spire and foundations remain.
Square Chapel itself is remembered by many citizens of Halifax as an assembly hall used for classes, school-prize givings, Boys' Brigade groups and rehearsals for the Square Orchestra. It was requisitioned by the army in 1939 and never fully recovered from the beating it took!
Like the church, the chapel was to suffer from vandalism and arson. It was acquired by Calderdale Council in 1969 but they were unable to find a suitable use for it and sought permission to demolish. Despite being a grade II listed building, Square Chapel remained seriously threatened for several years until in 1988 when it was bought by the Square Chapel Trust...
The exterior was in good shape on three sides which have been conserved intact. On the other hand, the west elevation had been tampered with from an early stage in its history with various lean-to buildings added. This facade was extremely damaged and dangerous and immediate action was needed in order to prevent the collapse of the entire building.
The graveyard and front steps
The 1772 print reveals a carefully designed graveyard, on two levels, surrounded by walls, with an imposing gate and steps ascending to the front door. Before restoration in 1993, the level of the graveyard was several feet higher than that indicated on the print and was covered with ledger stones. It has been reduced in size to the east for road-widening purposes and the gravestones may well have been rearranged at these times. During restoration, it was immensely exciting to discover that the steps still existed intact. The gravestones have now been relaid with the staircase rising to the door, thus restoring the "Grand Ascent" described by Titus Knight in his poem.
The windows had been changed in the 1855 conversion but the 1772 print showed Georgian sashes with Gothic arched glazing bars. During work to the west elevation, investigations to a blocked up window revealed an original sash window intact, and the Trust was able to restore the Georgian windows using this as a model, adjusting the glazing bars slightly to allow for double glazing.
Square Chapel was built as a single space with galleries on three sides and the pulpit jutting out from the centre of the west end, but we have very little evidence of what the gallery looked like apart from traces of fixings for panelling and column bases.
This space was horizontally severed by our Victorian forebears when the church was converted to a Sunday School. Although it is disappointing to have lost the original spectacular interior it would have been very difficult to convert into a performance area and would have greatly reduced the choices for future use.
The original interior was extremely elegant with decorative plasterwork on walls and ceiling. Each window was separated by a pilaster, projecting slightly from the wall, the capitals decorated with acanthus leaves. The Venetian windows which form the centrepiece of each elevation were adorned with Ionic columns and the ceiling boasted plasterwork with a circular design of keywork and oak garlands surrounding a central cavetto. The whole interior was gloriously light with sunshine streaming in on all four sides.
Although the Square Room was in reasonable condition as recently as 1970 with most of its plasterwork intact, the subsequent neglect of the building led to a huge outbreak of dry rot. Its eradication involved the removal of much plaster including the entire ceiling.
Using the space
The exposure of the roof trusses created a new dilemma, for it was obvious that the roof void would be very useful for theatrical productions. Moreover, the room was being much admired in its semi-derelict state with faded rough brick walls and exposed roof trusses. An appropriate treatment of this space is now thought to be to retain the room as it exists, with reminder of its former decorative elegance and proportional systems, and to insert the necessary technology for a performing arts space, in an honest and modern way.
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