Theatres in Ayrshire ~ 1800 - 2014

The Opera House, Kilmarnock

Located in John Finnie Street, the Opera House was opened in 1875.  It was the first substantial theatre in Kilmarnock although there had been numerous forerunners in the previous 40 years.  Contemporary accounts refer to the venue as the New Theatre.

Like the earlier theatres in Kilmarnock, the Opera House had a few years of popularity, but this did not last.  By the turn of the century patrons were able to travel to Glasgow where a wide variety of entertainment was offered or found other attractions in the burgh.

The theatre, described as an Italianate style opera house, was designed by the father and son team, James Ingram (1799 -1879) and Robert Samson Ingram (1841 - 1915).  These architects were responsible for the design of many of the public buildings in Kilmarnock erected during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Thee New Theatre, sometimes known as the Operetta House, was built by a Joint-Stock Company at a cost of £7000. The architects, builders and joiners were all local; Andrew Calderwood, who later worked on the Burns Monument with Robert Ingram, was the builder and James Rome, the joiner. The foundation stone was laid by John Gilmour Esq. of Elmbank, a Kilmarnock Coalmaster.
The first lessees of the building were William Glover and George Francis, established theatrical managers at the Royal Theatre in Glasgow. The first show to be performed in the building was "Guy Mannering" by Sir Walter Scott.  This musical play had been premiered at the Covent Garden Theatre in London on March 12, 1816, with text by Daniel Terry, a friend of Scott, with music by Henry Bishop.

Describing the theatre, Archibald Adamson notes that it is a building that far surpasses anything of its kind in the West of Scotland. The interior is commodious, beautifully fitted up, and is of large proportions. The front, which is Corinthian and elaborately ornamental - is gracefully chaste.

After the Opera House fell dark in the late 1890's, it functioned as a saleroom and as a church (circa 1930/40) and latterly a public house and night club. Most of the building was destroyed by fire in 1989.  The rear of the ruined building was demolished in January 1992 but the facade remains, albeit in poor condition.  The facade is a 'B listed' structure.

In 2003 the local authority gave outline planning approval to an application for a hotel and retail development, incorporating the remaining facade. The plans included a basement retail unit of 546 sq. m. with a 5 floor hotel above.   Subsequently, the Klin Group proposed a three storey retail location, known as the Encore Project, in the style of Glasgow's Princes Square.  However, there was little progress with this proposal, with the development company concentrating on their Andrew Barclay Heritage Centre.

In July 2010 the Local Authority approved plans for a bespoke office suite to be built by the Klin Group.  The offices will house the council's finance and IT staff.  The existing facade of the building will be retained although an additional floor will be created above the this facade with a roof structure above, including fenestration, that approximates to the 1875 roof profile.  The new roof structure will rise above the ridge heights of the adjacent buildings.  The planning approval includes a number of conditions, including allowing RCAHMS time to complete a record of the facade although there is no provision for archeological investigation on the site.  The proposals for fenestration in the roof area was not approved and required further consultation.

The new construction is well advanced and much of the external brickwork and the roof have been completed.  Work on the interior of the building is now underway.  The new building extends above the existing facade; indeed, the new roof level is considerably higher than the original and appears to be higher than the adjacent buildings.  Drawings indicate a heavily featured mansard treatment for the additional floor overlooking John Finnie Street.  The attractive balustrade above the three central bays in the original construction and clearly shown in the monochrome photographs is omitted from the current design'

The developer of the site claims Donald Trump as her inspiration: after a few attempts she got him to send her ideas on how to approach urban regeneration, advice which she has put to good use in Kilmarnock.  'His best advice was to interact with the community and bring it with you!'

There is no information on the stage or other facilities in the house and the building is not recorded on the Theatre Trust database.

Ref.: Rambles Round Kilmarnock
A R Adamson( 1875)
Published by T Stevenson, Kilmarnock Standard

For further information on the Historic Scotland Listing, please follow this LINK

For further information about the re-development and to view drawings, please follow this LINK


A Phoenix on John Finnie Street.

Text in Preparation

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Opera House
1.  The New Theatre in John Finnie Street, circa 1875.  magnify    ©East Ayrshire Council.

2.  The Opera House facade on John Finnie Street, viewed from the south west.  magnify   ©Mike Bailey

South West3.  The Opera House facade on John Finnie Street, after restoration, viewed from the south west.  magnify   ©Mike Bailey

Opera Rear
4.  The Opera House was destroyed by fire.  This is the vacant site seen from Strand Street.   magnify   ©Mike Bailey

5.  Details on the damaged facade, prior to restoration.   magnify   ©Mike Bailey

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