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A Victorian Theater Frozen in Time Crowdfunds Its Reopening

Alexandra Palace
The abandoned theater at Alexandra Palace in London (photo by Miles Willis, courtesy Alexandra Palace) (click to enlarge)

A 19th-century theater that’s been disused for over 80 years is preparing to reopen in London. Located in Alexandra Palace, the theater is part of a greater East Wing Restoration Project, which also encompasses the historic BBC Studios, home of the first television broadcast. Ally Pally, as the complex is nicknamed, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to complete the restoration of the theater by 2018.

Stenciled fleur-de-lis dot the ceiling of the theater, which was designed with a capacity of 3,000. It opened with the rest of second Alexandra Palace in 1875 (the first version of the palace burned down in 1873) and hosted opulent spectacles, performances, and eventually films in its grand hall. However, its role changed during the 20th century, as Belgian refugees and German and Austrian internees were held there in World War I and refugees again in World War II. During the latter, its huge transmitter tower was also turned into a decoy to divert enemy aircraft. Decades later, in 1980, a fire interrupted plans for restoration.

Alexandra Palace
The exterior of Alexandra Palace in London (photo by Jim Linwood/Flickr)
Alexandra Palace
George Kenner, “Sunday Divine Service in the Theatre Hall of Alexandra Palace” (1916) (image via Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia)

Today the theater still looks much as it did in the 19th century, barely touched by time aside from the wear to its furnishings and decor. Visitors have been let in periodically during Open House London, and the Guardian has a photo essay from 2014 showing it in all its decayed splendor, from 1901 projection box to tattered stage curtain. (For a more illicit exploration, Darmon Richter of the Bohemian Blog has a chronicle of a journey from the theater to Ally Pally’s domed rooftop.) The palace now hosts concerts and has a popular ice skating ring, even though 40% of the building of is in a derelict state.

The East Wing already has £18.8m ($24.7m) of support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £6.8m ($8.9m) from Haringey council; the current crowdfunding campaign is aimed at raising another £1m ($1.3m) to complete the project. When it opened, the Victorian entertainment center was nicknamed the “People’s Palace,” and the hope is to engage the public once more by making this atmospheric north London venue accessible again.

The abandoned theater at Alexandra Palace in London (photo by Oliver Mallich/Flickr)
The abandoned theater at Alexandra Palace in London (photo by Oliver Mallich/Flickr) (click to enlarge)
Alexandra Palace
The abandoned theater at Alexandra Palace in London (photo by Miles Willis, courtesy Alexandra Palace) (click to enlarge)

The Alexandra Palace is currently fundraising for its East Wing Restoration Project online.

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