Civic Trust Plaques

Assembly Rooms

Location of plaque: Blake Street

York's magnificent Assembly Rooms, today occupied by an Italian restaurant, are a reminder of the days when the city really was the society capital of the north of England.

The new Kingdom of Great Britain, formed in 1707 by the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, quickly became the world's dominant sea power. Overseas trade flourished, and wealth flowed into the country. The merchant and wealthy middle classes grew and, for the privileged, leisure time increased.

Cities became fashionable centres where shops stocked the latest goods. And in this new, confident nation, York emerged as the social capital of the North of England. In 1736, the antiquarian Francis Drake declared: ‘No place, out of London, (is) so polite and elegant to live in as the City of York’.

A society capital needed a suitably grand location to hold society balls. Previously, the social gatherings of the privileged had been confined to their stately country homes. But as the elite gravitated to the newly fashionable cities, they needed new meeting and 'assembly' rooms.

One of the first of these was that built in York, by public subscription, between 1730 and 1735.

Twelve directors were appointed to oversee the construction of a large dancing room of not less than 90 feet long, together with an adjoining room for cards, another for refreshments, and several auxiliary rooms.

The directors first asked William Wakefield, designer of Duncombe Park, Helmsley, for a design but, when he died, approached Yorkshire-born Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl of Burlington, instead.

As a young man, Burlington had done three 'Grand Tours' of Europe, during which he studied the art and Classical architecture of Italy. He became familiar with the work of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (in fact, he took with him on his travels a copy of Palladio's 'Four books of Architecture, published in 1570). And it was this 'Palladian' style - a renaissance re-working of Classical architecture - that he adopted for the York's new Assembly Rooms, right down to the reconstruction of an 'Egyptian Hall' and the use of Corinthian columns.

The new rooms were first used in 1732 in time for race week - then, as now, a high point in York's social calendar.

The building continued to be used for dances and social meetings for 200 years, though its fortunes varied. By 1939, it had been taken over by the city council. A major programme of repairs was carried out, which was interrupted by the Second World War, and the fully restored building reopened in 1951.

It was bought in 2002 by the York Conservation Trust, which recently carried out urgent repairs when a routine survey revealed the ceiling was in danger of collapse. Now used as a restaurant, the building is still open for public view and is available for five days each year for council functions.

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