Theatre Royal Drury Lane project exemplifies Careys capabilities with historical buildings

Across the UK, there are more than 500,000 listed buildings. In England alone, over 900 buildings have earned a Grade I listing, with London accounting for 589 of these highly protected structures.

  • The Carey Group
  • Friday 19th July 2019

Share this:-

Two of the most important criteria determining whether a building is listed or not is age and historical significance. As a result, all structures built prior to 1700 are listed, as well as the vast majority of those constructed between 1700 and 1840. Since, it’s forbidden to demolish, embellish, extend or alter a listed property without first receiving special permission from a local planning authority or relevant governmental agency – it’s crucial that any specialist construction company know exactly what they are doing when dealing with these valuable buildings.

Careys has amassed years of experience and a great deal of expertise working with buildings of historical value. We have invested considerable time and resources to learn and implement the most effective, efficient and safest means to deliver demolition and remediation works on listed buildings. Some examples of successful historical projects that we have significantly contributed to include the redevelopment of Bow Street Magistrates Court and the Royal Opera House.

One recent project, in particular, demonstrates the effectiveness of our specialist capabilities and illustrates our successful track record of delivering works on listed buildings – the £45m refurbishment of London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, a national treasure

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, known affectionately as the Drury Lane theatre, is located in Covent Garden, where it is bounded by Russell Street, Catherine Street and Drury Lane. There has been a theatre operating on this site since 1663 – making it London’s oldest theatrical venue still in use.

Over the 350 years since it first opened its doors, the Drury Lane theatre has been rebuilt four times. The current building dates to 1812 and was constructed after a fire gutted the previous structure. This latest version of the Drury Lane was funded by brewing magnate, Samuel Whitbread, and designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt. One of the West End’s largest theatres, the Drury Lane originally seated 3,060 patrons. It was also well-known for embracing innovation and technology. For example, in 1817, it became the very first London theatre to be completely lit by gas, including the footlights.

After passing through the hands of a series of owners throughout the last 200 years, the Drury Lane theatre was purchased at the beginning of the 21st century by theatre legend, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In January 2019, this world-famous venue closed its doors to begin a complete renovation process, one which is estimated to take two years to complete.

Careys expertise helps to preserve key components of Drury Lane theatre

Due to its advanced age and extraordinary historical value, the refurbishment of the Grade-I-listed Drury Lane needed to be handled with extreme care and expertise. To that end, a team of experts was assembled based on their knowledge of and experience in effectively working with structures of this importance.

Careys served as a key part of this team, delivering a package of works for the Drury Lane theatre renovation project. As part of our responsibilities, we carried out the safe deconstruction and removal of several irreplaceable elements from the theatre. Specifically, we were tasked with overseeing the salvage operation on sections of the royal boxes, as well as the disassembling and relocation of the massive stage and the complex substage lift system.

We applied our customary approach with all historical projects, which involves conducting an extremely detailed pre-planning process. This helps us to mitigate any possible risks, by enabling us to consider every aspect of the operation from multiple angles and take into consideration a wide range of potential circumstances and outcome. Once we had devised our programme for the Drury Lane theatre project, based on our thorough pre-planning efforts, we then carried it out with our characteristic attention to detail and high standards.

In order to ensure that we kept the project on track and safeguarded all of the valuable items in our areas of responsibility, we held briefings each morning before beginning. In these meetings we clearly explained to all members of our team – using photographs and translations – that day’s objectives, stressing which items were of particular historical importance, thus requiring extreme attention and care.

Royal box salvage element

Careys was entrusted with removing and salvaging certain artefacts from the theatre’s royal boxes, where members of the royal family had sat to view plays throughout the years. On this phase of the project, it was necessary to collaborate and coordinate our efforts with a number of other contractors who were simultaneously attending to other aspects of the boxes.

Because of the precision of our planning and our clear communication skills, we were able to work efficiently in unison with the other companies involved. We helped to ensure that each trade completed their tasks according to the programme, allowing the next trade to seamlessly step in and complete a new phase of works – all without damaging any retainable items.

We were responsible for carefully removing the elaborate metal fronts which had adorned the boxes. Once we had accomplished this, we then packaged them for removal from the site to a storage location, where they will be kept until their re-instatement onto the royal boxes during the refurbishment phase of the project.

Additionally – after all the fibrous plaster had been taken out and moulds had been made – we removed the structural brick and blockwork from the royal boxes. We also salvaged all non-structural steelwork from the box structures, which will be reconfigured for future usage.

Stage and substage disassembly and removal

During most of the 20th century, the Drury Lane theatre was known for its large, spectacle-filled productions. A primary reason for this can be traced to the capabilities of the theatre’s stage and intricate substage system of lifts.

When they were installed in 1898, the Drury Lane’s electrical and hydraulic lifts relied on cutting-edge technology for the time. Using these lifts, stagehands could independently manipulate four bridges, or separate sections, that made up a 7.3m by 12m area of the vast stage – elevating the two rear bridges to a maximum height of 2.4m and raising and tilting the two forward bridges.

As part of the renovation project, Careys was entrusted with taking apart and removing the Drury Lane theatre’s entire stage and substage area. This included salvaging a 575m2 staging area, composed of teak flooring. To do this as efficiently as possible, we devised a systematic and sequential process which gave other trades the ability to access and conduct works in certain areas of the stage, even as we proceeded with our salvage activities.

The most complex aspect of the project involved our works on the substage area. This required us to carefully disassemble the six hydraulic lifts and rams, which were almost 120 years old. In order to successfully complete this task, we worked collaboratively with a dedicated lifting contractor. We employed an x-y lifting rig system, which is capable of hoisting up to 12 tonnes, in order to safely raise and remove the lifts, rams and all associated weights and ancillary items.

To begin with, we used impact sockets and wrenches to systematically dismantle every element of the substage system. Once that was completed, we lifted all the disassembled machinery and parts up from the substage and placed them onto large-scale trestles on the stage area, ready to be removed from the site. Three of these historical hydraulic lifts will be displayed in the theatre’s museum, once the renovation project has been completed.

Specialist experience and planning contribute to success when working with historical structures

Our wealth of experience working with listed buildings enables us to quickly identify potential pitfalls and devise effective ways to overcome them. Historical projects can present a number of construction and demolition-related challenges, stemming from the age of the buildings, which often makes them delicate and deficient in safety standards, such as fire suppression systems.

On the Drury Lane theatre project, we had to account for the potentially hazardous presence of gas on site, due to a centuries-old lighting system that had ingeniously delivered gas to all areas of the theatre via a system of pipes. Because of this configuration, it was highly inadvisable to employ tools, equipment or methods that involved hot works, diesel or other flammable materials. Our solution was to utilise 3-phase electronic Brokk machines for demolition, rather than diesel excavators. This also helped to reduce our carbon footprint.

Our experience has taught us that historical projects of this magnitude usually require the precise interaction of many moving parts, often operating in a very confined space and to tight deadlines. That is why we always make it a priority to establish and maintain open lines of communication and collaboration with other contractors on site – a practice that we continued to good effect on the Drury Lane theatre project. By building good relationships, we are able to consistently deliver optimal results.

To find out more about our specialist expertise, please visit our website or contact us.

We'd love to hear from you, so please get in touch