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Spanish City
Promenade, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear, UK
Spanish City
associated engineer
LG Mouchel & Partners
Mott MacDonald
Billinghurst George & Partners
date  1909 - May 1910
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  NZ352727
ICE reference number  HEW 1995
photo  Jane Joyce
Spanish City is a seaside pleasure complex built in 1910 at Whitley Bay, about 13km east of Newcastle upon Tyne. From an engineering point of view, the interesting thing about it is the use of reinforced concrete — one of the earliest uses in Britain of reinforced concrete for a dome. The Grade II listed dome and surrounding building re-opened in 2018, after extensive restoration.
The original Spanish City was begun in around 1907 by Charles Elderton (1871-1923, full name William Charles Elderton Simcocks) and Henry Fail. Elderton gathered a group of entertainers known as the North East Toreadors, who performed in an open air theatre enclosed by awnings and fences decorated with Spanish street scenes — hence the name. He also founded Whitley Amusements Ltd to build a fairground on the site.
In May 1908, Spanish City opened officially. It was now surrounded by a boundary wall with a curved and crenelated seafront façade and hemispherical round entrance arches. In 1909, more fairground attractions were added, including the Figure of 8 rollercoaster and a water chute descending 18.3m into an 85m lake. Elderton and Fail’s newly formed Whitley Pleasure Gardens Company Ltd took control to develop the existing site, and an area to the south west, into a pleasure garden.
The company hired architects James Thoburn Cackett (1860-1928) and Robert Burns Dick (1868-1954) to design an entrance building fit for the new venue. In December 1909, their vision was published in the Whitley Seaside Chronicle and Visitors’ Gazette.
Time was short — the company wanted to open the pleasure garden in May 1910. Construction needed to be inexpensive and quick. The ideal material for the planned dome was ferro-concrete, a technique pioneered and patented by François Hennebique (1842-1921) as béton armé and brought to Britain under exclusive license by Louis Gustave Mouchel (1852-1908). Spanish City is one of the UK's earliest examples of reinforced concrete design and construction for a domed roof.
L.G. Mouchel & Partners, founded by Mouchel, was the project’s structural engineer and Cackett & Burns Dick its architect, perhaps with J. Coulson supervising the design. The contractor was S.F. Davidson & Miller. Construction commenced in February 1910.
The symmetrical Baroque style building consists of a central two storey three-bay block flanked by three storey towers at the front, and single storey four-bay wings with rooftop loggia terraces. At the rear (south) of the main block is a domed rotunda: the second-largest freestanding dome then constructed in Britain (the largest is St Paul's Cathedral of 1710). A plain rectangular building with a pitched roof stands behind the rotunda.
The complex originally housed a concert hall/theatre with seating for 1,800 (stalls: 1,400, balcony: 400), a restaurant, shops, tea rooms and roof gardens. Its wide arched entrance opened into a full height atrium and its towers were topped by stepped cupolas crowned with dancing female figures. The north-facing main façade is 54.9m long and the buildings' footprint is some 84m deep.
The walls of the buildings, the towers and the rotunda are mainly of rendered brick with concrete beams and steel framing for the areas of flat roof. The 15.2m diameter reinforced concrete shell dome is 127mm thick and rises to 22.3m above foundation level. It is supported by 12 internal ribs, each 254mm wide and 457mm thick. The dome and its ribs are held in place by a ring beam, carried by 12 reinforced concrete columns 14m high, resting in turn on pad footings.
The design of the dome is completed by a colonnaded lantern and finial. Inside, a balustraded gallery runs above the ring beam. Between the ribs, oval windows with festoon swags admit natural light. The entrance building and dome are whitewashed but not the theatre.
The new Spanish City opened in May 1910. Visitors were entertained by a variety of acts including high-wire cyclists, acrobatic comedians, singing jockeys and mermaids. More fairground rides were constructed over the following three years.
