Category: Historical ballrooms

Travel Diary of Dance Historian in England: Wilton’s Music Hall


I visited London some weeks ago. Just a short city trip with my spouse. As always, I kept my eyes and ears wide open for rumours about old dance- or music halls. A spontaneous chat in a pub informed me about the illustrious Wilton’s Music Hall. A short search thereafter (I love wifi!) got me acquainted with the lovely website. I sent an email straight after that. No reaction whatsoever. Not even after days. So I plucked up courage and knocked down the door.


One of the more fascinating things about London is the overwhelming amount of signs. You simply can’t turn around anywhere without facing one, wherever you are. Combine that with the typical British heritage genes and you got an official road sign indicating Wilton’s Music Hall on the corner between Graces Alley and Mint Street.

I can’t remember anything of the kind around the corner from that other ‘famous belgian heritage theater project’ called ‘Roma’ in Anwerp. It just makes no sense to compare either. Antwerp isn’t even remotely the metropolitan area it pretends to be even in its wildest dreams. The difference with London was in this case obvious from the start. For example, I had to think twice from when, where or what, but I unconsciously knew Wilton’s years before I entered it. Then it popped up in my head that I must have been by that album artwork of “Burlesque” the second Bellowhead album I reviewed ages ago for a notoriuous Belgian folk site (folk rumours). Add to that the fact David Suchet, himself (he just IS Poirot, you know) allowed to use his name to create leverage and awareness about this place and you crash down somewhere in a no man’s land inhabited by Agatha Christie’s specter and a Grade II* heritage detective story.


Following this Wikipedia Wilton’s insert the place was erected around 1859 by a certain Mr. Jacob Maggs. After the 1877 fire it got re-built and later on, a Methodist mission ran a social care centre from this devilish place. From there it was closed down, changed into a rag shop of some kind and eventually enlisted for demolition like the rest of the neighbourhood in the ’60. Typical story really. Only the cinema phase lacks and luckily it does, otherwise the original interior design would have been wiped out ages ago. Pillars seem not to go well with an undisturbed sight on a white screen. So, simply put, because of its naked existence, in case of Wilton’s, one can speak of a mere miracle. But, don’t be fooled. It cost Peter Sellers one of his many injured limps to prevent it from being ravaged prematurely as one of the last historic venues of the legendary East End.

The reason behind this scandalous lack of heritage vision in the past, was inspired by the tinkering of some progressive British minds wanting to upgrade whole neighbourhoods in one stroke during the golden sixties. Which they didn’t succeed in lucky enough. On the contrary. Poverty ended up even more entrenched in the same areas it already existed for ages. You can actually verify that factually, by the way. Only days before, I stumbled across Charles Booth’social maps of London in the London City Museum he created between 1886 and 1903. They are now digitised and ever so appalling a sight as always: in a century nothing really changed. You can see it with the naked eye. Nightmare.

L0027750 Charles Booth, Life and labour of the people in London Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Descriptive map of London poverty, 1889 (north-eastern sheet) Life and labour of the people in London Charles Booth Published: 1892 - 1897 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
L0027750 Charles Booth, Life and labour of the people in London
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Descriptive map of London poverty, 1889 (north-eastern sheet)
Life and labour of the people in London
Charles Booth
Published: 1892 – 1897
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

How’s that? I you dig a bit deeper into London reality you soon enough discover how. In London there is no such thing as a well functioning real estate market. The real property, the actual soil that is, still is in the hand of government and a handful of families stemming from age old gentry or nobility. The richest man in U.K. doesn’t create jobs in any way. He just owns a few acres of London Metropolitan Area next to Regent’s Park and that’s all. He didn’t do anything to own it either. He just was born in the right place and time and inherited the whole asset. The place still can be fenced out any time of the day and is indicated by black cast iron poles and rolling fences.

Buying a house like we tend to do massively in Belgium, has become virtually impossible in London. You lease the place for 33 or more years. After that it returns in the hands of the original owners. Basically, this means that the price of any real estate is defined not by demand or market, but more likely by a very small group of owners. Considering their factual dominance they probably can be expected to tend to defend common interests (very similar to what trusts of cartels do).

No wonder real estate prices remain sky high. No wonder Pikety and the like consider real estate as the most resilient form of financial capital in terms of anchoring inequality in any society. It is a rather interesting illustration British society still misses some of the benefits of the French revolution: the expropriation of church and nobility enforced by the fear of the guillotine!


But disregarding these afterthoughts, the place possess a rather fascinating interior design. Beside that, the whole project actually is interesting for any visitor from the continent as it illustrates neatly the way the Brits manage heritage projects. They are king in crowd funding anyway. By sheer coincidence I scored a printed pop-up model in a commercial toy shop in Covent Garden. They also sold towels there, printed over with old theatre posters from Wilton’s and in the shop of the venue we stumbled across cups and even more exotic gadgets. The booklet recounting the history of the place was sold out, otherwise I surely would have fetched it straight away.


