This week, as the crucial task of choosing an operator for the venue enters its final stages, reporter Samantha Booth was given a guided tour behind the scenes to see what progress has been made with the Fairfield Halls Refurbishment.
“It’s more of a deconstruction than demolition,” says George Stainton, the project manager from General Demolition, the contractor removing asbestos and décor from the five-decade-old Fairfield Halls.
Enabling works have been the focus of the works since the iconic theatre closed on July 15.
The halls are closed for more than two years while Croydon Council completes a £30 million refurbishment, with an earliest opening date of November 2018.
Much of the building is now stretches of bare concrete walls and floors and dangling wires, with workers uncovering nostalgic graffiti from 1962 when it first opened.
“Derek and Jim were here April 1962,” was scrawled in chalk on concrete in one of the former bars.
Suited and booted in protective clothing, as we walk through the foyer, the floors are being stripped and gaps are left in the walls where asbestos has been taken away, with about 50 workers a day working on the development.
About 800 seats from The Ashcroft Theatre – which, with the Arnhem Gallery, was closed due to asbestos removal when we visited on Wednesday – sit protected in the former seating area of the foyer.
Magnus Wills, from Rick Mather Architects, explains how the wavy-white ceiling, installed in 2010, will be taken down and the pillars at the top of the stairs reverted to their original colour.
“It’ll be back to the mid-century modern, stylish sleek design,” he explains.
“We will be towing back the bits of the box office which stick out so people can walk under the stairs.”
The spaces currently used as offices overlooking the foyer area, will be opened up as balconies.
Walking through the corridors, now grey from the stripping back of the walls and floors, Paula Murray, Croydon Council’s creative director, explains how she’d like to see more pop-up stalls situated there when it reopens.
“People tend to congregate in the corridors [rather] than in the side rooms,” she said.
On to the largest of the three theatres, the Concert Hall.
When looking at the hall, changes are not immediately visible, but Neil Clowden, a project manager at Gleeds, which represents the council’s private development firm Brick By Brick, explains how asbestos has been removed from radiator panels, which finished last week, and the stage has been protected ready for the main works in May.
The valuable organ situated stage right of the hall has been taken away by Harrison and Harrison organists to Northumberland for a “holiday” to protect it.
The same has been done to a digital projector and surveys are currently being undertaken to establish whether the seats can stay as they are or need to be refurbished or replaced.
Mr Wills described the next phase of work.
He said: “One of the major interventions we are making is to increase the stage area in the concert hall which will make it suitable for amplified music and rock concert gigs, as well as the classical music it is so well renowned for at the same time.
“There will be new acoustic attenuation measures in the main concert hall so when amplified music is being played it won’t reverberate quite as much as it used to.
“It will become a much more flexible venue and there will be much more potential for operators to do a variety of performances.”
Timothy Godfrey, the council’s cabinet member for culture, explains that previously performances in the three halls had to be “staggered” because of noise issues. It is hoped this problem will be resolved with new acoustic attenuation measures.
He added: “Residents complained as well because the noise comes out.
“So all the acoustic works will improve [matters] for residents as well as users.”
One of the costly improvements to the halls is the ventilation, which will help keep the halls at the right temperature, a problem with the previous venue’s design.
It is also planned that more of the halls will become wheelchair friendly, with two of the boxes in the Concert Hall becoming accessible and an upgrade of lifts to stop at floors they previously did not stop at.
Cllr Godfrey said: “You can see how difficult it would have been to phase it.”
“And this is just the enabling phase,” adds Reece Costain, a project director from Gleeds.
Campaigners hoped to see a phased refurbishment of the halls, to allow the venue to continue operating while the work took place.
However, the council pushed ahead with a complete closure in July last year, claiming it cost too much to do the revamp in parts, and had planning permission confirmed last month.
Many different surveys have been completed to check structural integrity and façade integrity, to enable the main work to go ahead.
Speaking about whether there were any problems currently, Mr Costain said: “The biggest surprise for us really is the condition of the façade.
“All those concrete panels need to be looked at very carefully, they are in a worst state than we thought they would be.
“That’s part of our ongoing dilemma on how much to do on that.”
Mr Clowden added: “We’ve got more external challenges than internal I’d say.”
“We’ve got about five more weeks of asbestos removal,” Mr Stainton said. “It’s a very delicate job.”
The council is conducting its final evaluation of the bids to become the new operator and will formally announce who this will be at a cabinet meeting in May.
Colm Lacey, the managing director at Brick By Brick, said the operator will come in at the end of the development, about three months before the halls are reopened to the public.
He said: “They do all the testing of the equipment.
“It’s enough time for them to test everything but for them to get used to everything it will take two to three years.
“Usually they organise their programme so they have the right kind of test events early to test the sound, the building, the technical side. Big operators have done this before.”
In total, there will be six bars throughout the new Fairfield Halls – one with the balcony, with some of the best views over Croydon, that will be completely revamped with new ceilings, lighting and a bar area.
“It’s unrecognisable,” said Ms Murray, appointed last March to the new director role to “lead the vision” for Fairfield.
The Arnhem Gallery is the most substantial part of the works – part of it will be demolished, rebuilt and include a terrace.
The office space, coined the “plastic castle” by the architects, to the back of the Arnhem will also be demolished to fit in with the “heritage” led approach. It is currently being deconstructed, with the materials inside being recycled.
The Advertiser is hoping to return behind the scenes when the main works start later this spring.