During World War I (1914-8), the theatre was under military occupation. In 1916, one of the building's wings, which housed a menagerie, was converted into a cinema. In 1920, the theatre was transformed into a ballroom and a mezzanine floor added. Its upper level was reconfigured into a winter garden, opening in 1935. The complex closed during World War II (1939-45). Soldiers were billeted in the rotunda and dined in the ballroom. The dome was camouflaged with paint and netting to hide it from enemy air raids.
By 1950, the dome had been repainted white and new fairground rides installed. Illuminations were hung over the dome and along the Promenade. During the 1950s, the ballroom was a popular venue for dance bands and orchestras. However, in 1961, it was converted into a bingo hall.
Though Spanish City’s entertainments provided a lucrative income for the company, a lack of investment in the building fabric resulted in progressive structural deterioration. Its windy coastal location, exposed to a moist salty atmosphere, and hasty construction exacerbated the problem.
In 1972, the cupolas of the two towers were deemed unsafe. They were removed, the towers given flat roofs and the dancing statues reinstated. The Figure of 8 rollercoaster ceased operations in 1974. Five years later, the dome’s interior was again remodelled, into a bar and nightclub. A suspended ceiling and timber mezzanine floor were installed, completely masking the structure. Apparently this was a safety measure to protect customers from falling plasterwork. The rooftop loggias were also removed (date unknown).
During the 1980s, an array of plans for refurbishing or redeveloping the site were proposed and abandoned. In February 1986, the dome and entrance building were Grade II listed.
In the 1990s, the ground floor arcade was refurbished, a bicycle motocross track constructed in the rotunda and the first floor nightclub converted into a laser tag gaming facility. In December 1999, demolition of the fairground was announced.
In 2001, North Tyneside Council bought Spanish City. By summer 2002, the dome and all the retail units were closed. The bingo hall remained in use, operated independently. Part of the fairground site is now occupied by Marine Park First School, opened in 2003, for children aged 3 to 9 years.
In 2014, engineer Mott MacDonald and architect ADP carried out a series of structural surveys to assess the remaining lifespan and potential for reuse of Spanish City’s buildings. Survey results revealed "walls without foundations, masonry hanging off steelwork, and structural beams and columns heavily corroded".
In September 2016, significant structural restoration and renovation works began. The £10m project was financed with £4m of investment from the council, £3.47m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and around £2.5m from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund.
None of the original design drawings seem to have survived, so a comprehensive 3D laser scan was used to produce a 3D parametric model of the buildings. The model identified missing elements to be replaced and where to incorporate new services within the fabric. The digital recreation of architectural features enabled the manufacture of accurate moulds and replicas.
Sympathetically restoring the dome involved removing the suspended ceiling and mezzanine floor, reinstating and repainting the interior plasterwork and repairing areas of crumbling concrete on the exterior. Removing the mezzanine reduced loading on the columns, which were encased in glass-reinforced plastic and repainted.
The first floor loggias flanking the central arcade were rebuilt to the original proportions and enclosed with glass for all weather use. The tower cupolas were reconstructed in glass-reinforced plastic and topped by the refurbished female figures, supported on hidden steel columns anchored to the masonry.
A new extension, clad in perforated green copper panels, curves around the west end of the façade, with a level access entrance at the rear of the rotunda. It provides additional toilet facilities, stairs, plant rooms and services.
Public open days were held on 21st and 22nd July 2018, with the official opening on 23rd July 2018. Billed as a leisure hub, the revived Spanish City includes tea rooms, restaurants, a wedding venue and an event space to host conferences, fairs, cinema screenings, etc. The adjacent gardens have been replanted and landscaped for better accessibility.
Our picture shows the complex before the 2018 works.
Architect: Cackett & Burns Dick
Architect (2014-8) : ADP
Contractor: S.F. Davidson and Miller
Contractor (2016-8): Robertson Construction
Landscape architect (2016-8): PlaceOnEarth
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH North

Spanish City