Blog: Maureen Wilson

The executive assistant to the director of Square Chapel Arts Centre on mixing the old and new in the 'Shoreditch of the north'

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Having worked at the Square Chapel Arts Centre for the last eight years, I’ve seen some incredible changes to the fabric of the building and our programme of events. We’ve always been and always will be a community arts centre, with the key aim of connecting the community, especially young people and the elderly, to the arts. Yet, thanks to our recent £6 million RIBA Yorkshire award-winning makeover and extension we can now host more complex theatrical productions, a wider programme of music – with big name acts like Beth Orton and DJs Graeme Park and Clint Boon – and a greater variety of events, like this September’s vintage fair, as well as all our community-centred work.

The story of Square Chapel is a fascinating one. Originally built in 1772 as a community chapel on Halifax’s Square Road and later used as a Sunday school, it had – by the 1980s – become a derelict shell of a building. Then in 1988 a small group of people broke in to take a look around.

Perceiving its potential, they successfully managed to buy it from the council for just £25, on the understanding it became a venue for community events, going on to host their first chamber concert in the chapel in 1989. Amazingly the photos of this first event show the string quartet all wearing hard hats and the audience are sat under blankets keeping warm against the elements, which are whistling in through the broken windows and dilapidated roof.

In keeping with that 1988 reincarnation, the now fully restored and extended Square Chapel Arts, designed by architects Evans Vittori, totally honours the juxtaposition of old and new. Its recent sympathetic restoration has preserved as much of the original fabric of the building as possible whilst incorporating some stunning contemporary design features, which have also remedied the access and space issues, like our new café bar entrance area, which not only offers a full perspective of the original chapel but is incredibly light, thanks to its magnificent stained glass window-inspired perspex and glass prismed ceiling.

It is this spirit of recycling and repurposing that makes the forthcoming vintage fair at Square Chapel on 8 September incredibly on point. The building mixes old and new with a modern twist, which is exactly what vintage is all about, so I think the combination is perfect.

The re-opening of both Square Chapel and the Piece Hall last year has had a really positive impact on Halifax

Setting the scene will be a vintage vocalist, singing throughout the day from the platform in the café bar. The Fabulous Miss G is well known for her pitch-perfect soulful renditions of timeless classics from Dusty Springfield and Etta James, as well as her blue- inspired arrangements of more modern songs. There will also be bookable swing dance lessons from award-winning dance duo The Swing Cats, in the Copper Auditorium in the morning, plus a film screening of the Marilyn Monroe classic Some Like it Hot in the afternoon. The vintage sellers will take up residence in the main chapel selling a wide range of ladies and gents fashions, accessories, furniture and household goods, which is guaranteed to look stunning in the reinvented setting.

Culturally, the re-opening of both Square Chapel and the Piece Hall last year has had a really positive impact on Halifax. The Guardian hit the nail on the head, tagging Halifax as the “Shoreditch of the north”, and that is what it feels like. The town is starting to attract a really wide demographic of people, with a third of our audiences now made up of new customers. There are also several other venues taking off in town, like the Dog House gigs, and events at the Lantern and Victoria Theatre, which just last year hosted Florence and the Machine, Kasabian and James.

So much of what people are coming for, like music, the arts and the vintage scene, has always been here but it’s wonderful that word is finally out.

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