This post first appeared on Derby Telegraph. Read the original article.
The Derby Telegraph had been asking for almost a year to be allowed inside the Assembly Rooms to see what kind of state it is in after being closed to the public following a fire in the plant room on top of the adjacent car park on March 14, 2014 - almost four years ago.
With the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Assembly Rooms by the late Queen Mother taking place today and the imminent launch of a public consultation to discuss the venue’s successor, photographer Ian Hodgkinson, videographer Cassandra Nelson and reporter Zena Hawley were exclusively allowed in to the building to see its current condition.
The first thing that strikes you when you walk into the now defunct Assembly Rooms building is the smell – musty, stale and airless – making it fell very unwanted, uncared for, unloved and neglected.
The feeling of desertion is almost immediately followed by how cold the place is and how much it needs a good clean-up, with dust and bits of litter everywhere in the initial entrance area.
The once pristine carpet in the funky colour of chocolate brown and blue needs a good Hoovering but otherwise looks in a good state as it stretches onwards and upwards to the main first floor foyer area.
It is almost as if time as stood still since the night of the fire – a fire which did not reach the public areas of the venue in Derby’s Market Place but which may well have done for the complete and utter closure of the place which followed.
The last time I was in the Assembly Rooms was probably for the three-day University of Derby annual graduation ceremonies in January 2014 – two months before the fire.
The silent and empty building that is there now is in stark contrast to the atmosphere created by thousands of excited students and their families, crowding the stairs, foyer and balconies, as they turned up to receive their degrees.
It was the year in which acclaimed Derbyshire author and two-time Man Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel collected her honorary doctorate of letters – I interviewed her in the bustling 45 Suite, then filled with lecturers, university officials and VIP guests such as the Duke of Devonshire, which now stands cold and empty like the rest of the building.
Most of the more valuable photographs, pictures and general equipment – including photos of stars who have appeared at the venue, such as comedians Peter Kay and Lee Evans, and a portrait of the Queen Mother herself - have long been removed by the council and put into storage until a new home is found for them, including the Guildhall Theatre across the way.
Everywhere, there are signs reminiscent of moments in history when things happened fast, such as the volcanic eruption which buried Pompeii and the Marie Celeste ship found adrift with no crew but a meal still on the table, after people had abandoned their situation in a hurry.
These were much more catastrophic than the Assembly Rooms incident, but in similar fashion, people, who were expecting to see Ballroom to Broadway with dancer Anton Du Beke that evening, were forced to evacuate the premises in a hurry leaving belongings and unfinished meals and drinks.
Of course, the food remnants have long been cleared and belongings claimed, but other objects are still lying around gathering dust such as cutlery, coat hangers from the cloakroom, menus and chairs are stacked up on the first floor walkway overlooking the Market Place.
Sequins from someone’s dress catch the eye and are mixed in with the dust and fluff on the carpet.
Not long before the fire, the Assembly Rooms had undergone a new look with smart eye-catching signage telling patrons where to find the Great Hall, toilets and food outlets, and which are still in situ in their uniform magenta and white livery.
A new ceiling in the Great Hall, where a lone grand piano still sits along with some other small bits of equipment, had also been installed a short time before.
The deserted Darwin Suite, once home to regular tea dances, is completely empty now.
Although not everyone was impressed with the Assembly Rooms, it is worth noting that it was one of the few venues where you could have punk band Stiff Little Fingers playing in the Darwin Suite and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Great Hall on the same night in 2005 and yet neither interfered with the other because of the configuration of the rooms prevented sound passing between them.
Also Irish comedian Dara O’Briain rated the venue as one of his top five favourite places to perform when he spoke on national radio on one occasion.
Items of antiquity are hard to come by in a 1977 building but a decision has still to be made about what will happen to the almost complete original Jacobean ceiling in the foyer to the Darwin Suite.
It came from 17th century Newcastle House that stood on the site of the original Assembly Rooms, which burned down in 1963, and was discovered when it was demolished. A plaque on the wall in the foyer still gives details about the ceiling.
Although the building is not in use, it has not been totally deserted because it has to have a daily visit by a councillor maintenance person as part of health and safety rules.
To all extents and purposes, the Assembly Rooms is now a largely empty shell, albeit containing many memories for Derby people over the years, but waiting to see what happens next.
Its derelict presence should also be a testament to what comes next – it would be good to think that whatever replaces the Assembly Rooms, and as refurbishing this one appears to have been ruled out, then the vast cost involved should be spent wisely.
It needs to stand the test of time and no-one should have to tour a building that has long been past its sell by date, even before the fire, and is still only 40 years old. It is a tragic waste of a good building standing there – albeit it is not fit to be used – and one that in the next few years will be reduced to a pile of dust.
Let’s hope the phoenix arising from it will last considerably longer than the last one.