With the evenings slowly getting lighter and the festive period well and truly behind us, we are kicking off the new year with the one and only Grade I listed Blackpool Tower.
Blackpool Tower stands as an iconic landmark on the Fylde coastline, not only a symbol of architectural marvel but also a testament to the rich history and culture of the region. However, as the years have passed, this magnificent structure has truly weathered the storm, showing serious signs of fire damage, deterioration, and neglect. The preservation of Blackpool Tower is not merely an effort to maintain a historical monument, but also a dedication to honouring the memories and traditions it holds. In this blog post, we delve into the fascinating history of the conservation of Blackpool Tower.
A Glimpse into the Past
Before we explore the conservation efforts of those that have helped to keep the magic of Blackpool Tower alive for the past 125 years, it is first important to understand the historical significance of the structure. Built in 1894, Blackpool Tower was designed by the renowned architect Frank Matcham, and inspired by the glorious Eiffel Tower. When it first opened, Blackpool Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the British Empire, standing at an impressive 518 ft. The Tower was truly a product of the Victorian Era, a time marked so distinctly by innovation and ambition.
“In heavy winds, the building will gently sway, what a magnificent Victorian engineering masterpiece” - Simon Entwistle
The Tower was constructed to serve as a place of entertainment, featuring a circus, aquarium, roof-top garden and of course, a fabulous ballroom with a sprung dance floor. When the Tower first opened, 3,000 customers took the first rides to the top, paying sixpence for admission, sixpence for a ride in the lift, and a further sixpence to watch the circus. Over the years, the Tower has welcomed millions of visitors and hosted countless performances by artists, actors, and dancers from all over the globe. Its rich history is deeply intertwined with the cultural fabric of Blackpool.
The construction of Blackpool Tower
Challenges of Conservation
Preserving a structure as grand as the Blackpool Tower has, over the years, presented a series of unique challenges. As early as 1897, the top of the Tower caught fire; a scene that could be witnessed up to 50 miles away due to the scale of the structure. Not long after this, it was realised that the Tower had not been painted properly during its first thirty years of life and this, coupled with constant exposure to the coastal climate was posing a serious threat to its structural integrity. Although it was initially decided that the Tower would be demolished, it was later agreed that the structure would remain, and that the defective steelwork would be replaced like for like. This was a considerable task, and was one that took almost four years to complete. Various other restoration works were undertaken between then and the turn of the millennium, including the replacement of the hydraulic lifts and winding gears to the top of the Tower in 1956 and later, in 1992. In 1956, the ballroom was damaged by fire, and took two years to repair, at a cost of £500,000, with many former architects and builders coming out of retirement to assist with the works.
A New Lease of Life
In 2010, the Blackpool Tower was purchased by Blackpool Council. The purchase represented a bold and ambitious move by the Council, fuelled by a desire to restore the Tower to its former glory. Until this point, the Tower had been owned and managed by various private operators, meaning that there had been little opportunity to secure grant funding. However, with the help of such funding, the Tower re-opened, having undergone a year long, £5m renovation. But the conservation efforts did not stop there. Although the internal works had been completed, allowing the Tower to re-open, works on the exterior of the Tower had barely begun.
Amongst the external works were multi-million-pound repairs to the Tower’s nine terracotta arches and stained-glass windows of the main entrance. Each damaged, broken or missing decorative piece had to be handmade to match the original. Sensitive to its history, the intention of the restoration was never to alter the appearance of the façade of the Tower. Rather that it would preserve and restore the frontage to retain its original quality and character. All restoration works took place behind bespoke panelling both for safety and aesthetic reasons, allowing the Tower to remain open throughout. During the first year of the works, the restoration on the front of the Tower progressed rapidly, and the newly restored stained-glass arches were soon unveiled to the public. Finally, in 2015, the front elevation of the building got the finishing touch – its name in Lights – created by the Blackpool Illuminations team.
Restoration works at the Tower
Bit by bit, decade’s worth of old paint was slowly stripped away using high pressure water jets, and sections of rusted iron work was replaced. The cleaned and repaired metal work was soon repainted with contemporary, weatherproof paint. Of course, all completed using the Tower’s own traditional ‘red-lead’ colour. On average, it takes seven years to paint the Tower. To compete this monumental task, painters must climb the 563 steps from the roof of the building to the top. Much of the restoration work has been facilitated over the years by scaffolding, complete with white sheeting and affectionately known by locals as the ‘bandage’. First installed in 2008, it seemed to be there forever. Indeed, some parts of the steelwork remained covered for the full eight years, while elsewhere it was moved or removed.
So, What Next?
Well, taking care of this renowned Blackpool landmark is no easy task! There is always room for improvement. In late 2020, The Blackpool Tower Ballroom received £764,000 from the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund. The grant was intended to assist venues affected by Covid-19. Such funding enabled the repair and restoration of the ornate plasterwork ceiling in the Ballroom, back to its former glory, while the building had to be closed due to the pandemic. This provided employment for local specialists who replicated the skills used by workers back in 1894, when the Tower was completed. One of the most recent projects has been the restoration of the parquet floor in the ballroom, back to its original glory. With layers of varnish stripped back, the beautiful blocks of wood beneath were revealed, resealed and highly polished and it now looks just like it did all those years ago.
Today, the conservation of the Blackpool Tower continues to be at the forefront of plans for the city. Whilst no conservation management plan has been produced for the structure to date, one is currently being prepared. The plan is set to comply with World Heritage guidelines, in the hope that the Tower may, one day, be granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Repair and restoration works on the ornate plasterwork ceiling in the Tower Ballroom
Repairing and restoring listed buildings is no mean feat. If you want to undertake works on your property but are unsure how to proceed, give us a call or drop us an email today.