Thinking over all this on my way back, I stumbled across a street party at Euston Road. These guys were launching a project to actually re-erect the original entrance arch of the most ancient of all railroad stations in the world. By sheer coincidence, I blogged about this mythical place last year/. As a volunteer only recently discovered the original building blocks dumped into a river, it was hight time to undo some damage of the past. Impossible? Madness? I don’t know. But I do know the British and I wish them all the luck. The actual disaster in terms of architecture, dating from the sixties, will possibly be demolished in the future. Most likely because it never properly worked anyway. So momentum to give back to the British railway heritage some of its glorious past might very well be near. Hope they got some press coverage. You know, only five minutes of political courage is all there is needed…

To be continued for sure…

Basilica. Everywhere. Always.


Sometimes one has to reconsider a previous insight. A long, very long time ago, somewhere around the year 2007, after a strenuous and painstaking effort, I developed the concept of the “basilica – type” for entertainment venues (in this article). Nowadays, the use of the concept has become fairly common among art-historians acquainted with interior design, but at the time, I was, I believe, one of the first to call it that way. And I certainly placed it more central in the developement of an authentic civic entertainment achitecture in the 19th century.


Back than, I toiled in the sweat of my brow at the research of the dansant project, after which this blog has been named, by-the-by inventorying all planning permissions for dance halls in the Antwerp city archives. After some weeks at this, It gradually grew on me, that virtually all these venues basically were based on the same layout, from the earliest to the most recent. Strangely enough, it appeared to be very similar to the nave of a classical church. By then, as I had truly digested my university readings about the developement of church architecture, I knew that the eldest form of the nave came from the roman basilica. And so I decided to baptise this type of floorplan for dancing halls, the ‘basilica-type’.

At the time, I hadn’t the faintiest idea that 19th century contemporaries also called it that way. But what I did understand, was, that, even if the idea sounded good, you don’t run far with it in contemporary academics when you don’t underpin it with enough hard data. So, there I was, searching myself silly, reading each and every 18th- and 19th century art treatise on architecture I could lay my hands on. Along the way, I learned a great deal about the building of churches and palaces, but for no particular reason, no one seemed to really care about dancing halls.


Next, I tried to find out where the earliest dancing halls in Europe had been built. From the start, I considered Great Britain the best option. There on the other side of the channel a civic type of concert life emerged, so much earlier than here on the continent, as we were only getting at it around the beginning of the 19th century. Basically, my idea was, that, if, by any chance you looked at a similar tender for a building first, in the end you possibly would land with a similar concept.

This idea turned out nicely, because just as the Italian horseshoe theater type was derived from a Greek classic example (Delphi), for this inovative type of concert- or dancing halls, they also went looking for classical examples. First, some quite exotic styles were tried, without much succes. Or, what to think about – the nowadays vanished – Pantheon venue on Oxford street, London, based on the Hagia Sophia? The eldest example, by far, I could discover was the – still existing – Burlington Room in York, from 1732, based on the Greek Parthenon.


But, despite this early exotic attempts, the building guild soon stuck with the basilica floorplan and never looked back. So, why the basilica one may ask? My best guess is, because of a combination of factors. As a first, the roman basilica, originally – and it was certainly branded so by renaissance cultural thinkerers – can be considered an early civil building type, used for trade and jurisdiction. It clearly wasn’t a religious temple – it became so only after christianism took over – neither had it any military function, and it certainly was no house to live in. So, gradually, the basilica became the symbol of the civitas, the seat of civil power, a thing the enlighted folks of the 18th- and their 19th century brethren, longed very much for.

So, when you needed a building for public gatherings were we, the citizens could meet on foot of equality, the basilica offered a compelling proposition. To begin with it has a flat central floor and there aren’t any hierarchical positions like the boxes in the classical opera houses. But, yet, there are other motives, among which, the economical motive stands out in particular. The basilica concept offers – technically speaking – an easy solution to built over wide spans. And technically simple building solutions, eventually, tend to turn out cheaper than complex ones. If you want to exploit a building following a commercially viable scheme, you want to build quick, cheap and reasonably safe. Nice to know that even expensive windows – as in a church – aren’t required in a dancing hall. Most entertainment there takes place at night in the half dark anyway. When the cast iron industry starts to deliver high quality building elements like pillars and spans, the tap shot out the barrel completely. The only thing you had to do, was cast your pillars and spans somewhere and bolt them together like a meccano on the building site. Thinking of it, the practice compares beautifully to the way of setting up huge factory halls.

