Author: Cor Vanistendael

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…

Back from Oxford


Briefly: it was brillant. A small but fine symposium in New Colleg Oxford. Just what I needed. We stayed in one of the rooms there, which is quite an experience in it’s own right. My wife and I lived for some days in a completely fenced environment of exceptional beauty and quality. Food was served in the ‘Great Hall’, a 14th century dining room slightly reminiscent of Harry Potters’s Hogwards. Which is no coincidence at all as some scènes of the films where captured in a similar place not a mile away from there in Christ Church. By the way, the scene where Draco Malfoy is transfigured into a white ferret by Alastor Moody at the foot of a large oak tree in the middle of a churchyard, was actually filmed in New College. So, A highly romantic place I reckon, and I surly understand better now why one can focus well on exams there. It’s a little bit artificial, of course, as all evil is kept at a safe distance, but so charming, so charming…

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My paper presentation was planned at the end of the first quite intense day around 5 o’ clock in the afternoon. I have to admit, it was quite a success. I know it might seem a bit immodest to say so about your own accomplishments, but it just is the truth. I think that the academic habit to actually read paper presentations from paper seldom delivers what I experience as ‘an interesting speech’. It may well be that the slight disregard for the way a slideshow interacts with the spoken word is a cultural thing proper to the academic milieu and as such relatively irrelevant to them. But I personally think it remains ever so important to capture the attention of whatever public you happen to be speaking for. Isn’t that more or less the great secret magical contract about presentation work? OK, we’ll remain quite and sit still for a while, pretending we listen to what you say. But you’d better be damn right entertaining, then! Something like that. If you want to challenge them anyway, of course.

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My own paper presentation cost me about two months of intense preparation. To boil down a complex story to the fit into a 20 min. speech, proved quite demanding (thanks to the excellent coaching of my mate Olivier Vandeloo, by the way). I guess the slideshow evolved over about a 30 different versions and required many more rehearsals, stopwatch in hand. I must confess, that I only started to feel comfortable about it just an hour or so before delivering it. One can argue that this is way to serious, but I still don’t think it was. I just didn’t want to lose it in front of such a fine audience in such a lovely place as New College in Oxford.

I hereby want to express my gratitude towards the organisation and all the work they invested in making this a success. And especially I wish to thank to Mrs. Jennifer Torp for the warm welcome and all the care.

For who it may concern, I hereby can give access to the audio recording my wife made during my speech: DOWNLOAD.

The presentation itself cannot be dropped online, alas, for it contains some rather graphic material of archival sources from at least half a dozen of institutions. It would be madness to even try to clear the copyrights just for this blog. Perhaps for an article in the future? Or a broadcast? Who knows ?

To be continued for sure…

A (Mid-)Winter Hall’s Tale


Last week I published a lengthy blog post on the ‘basilica-type’ floor plan, the classic layout for virtually any dancing hall around since the 18th century. Normally, it takes several weeks to concoct such a main course and it comes as no surprise it requires an unusual amount of motivation. So, this week I can offer you only a snack.

The stimulus, it must be said, was rather virtual too. Dr. Timothy De Paepe e-mailed me some exquisite “work in progress” pictures freshly forged on the anvil of his 3D devil’s kitchen.


These are experimental visuals from the Winter Concert Hall of the Société Royale d’Harmonie d’Anvers in Antwerp, intended for a project by Jan De Wilde ( Adelheid Ceulemans ( respectively workin at the Antwerp Conservatory and Hogeschool Antwerpen. Their project wants to explore the circumstances in which Peter Benoit’s work ‘Ten Oorlog!’ (To War!), an oratorium based on Jan Van Breers’ texts, was premiered there in 1873. The pictures are meant to allow them to visualize the original venue, which, like so many historic concert halls, nowadays has vanished.

The building was erected in 1864 and at the time one of the biggest and most prestigeous concert halls in Belgium. But it wouldn’t be a proper 19th century concert hall if there weren’t any rogue parties being held in there too. And so annually, wild carnival balls took the stage, popular and famous for their vagrancy and villainy.

Alas, the poor thing was teared down as early as 1922 (nothing to do with cinema’s, though). It used to be located right on the spot where the parking lot “Arenberg” is situated at the Vaartplaats (Canal Square) in Antwerp. If you would one day intend to dump your car there (and I sincerely hope you won’t), please take the liberty to proceed to the rooftop. You might discover the last remainders of this magnificent hall. They’re really there. Honest.

The special thing is, Blacksmith Tim wrought his images in Google Sketchup, mainly after the old building plans I published back in 2007. It’s a hard to describe, but what a fantastic feeling looking at them in the flesh after so many years of mesmerizing winter hall’s dreams. Thank you so much Tim. Love your work.

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