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Grand Theatre & Opera House


Well described by Christopher Brereton as ‘a one-off theatre for the architect, but probably the finest of its size in Britain’, the Grand is a building of metropolitan stature, conceived to a scale rarely even planned, let alone executed on this side of the English Channel. Originated by local industrialists it cost the immense sum of £62,000 to build. It would appear that George Corson was responsible for its strikingly unusual architectural design, with J R Watson providing theatre expertise. The theatre occupies a three-quarter acre site and originally included a concert hall (the Assembly Room) and a row of shops, producing a façade 162ft long. To the north it adjoins the northernmost of the Leeds arcades. The Assembly Room became the Plaza Cinema under separate lessees but was later reinstated as part of the Grand complex.

Externally, the main façade, in hard red brick with stone dressings, is in a highly eclectic and romantic mixture of styles in which Romanesque and Gothic predominate. The entrance block has three major bays expressed at ground floor level with round arched openings, the centre one divided by a column supporting two contained arches; at first floor level there are 1+3+1 round arched windows. The bays are divided by shafts crowned by conical-roofed tourelles. A central gable with traceried rose is flanked by pyramidal slated-roofed turrets. To the right the long flat facade is in similar style but lower key. Originally the shop fronts were set within a gothic arcade, of which two arches only are at present visible. The right hand corner block takes the form of a squat tower with pyramidal roof, the ground floor being occupied by the separate arched entrance to the Assembly Room (this originally matched the central arch to the theatre entrance but was altered with a cement finish when cinema took over).

The internal spaces, front and rear of house, are unusually generous and the public areas, with a spacious main staircase rising in one flight and returning as two, have a sense of occasion noticeably absent in most commercially-driven Victorian theatres.

The auditorium is magnificent and stylistically unique in Britain, an opulent high Victorian invention with clustered Gothic shafts framing the proscenium. The saucer-domed, richly encrusted ceiling is carried on four pendentives of fretted fan-vault form which flow into depressed peripheral arches. The three sweeping horse-shoe balconies are supported on iron columns. The first and second balconies have their arms divided into eight boxes (four over four) on each side. The third balcony is divided by a parapet into a gallery of nine rows rising behind an amphitheatre of four rows which extends into side slips. Above is a fourth level of upper slips.

The balcony fronts are splendidly decorated with deeply undercut plasterwork, incorporating imaginatively designed foliated scrolls, bosses etc.

The proscenium, flanked by two projecting superimposed boxes in a pedimented, modelled frame flanked at upper level by female figure sculpture, has a grand, semi-circular inner frame with richly scalloped decoration. The present powerful colour-scheme, completely appropriate to the architectural style, is by Clare Ferraby.

In 2006 the Grand Theatre also underwent refurbishment including new seating, and upgrades to the flying system and fly tower. Two new rehearsal rooms were also constructed on an adjacent site, connected to the theatre by a bridge.
The installation of an orchestra pit elevator in 1975 resulted in the removal of the front edge of the stage, making it appear too abruptly cut off. Apart from this, it is a tribute to Corson's skill that very little significant alteration has taken place. The only really regrettable and irreversible change was the removal of the unique and wonderfully complete complex of sub-stage machinery in the 1970s. This was an early wood and iron stage complete with traps, bridges, cuts and sloats. Given the lavish space available backstage compared to nearly every other major theatre in Britain, this loss of historic fabric was tragic and unnecessary, attributable, surely, to ignorance rather than need. The accommodation gained could have been created elsewhere.

The first floor Assembly Room is in a completely different but pleasing classical style. After serving for many years for miscellaneous entertainments and events, it began to be used as a cinema in 1907 and was then radically altered for cinema use in 1911. The floor was lowered substantially and the balcony was altered. Following a fire in 1923, an external projection box was provided and the interior completely remodelled. This interior had a shallow arched ceiling (above which the original ceiling remained) and was somewhat reminiscent of a mid nineteenth century concert room but with a deep, serpentine-fronted balcony at one end. The flat floor extended into a shallow orchestra recess framed by little kiosks with niches. Between 2007 and 2009 the Howard Assembly Room was refurbished by Building Design Partnership to create a flexible performance space and rehearsal room for Opera North, which has been based at the Grand since 1978. The 1923 cinema interior was removed and the original gothic Victorian timber barrel vaulted ceiling and arched windows were restored. A new mezzanine floor level and wooden balconies in a contemporary style were created.

Built / Converted
Dates of use
  • 1878 : Theatre, continuing
Current state
Current use
Theatre (Theatre and Opera House)
46 New Briggate, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS1 6NZ, England
Further details
Other names
  • Owner/Management: Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House Ltd (controlled by Leeds City Council)
  • 1878 Design/Construction:
    George Corson & James Robinson Watson
    - Architect
  • 1878 Use: Theatre, continuing
  • 1986 - 1988 Design/Construction: Array
    Clare Ferraby
    - Consultant
    decorations in auditorium and Assembly Room
  • 1988 Design/Construction:
    Hudson White
    - Consultant
    decoration of Plaza Assembly Room
  • 2006 - 2009 Alteration: Grand Theatre and Howard Assembly Room refurbished
    Building Design Partnership
    - Architect
  • Capacity
  • Capacity
    1912: 1874
    1970: 1558
  • Capacity
  • Listing
Stage type
Pros Raked 1:22
Building dimensions: -
Stage dimensions: Depth: 14.02m Width SL: 11.07m SR: 11.07m
Proscenium width: 9.96m
Height to grid: 18.81m
Inside proscenium: -
Orchestra pit: Enlarged. Flexible