An last but not least, the basilica-type use of space is potentially highly profitable, because you can rent the room out for concerts, dinner or tea parties and even balls, and several timeslots a day if you want. So, commercially speaking, it works like a charm when you want to combine or reach different kinds of public. Being so versatile, basilica-type buildings developed into the standard for variety theater venues in the course of the 19th century and cinema venues later on. Only when the law forebade the use of loose chairs in cinema’s in the years after the first world war, the owners had to make hard choices: variety show or cinema. And because it turned out to be cinema most of the time, the sledge hammer fell regularly. That’s the main reason why you don’t see this building types much around these days: most of them where deliberately demolished for economical reasons already a century ago. No world war needed in this case. Or contemporary city planning for that matter.


So why I wrote this fair piece of text? Well, because, as I stated in the first few lines of this article, in the course of last year I was confronted with new facts pointing all in the same direction. Until recently, I guessed that the basilica-type only got foot on the ground here in Belgium, after the French revolution, at the beginning of the 19th century. The earliest example, I knew off, was the Société Philharmonique d’Anvers, erected in 1813, on the spot next to the Arenberg Theater in Antwerp, where the actual Theatre Hotel is situated. For me, that was the start. Recently, I read the remarkable book on the Frascati Theatre in Leuven (Belgium), built in 1807 and designed by Architect C. Fisco (the one from the College De Valck in Leuven and the Martyrs Square in Brussels). The Frascati definitely pbviously had the basilica layout already some years earlier, but it was still after the French rushed in.

But last week I discovered Xavier Ducennes’ beauty of an article about the Concert Noble (Nr 37, pg 81), a nowadays disappeared concert hall in Brussels, constructed in 1779, and to my knowledge the very first example in Belgium of basilica-type achitecture applied to a concert hall. But not only it came as a shock to me, but Ducenne refers to the Burlington Room in his article and also to the Pillars’ Room in Felix Meritis in Amsterdam, built in 1777. Amsterdam? That’s damn close to Brussels and definitly on the continent. So, perhaps there is much more at hand. IMHO there is a rather fascinating genetic filiation at work here, making me dream of a European wide project about the developement of civil entertainment architecture from this type…

For sure to be continued…


– Wikimedia Commons
– Crié Antwerpen – Distrifood
– Zuilenzaal – Felix Meritis

Series – The Story of a Single Ball – Part 2: You find the ballroom


The ball of 20/08/1861 took the stage in the Antwerp Variété Theater as is clearly shown on the above engraving. This imagery was published in the London News of 30/08/1861, proving contemporary digital editions sometimes aren’t that much quicker. Besides British interest, eyewitness reports from Holland and France are known to exist, having been published the year after the event.

This type of international exposure obviously was quite rare at the time. But what do we actually know about the venue framed here? The Antwerp Variété Theater was build in 1829 to temporarily replace the demolished city Opera which had to be rebuild by city architect Bourla, but which only opened in 1835. That the temporarily construction would survive until 1898 was far longer than originaly expected. The nice thing about this theater is, that it happened to be a sort of public-private enterprise of its time with on one side the city government and on the other side a proficient enterpreneur. The witness of which one can consult today in the city archive of Antwerp. The papers offer a unique insight in the venue’s exploitation.

Digging through the papers I unearthed this particular plan proving the Antwerp Variété to offer a classic Italian theater layout (horse shoe), embelished with a vast foyer at the street side. Just as in the opera of Ghent today, visitors could arrive safe and dry in their carriages underneath the foyer and swiftly enter the undisturbed peacefull variété world.


A remarkable feature, nevertheless, is the continuation of rooms behind the theater scene as is clearly shown on the engraving and the plan alike. Needless to say, this spacious construction offered vast possibilities for large scale events like the one of 1861. Virtually every European theater venue of the 19th century disposed of a ballroom construction that could be set up covering the parterre and orchestra pit, leveling it with the scene, thus shaping a vast dance space. In this particular case, the dancefloor was enlarged by the rooms behind the scene, a feature I consider a novelty regarding it’s construction around 1829. I personally am not aware of any similar theater layout in Europe before 1850, even not in London, Paris or Vienna, considering the lively ball-culture of this capitals in these days.


Unsurprizingly the Antwerp Variété Theater offered a multi-functional theater space, albeit a bit ahead of its time in the way it was conveived. I can’t deny that I suspect this building to have stood model for the Vlaamse Schouwburg (Flemish Theater) on Kipdorpbrug that opened in 1874. Notice for instance the very strategic emplacement of the orchestra, yards above the dancefloor. Johan Strauss Jr. would have loved the spot, perched as an eagle high above the dancers. A position causing some practical problems I will return to later in this series.

Mailath-Pokorny stellt Strauß-Festwoche "Tanz-Signale" vor


Interior Variété Theater:Courtesy of Frans Lauwers Collection

Floor plan Variété Theater: Stadsarchief Antwerpen MA#8811

Flemish Theater: Oude Postkaarten

Strauss: Wikimedia Commons