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Major revamp breathes new life into Wakefield’s Unity Hall

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A building of musical memories has been given a new lease of life thanks to a co-operative scheme. Lindsay Pantry goes behind the scenes at Wakefield’s Unity Hall.

BEHIND layers of scaffolding and sheeting, there’s something rather special happening on a corner of Wakefield’s Westgate.

Grade II-listed Unity Hall was built in 1904 as the headquarters of Wakefield Industrial Co-operative Society. For more than 100 years it has had many guises, from the music hall where the couples of the ‘50s met and fell in love, to the home of the punk in the late 1970s.

And now, after standing empty, boarded up and falling into steady decay for 12 years, the domineering building is being transformed by a community co-operative into a multi-purpose arts and music venue.

Unity Works will not only bring music into the hall that once hosted that biggest acts of the glam, punk and heavy metal eras of the 1970s and 1980s, but will house the city’s growing creative digital industry, provide gallery space to local artists, a cafe, and could one day hold civil wedding ceremonies.

Development director Chris Hill worked in regeneration for 20 years before setting up as a social enterprise consultant in 2000. He started work on the project in 2010, after Theatre Royal Wakefield executive director Murray Edwards mentioned the once-grand building to him during a conference at his previous project Shine in Leeds.

Since Bretton Hall College left the last occupied part of the building 12 years ago, various big ideas have been on the cards for Unity - from a superclub to an arts space connected by bridge to the Frank Matcham-designed theatre which sits opposite.

But where other ideas failed, Unity Works is succeeding. The team secured £4m to fund the large-scale refurbishment of the building, which had become rundown, home to many a dead pigeon as well as false ceilings and plasterboards that covered many of the buildings more ornate features.

“I fell in love with the building, “ Mr Hill said. “There was no question for us, once we’d seen the hall, we wanted to bring it back as a music venue. But there is also so much more than that.”

This month, the team exceeded its £200,000 target from its latest community share issue, money which will be spent on audio and visual equipment for the venue.

Shares started at just £200, making it accessible for “normal, working, Wakefield people,” to take their turn in helping to restore one of the city’s most iconic buildings back to us.

An initial share offer, released at the beginning of the project, raised £107,000 and was set up to give larger financial backers confidence in the project. The large grants, amounting to £4m, included £500,000 from Wakefield Council and £750,000 from the Architectural Heritage Fund, funded the redevelopment of the building.

Despite immediately falling for the charm of the project himself, Mr Hill said he was surprised by how quickly, and heavily, it was taken into the hearts of the people of Wakefield.

“It was a wonderful surprise to not just meet the target, but beat it,” he said.

“A lot of people think of the 1950s as Unity’s golden era but for many of our shareholders, they remember it from the late 1970s, early 1980s when it was a rock venue.

“Running as a cooperative is much more important than just investment. We want to draw on people’s ideas and put them into work.”

The building itself is a rabbit warren of offices, soon-to-be gallery spaces and hallways, until you walk into the vacuous 700-capacity main hall.

The old staging has been removed to make the most of the large space, which in September will host its first gig by Wakefield rock band The Cribs - one of the projects early backers - as part of the city’s Long Division festival.

Unity Works has labelled itself as a creative and digital centre, filling a gap in the current provision in the city centre. It’s already signed up its first office tenants, design and marketing company Statement, and high spec hotdesking will also be available, capitalising on the building’s close proximity to Wakefield Westgate railway station.

Many of the original features of the building are being preserved and restored, and some of the offices include huge walk-in safes used when the building housed the Wakefield Co-operative Society.

There’s only one part of the building not owned by the co-operative, a basement nightclub that is still open, which Unity Works hopes to take over later this year.

The co-operative believes the project has the potential to create as many as 300 jobs - not just those who rent office space, but bar and hospitality staff, promoters and events staff.

The co-operative ethos will sink through to the day to day running of the venue, with bi-weekly networking meetings for office users in an attempt to get them working together and sharing expertise.

Building work started in October and will finish in August, ready for the opening on September 6.

Visitors will be greeted by a mural made of drumsticks, each bearing the name of a shareholder - a lasting recognition of their part in bringing the building back to life.

For listings or information on share purchasing, visit www.unityworks.co.uk

PART OF MUSIC HISTORY

IT has hosted a co-operative, silent movies, ballroom dancing and even wrestling, but Unity Hall was most famous for live music.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, before Wakefield become better known for its nightclubs and pubs, Unity Hall attracted some of the biggest names in the glam, punk, post-punk and heavy metal era.

The Specials, Boomtown Rats, Human League, The Skids, The Only Ones, Iron Maiden, Penetration, Eurythmics and Def Leppard are some of the acts to perform there in its heyday.

The Pretenders also played their first ever gig at Unity Hall in 1978 supporting Wakefield power-pop band Strangeways.

Unity Hall helped to get Strangeways into the spotlight, and they ended up securing gigs with The Ramones, Judas Priest and many others.

Unity Hall came to a close at the end of the 1990s and the building has stood empty since.

From September, Wakefield’s homegrown indie rock band The Cribs will be the first big name to perform in the hall, which also welcome back The Damned and The Beat, both bands having played there in the early 1980s.

 

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