Press readers recently voted the refurbished De Grey Rooms their favourite new or restored building in York. STEPHEN LEWIS finds out what makes them so special

LARGER than life is a word that could have been coined for York’s panto star Berwick Kaler. But it turns out that Berwick’s costumes are larger than life, too. So large, in fact, that they wouldn’t fit through the door leading to the Theatre Royal’s new costume department at the De Grey Rooms.

The Grade 2* listed building was in the process of being given a £400,000 makeover by the York Conservation Trust which owns it, before the Theatre Royal moved in as tenant in 2011.

“The door had all been fitted, then some bright spark realised that Berwick Kaler’s costumes wouldn’t fit through, and we had to get a double door put in,” says Philip Thake, the conservation trust’s chief executive.

Well, you expect a few hitches when carrying out a sensitive conversion of a building as important and historic as the De Grey Rooms.

The rooms – together with next-door De Grey House – were designed and built in 1841-1842 by PR Robinson and GT Andrews. They were intended primarily as a meeting place and dining room for the officers of the Yorkshire Hussars, whose colonel was the Earl De Grey and who held an annual review and parade in York. But the rooms, in then-fashionable St Leonard’s Place, were also used for concerts, balls, public entertainment and meetings.

During the Second World War and afterwards, the ballroom and cocktail bar were used for public dances, and kitchens in the basement were converted to a restaurant, The Oak Room.

By 2005, however, when the conservation trust bought the De Grey Rooms – and De Grey House next door – from the city council, their glory days seemed long gone.

The York tourist information centre occupied the ground floor, with the basement being used by city trading standards for storage, and the upper floor being used variously as a base for voluntary city guides or as rehearsal space by the theatre.

Photographs from that period show the rooms looking dark, drab and dingy. They were badly in need of a bit of TLC.

Work began on refurbishing the rooms in July 2010 and not even the size of Mr Kaler’s costumes could delay things too long.

By September 2011, the work was complete and the Theatre Royal had moved its costume and rehearsal spaces from Walmgate into the refurbished building.

Today, it has resumed its place as one of York’s most important public buildings.

As well as the Theatre Royal itself, a number of other professional theatre groups and more than a dozen youth theatre groups regularly rehearse here.

The building is also used for concerts and performances, as well as weddings and private parties.

The spirit of its early days has been well and truly restored. In December, readers of The Press voted the building their ‘People’s Choice’ in the 2012 York Design Awards in recognition of the restoration work that has been done.

Walking around the refurbished building, it is easy to see why it is held in such affection.

The great public rooms – such as the ballroom on the first floor and the cocktail room which opens off it – have been restored to the kind of elegance they would have had in their heyday.

Gone is the dark, dingy paint of the municipal years. The rooms have been painted in warm pastel shades and seem filled with light even on a dark day. Best of all, in the ballroom, a false ceiling which had been used to hide a glazed ‘lantern’ ceiling has been removed – allowing natural daylight to pour through from above.

A builder working on the refurbishment had taken one look at the false ceiling, Mr Thake says, and said: “We cannot leave it like that.”

The cocktail room has been restored, complete with wood-panelled bar, and there are many other changes, too: including disabled toilets and a lift which goes from basement to first floor, making the building accessible to people in wheelchairs – they simply have to use a side entrance which leads to the lift.

In the basement, a complete new mezzanine floor has been added, effectively doubling the space. Now, on the lower basement level, you’ll find the Theatre Royal’s costume store and hire department; while on the mezzanine floor just above – through the double doors that had to be put in to accommodate the Kaler costumes – is the costume-making workshop.

On the day we visited, the De Grey Rooms were a hive of activity. Up in the great ballroom, students were doing a photo shoot.

In a room downstairs, a youth group was holding a noisy rehearsal, and further rehearsals were going on in De Grey House, reached through a connecting door.

People also clearly love having access to the building, says Mr Thake.

“I came here before Christmas for a swing band dance. It was absolutely full.

“What has been done is fabulous. It has brought the building back to life. There are so many people that remember going to dances in the 1950s and 60s. To me, this is the way the building should be used.”

One of the best things is the view out of the elegantly proportioned windows onto St Leonard’s Place. Directly opposite, across Exhibition Square, is the art gallery – closed at the moment in preparation for its own £8 million refurbishment, but due to reopen in 2015.

Further down is the crescent of the council offices on St Leonard’s Place: looking a little run-down at the moment, but due to be converted into an upmarket hotel.

The Yorkshire Museum in Museum Gardens has already had an extensive refit, as has York Explore Library. There will be further work above the library to create a new base for the city archives.

Next it will be the turn of the Theatre Royal. Plans for a £4 million refurbishment took a significant step forward last week when a bid for £2.9 million of lottery funding progressed to the next stage of the bidding process.

The refurbishment would see the colonnaded front of the theatre enclosed in glass, replacement of the raked stage with a flat stage, and changes to seating. A second staircase would also be opened up so theatregoers can get into the theatre more easily and quickly, and the soundproofing between foyer and theatre would be improved, so musical and other performances can be held in the foyer at the same time as in the theatre itself.

The refurbishment of the theatre will be the last piece in the renaissance of what is coming to be known as York’s ‘cultural quarter’.

“We want to make it a building that is world class,” says theatre chief executive Liz Wilson. “This is a really exciting time.”

• De Grey Rooms are available for hire for functions and events. For events enquiries (private functions, weddings, special occasions), contact the events coordinator, Lindsay Whitwell, on 01904 623 132. For enquiries about room hire, contact reception on 01904 658162.

• The 2013 York Design Awards, which will include a 2013 Press People’s Award in which readers of The Press can vote for their favourite development scheme among those nominated, will be officially launched tomorrow.

• YORK Conservation Trust owns and maintains about 90 historic properties in York, including De Grey Rooms and De Grey House, Fairfax House, Bowes Morrell House in Walmgate, the Assembley Rooms, the Coach House, Old School House in Peasholme Green, and many more.

What became the trust was started by John Bowes Morrell and his brother Cuthbert, who began buying and restoring medieval properties in York. They formed the Ings Property Company Ltd in 1945. In 1975 all the properties were bequeathed to charity and the company’s name was changed to the York Conservation Trust.

The trust paid for the refurbishment of the De Grey Rooms with income from the rents of its various properties.