This Grade I listed building wasn’t always the beautiful place to eat, drink, socialise and stay at that it is today. Over the years it has been used for a number of reasons, and hosted a number of events. Regardless, we can all agree that it is a truly amazing piece of architecture...
Image: Print: ‘The Assembly House, Norwich’ by Mary Lyle, etching on paper, undated (assumed first quarter 20th century) Artist: Mary Lyle (NWHCM : 1971.700.2 – Norfolk Museums Collections). Thanks to the Assembly House Trust for the images in this post.
Image: Engraving: A country dance in a long hall; the elegance of the couple, Hogarth, 1753 (Wellcome Images CCBY4.0)
The Assembly House (or The Assembly Rooms rooms, as it was known back then) was built on the site of a 13th century hospital and secular college. Thomas Ivory designed the building in the mid-18th century, during the Georgian era when a real desire for a city-centre venue that was big enough to be used for leisure and society events became more pressing. The building was intended to fulfill this demand, and was designed as “a place for assemblies, cards and bowls and balls”. Ivory also worked on some other notable buildings in Norwich, including: the Octagon Chapel in Colegate; the original Norwich Theatre; The Methodist Meeting House in Bishopgate; and various buildings in Surrey Street, as well as others outside of Norwich (including extending and developing parts of Blickling Hall).
The beautiful Georgian building opened in 1755, and its site included a bowling green and plenty of rooms for the gentry and elite of that time to meet and enjoy activities such as dancing, cards, music, assemblies and balls. It was used as the setting for an exclusive victory ball in December 1805 which celebrated the successes at the Battle of Trafalgar, and also as a venue for a concert by famous composer Liszt in 1840. Its popularity continued for many years.
By the 1830-1840’s, however, the popularity of The Assembly Rooms was dwindling so in 1857 the estate was broken down into separate lots and sold. The west wing went to Frank Noverre and the rest to Benjamin Bond Cabell, who was an elderly man. When Cabell died in 1874 he left it to his cousin, John Bond Cabell, who then sold it to the Girls Public Day Schools Trust – and so it became…
Image: The Girls High School, Banquet room 1922. (AHTPHP collection)
The building was not actually changed a huge amount when it became Norwich High School for Girls; some walls were added to create more classrooms and a few other improvements were undertaken, but the main bulk of the building remained the same. During this time, Frank Noverre still owned the west wing – in fact he lived in there until 1901 when the school bought this part of the building too.
After the school moved to its current premises on Newmarket Road, the building was once again up for sale. The Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Trust and the Norwich Society were determined to preserve the building for the city, and in 1935 a meeting between them resulted in a resolution being passed to do so, and so this stopped the building from being destroyed.
The building then stood empty for many years (although parts were rented out to various organisations to use including a YMCA hostel, bicycle storage, and other uses). Though there were plenty of ideas to use the building for (such as lecture halls or gymnasiums for men and women), the imminent start of WW2 stopped any progress being made.
Image: The Assembly House underwent renovation and repairs after WW2
In 1940 the buildings became the Eastern Command Camouflage Office and Camouflage factory. Luckily it escaped the horrendous bombing of the Luftwaffe which attacked Norwich in 1942, though various buildings around it were damaged including Woolworth's and Caley’s Chocolate Factory.
Post WW2, there was a new determination to repair and reinstate The Assembly Rooms, and a report in 1943 advised the building be turned back into a place for entertainment, with the addition of a cinema and a theatre! Work was completed and the rooms were all named after significant people in the building’s history (Ivory, Bacon, Pierce, Kent, Messel and Sexton). The venue opened on 23 November 1950 and was used as a popular hub for entertainment and the arts in Norwich for 45 years until…
Tragedy struck in April of 1995 when a fire spread through the building, destroying the entrance hall and music room. Luckily most of the wooden paneling and Georgian plasterwork survived, as did a lot of the paintings and furniture, but a lot of work needed to be done to make the building usable again. This was followed by 18 months of restoration and the Assembly House re-opened on 14 February 1997.
If you visit today you’re likely to be in awe of the beautiful architecture and splendour of the building, with its amazing ballrooms and chandeliers and impressive sweeping driveway. The Assembly House is a perfect venue for weddings and parties, and is a favourite for Christmas parties!
The restaurant’s menus are created by head chef Richard Hughes, a renowned Norfolk chef who now runs the award-winning Richard Hughes Cookery School from the premises. Afternoon Tea in the dining room is an essential experience if you’re visiting, and if you want to make a night of it they opened 11 gorgeous bedrooms in early 2016.
Each room is individually decorated and offers a luxurious experience right in the heart of Norwich – find out more here.
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