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Sunderland Empire


Built as a large variety theatre and in excellent condition inside and out. The style of the auditorium is typical of the Milburns’ earlier work, and an important comparison can be made between this theatre and their West Hartlepool Empire Theatre (dem) built two years later in 1909. Here the auditorium layout was highly reminiscent of Sunderland, which now seems to be the only example of this phase of their work. Wide auditorium with two deep, slightly curved balconies, two very big, almost overbearing boxes with elaborately tiered cupolas facing the audience at upper balcony levels, and dress circle slips which rake steeply down the side of the auditorium wall. At each side of the first balcony is a little six-bay arcade with four of the bays made into boxes. Rectangular proscenium with a large, flat tablet above the centre. The ceiling has very high coves over the proscenium and at the sides, divided into panels by strips of moulding. Heavily modelled and sparsely applied Baroque plasterwork. The exterior is mostly hidden behind the frontages of the main street, but above the corner entrance is a big, circular, domed tower with a boldly projecting cornice and oeil-de-boeuf dormers. The tower was surmounted with a revolving sphere which bore the figure of Terpsichore the Greek Goddess of dance. The original was removed during WWII and a replica had to be taken down in early January 2015 after it was dislodged by high winds. Beyond the tower, along the side, is an unexpectedly charming series of Arts and Crafts bow windows in the upper floor. The Empire was purchased by the Sunderland Corporation in 1960 - one of the first local authorities to take the initiative of giving a new lease of life to an ailing commercial touring theatre. Since then it has undergone a number of refurbishments. In 2004, the installation of a larger flat stage, an increase in the height of the fly tower and enhanced technical facilities resulted in the Sunderland Empire being capable of staging large-scale touring productions. Further renovations in 2017 saw improvements to bar and restaurant areas, repairs to the facade and the return of the restored statue of Terpsichore to her original place at the top of the 27 metre tower. For the Milburns’ quite different later work, see the Empires in Edinburgh (now the Festival Theatre), Southampton (now the Mayflower), Liverpool and, in London, the Dominion.

Built / Converted
Dates of use
  • 1907 : Theatre, continuing
Current state
Current use
High West Street, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, SR1 3EX, England
Further details
Other names
Civic Theatre , Empire
  • Owner/Management: A E Barnes, resident manager
  • Owner/Management: Richard Reed, general manager
  • Owner/Management: Reginald Birks, director and licensee
  • Owner/Management: Harry Esden, resident manager
  • 1907 Design/Construction:
    William & T R Milburn
    - Architect
  • 1907 Design/Construction:
    John Taylor (Birmingham)
    - Consultant
    plaster decorations
    Mcculloch & Co (Sheffield)
    - Consultant
    stage equipment
  • 1907 Use: Theatre, continuing
  • 1907 - 1922 Owner/Management: Richard Thornton, managing director
  • 1944 - 1962 Owner/Management: Jesse J S Challons, resident manager
  • 1960 Owner/Management: Sunderland City Council, owner
  • 1970 Owner/Management: Edwin Royston Todds, director and licensee
  • 1972 Owner/Management: continuing Sunderland Empire Theatre Trust Ltd, owners
  • 1978 Owner/Management: Until when not known. Russell Hills, director
  • 1987 Owner/Management: Until when not known. Colin Angus, director and licensee
  • 1989 Alteration: construction work during reopening of gallery
    Tyne Theatre Construction (Jack Dixon)
    - Architect
  • 2000 Owner/Management: SFX (formerly Apollo Leisure (UK) Ltd), lessee
  • 2000 Owner/Management: Live Nation (formerly Clear Channel Entertainment), lessee
  • 2004 Alteration: refurbishment of technical facilities
  • 2010 Owner/Management: Ambassador Theatre Group, management
  • 2017 Alteration: refurbishment of front of house facilities
  • Capacity
  • Capacity
    1972: 1600
  • Capacity
  • Capacity
  • Listing
Stage type
Proscenium rake 1:19.5
Building dimensions: Auditorium 80ft long, 82ft wide
Stage dimensions: Depth: 12.8m (42ft) Width: 22m (72ft)
Proscenium width: 10.5m (34ft 6in)
Height to grid: 18.34m
Inside proscenium: -
Orchestra pit: 12.5m x 2.13m x 1.3m accommodates up to 100