'This Hall was erected for the advancement of the Arts and Sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort. The site was purchased with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of the year MDCCCLI. The first stone of the Hall was laid by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on the 20th day of May MDCCCLXVII and was opened by Her Majesty the 29th day of March in the year MDCCCLXXI.'
A great Central Hall, dedicated to the promotion of Art and Science, was a key part of Prince Albert's vision for the South Kensington estate, which was developed on land purchased with the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
With Prince Albert's premature death from typhoid, the realisation of this vision was largely due to the energy and determination of Henry Cole. The design and robust structure of the Hall were inspired by Cole's visits to ruined Roman Amphitheatres. Detailed design of the building was started by Captain Francis Fowke of the Royal Engineers and completed, following Fowke's death, by Lieutenant Colonel (subsequently General) Henry Darracott Scott.
The original plan that the Hall should accommodate 30,000 was, for financial and practical reasons, reduced to approximately 7,000. Much of the money originally intended for the construction had been diverted to the building of the Albert Memorial. Cole raised the necessary money for building the Hall by selling 'permanent' seats in the Hall for £100 each. Preliminary work on the Hall by the contractors Lucas Brothers started in April 1867 and the foundation stone was laid the following month by Queen Victoria. The Queen opened the Hall four years later on 29 March 1871.
The heart of the Hall is the vast internal auditorium 185 feet wide by 219 feet long covered by a glazed dome constructed of wrought iron girders which, at the time, was the largest structure of its kind in the world.
Other notable features include the great Henry Willis Organ also, at the time, the largest in the world and, in tribute to its power and volume, described by a contemporary as 'The Voice of Jupiter'. Between 1921 – 1933 it was substantially modified and enlarged by the Durham-based organ firm of Harrisons and it was comprehensively restored by the London firm, Manders, between 2003 – 2004.
The distinctive exterior of the Hall, inspired by the architecture of Northern Italy, was built from some 6 million red bricks and eighty thousand blocks of decorative terracotta. Surmounting the exterior walls and above the balustraded smoking gallery, runs a continuous 800 foot long terracotta frieze composed of allegorical groups of figures engaged in a range of artistic endeavours, crafts, scientific and other cultural pursuits.
Between 1996 and 2004 a major refurbishment and remodelling of the Hall took place to adapt it to meet the needs of moderns shows and audiences at a cost of some £70 million.
The key to this programme was the excavation of a three and a half storey basement below the steps and gardens that lie to the South of the Hall, which houses a major loading bay so that scenery, sound and lighting equipment can be loaded in from trucks underground and out of sight and brought up into the auditorium on lifts. The excavation also accommodates plant rooms and performers' dressing rooms. New arena foyers, bars and lavatories were created and restaurant provision expanded. New function rooms were created at Grand Tier level and administrative offices and other non-public space concentrated behind the stage.
With the agreement of Westminster City Council, the road which previously encircled the Hall was stopped up at the South End and an entirely new South Porch was built to provide a day-time entrance to the building. Fresh air ventilation was introduced to the auditorium. The Hall’s famous pipe organ was completely rebuilt and refurbished, new decorative schemes and lighting were introduced in public areas and a number of investments were made to support the staging and broadcast of the shows themselves.
As a Grade I Listed building, every structural change had to be approved by English Heritage. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, this extensive programme of work was carried out whilst the Hall remained operational, closing for just two periods of four weeks when seating was replaced at Circle level and in the Stalls. Audience capacity was increased by the addition of an extra row of seats in the Stalls.
The development of buildings such as the Royal Albert Hall is a continuing process.
In 2008, one of two restaurants at Circle level was completely remodelled to create the stylish Coda restaurant and bar and a new function room was created at Grand Tier level.
In 2009, the Hall created a new state-of-the-art multi-use performance space above the West Porch. Known as the Elgar Room, this venue has already been used to host comedy, flamenco, world music, hush - the Hall's series for just signed bands, a classical coffee morning series in conjunction with the Royal College of Music, Late Night Jazz and post-show parties. It is also regularly used by children and adults participating in the Hall’s important Learning & Participation programme. This space originally housed the West Theatre which until the 1950's was the home of the Central School of Speech and Drama where, among others, Sir Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft and Dame Judi Dench trained as actors.
Other plans currently being developed include major investments to replace the Hall’s heating systems, to extend and upgrade artists' accommodation backstage, to further improve ventilation of the auditorium, to improve the energy efficiency of the building and to upgrade and to extend catering and hospitality facilities both for the public and performers.