The grand plan to save a 100-year-old town icon left in ruin

There are ambitious new plans to turn one of Essex’s most beloved buildings into a state-of-the-art facility which could hold anything from concerts to church meetings.

For more than 100 years, the Kursaal building in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, has entertained the town’s residents in a myriad of different ways.

When it opened, it did so as the world’s first purpose built amusement park, which was situated on a large outdoor space beside the main landmark building.

The outdoor space was eventually sold off for housing, but the main building evolved and adapted throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

It held wrestling matches, ballroom dances and iconic concerts headlined by the likes of AC/DC, Queen and Status Quo.

In later years, the building evolved once again, becoming a bowling alley with arcade, as well as a casino.

But over the past three years, both bowling alley and casino shut down, leaving the sole occupant the Tesco Express on the outside of the building.

As huge developments take place around the town, there has been fears that the Kursaal may eventually be lost as it slowly becomes more and more decrepit.

But, earlier this year, plans started to form to turn the Kursaal back into one of the most important places in Southend-on-Sea.

A collective of artists, community workers, church groups and more have banded together to form Concrete Culture.

The group aims to turn the Kursaal into a landmark multi-use space, which could be used for concerts, markets, community events and more.

We spoke to Concrete Culture member and musician Sam Duckworth to find out more about the grand plan to save the Kursaal.

An empty icon

The Kursaal has been an icon of Southend for more than 100 years
The Kursaal has been an icon of Southend for more than 100 years

Ever since the Kursaal’s penultimate tenant – the Rendezvous Casino – shut its doors back in July, the historic landmark has loomed empty over the Southend-on-Sea skyline.

Once a seafront titan, the Kursaal is ingrained in the town’s identity.

A political ward is named after it, it appears on road signs, and generations of residents have memories from the building’s 100 years of operation.

To see it vacant – barring a Tesco Express supermarket on the exterior of the building – is a sore subject for many local residents.

Sam Duckworth, 34, has lived in Southend-on-Sea for much of his life, and currently co-owns the SS2 Recording Studio in the town.

For nearly two decades, Sam’s had success making music under the moniker Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, bagging two top 40 albums, and four top 40 singles.

Sam Duckworth, also known as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, is part of the Concrete Culture collective working to create something new at the Kursaal
Sam Duckworth, also known as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, is part of the Concrete Culture collective working to create something new at the Kursaal
(Image: Sam Duckworth)

He too is upset seeing the Kursaal in its current state.

“Everyone in Southend has had the ‘Kursaal conversation’ at some point,” said Sam.

“‘Wouldn’t it be great if that was this again? Isn’t it a shame that it’s closed?’ It’s the most important building in the town in terms of its heritage.

“It’s certainly the most famous, and for it to be closed is sad.

“People’s grandparents have met there, people’s lives have changed within that building for three generations and it’s not open and it sucks.

“When you bring your friends to the town you live in and you tell them about it, they say: ‘Wow that’s amazing, what’s in there now?’

“People ask ‘why’, and actually why?”

Timeline of the Kursaal

The iconic Kursaal building

1901 – The iconic building is built by a father and son, along with acres of land used as gardens with occasional fairgrounds. The central building contains a ballroom, circus, arcade and dining room. It’s named the Kursaal Palace, and opens as the first purpose built amusement park in the world.

1910 – The company running the Kursaal go out of business. The land is bought by a new company – who rename it Luna Park and heavily invest in the fairground aspect of the park. They build roller coasters, a miniture railway and a cinema. Luna Park regularly gets 100,000 visitors a week and is the star of Southend.

1915 – The new company goes out of business, and an American businessman buys the park – renaming it the Kursaal. The circus is turned into an ice rink, and the gardens begin hosting sporting events. A zoo is opened in 1916.

1919 – Southend United begin playing their home matches at a ground built in the Kursaal’s gardens.

1927 – Greyhound racing begins at the Kursaal. Crowds of 5,000 turn up for the first race. The races stop in 1929.

1934 – Southend United move to the Southend Stadium.

1939 – The Kursaal closed for the length of World War Two.

1948 – The Kursaal reopens, installing new rides and attractions.

1970s – The ballroom hosts musical acts like Deep Purple, Queen and AC/DC.

1973 – Business takes a downturn and the outdoor attractions close.

1977 – The ballroom closes.

1986 – The entire building closes. The outdoor land is sold off for housing.

1998 – After more than a decade of inactivity, the building is reopened by a private company. A bowling alley, arcades, a McDonald’s, a casino a multiple other businesses move in. The regeneration of the building costs millions of pounds.

2008 – The McDonald’s shuts and moves into a second location on Southend high street.

2019 – MFA Bowl collapse into administation closing the bowling alley and arcade. It looks as though a nightclub company may step in to save the business but the deal falls through.

2020 – The Rendevous Casino closes down – citing COVID-19 as an factor. Only the Tesco Express remains open.

During the first lockdown, he and a number of other artists had a Zoom conversation to discuss the opportunities – or lack thereof – for creative individuals in Southend-on-Sea.

They began to discuss potential solutions, and the emptiness of the Kursaal kept coming up.

Once an iconic music venue, it seemed like the perfect place for a similar sized venue to re-emerge.

“We’re in this strange situation in Southend as creatives where we’ve got amazing space in the Cliffs Pavillion, but it’s really big and really expensive,” said Sam.

“I’ve been playing Chinnerys (a much smaller venue on Southend seafront) since I was 16 years old, and I love that venue, but when you get bigger it’s not big enough.

“If you are medium sized, there’s not really any options.

“There has to be a reason why it can’t be the Kursaal, otherwise why not the Kursaal? Not just for arts, but if it’s that big, why not for other things too?”

Used by everybody, designed by everybody

The iconic Kursaal is now empty
The iconic Kursaal could re-emerge as an essential town facility

The question was too big to ignore, and eventually the initial small group of creators expanded to include other groups which needed space in Southend-on-Sea.

It quickly became clear that a variety of different groups from all corners of the town were in need of infrastructure to do what they want to do.

Sam explained: “People who were working with food were saying it would be great to meet up and do food markets.

“Same with people who are really passionate about independent cinema and church groups.

“We ended up with a list of 200 things that could happen in that space.”

It became clear that if the Kursaal was simply a space reserved for creative industries, other groups would be missing out.

So Concrete Culture decided to investigate how to turn the Kursaal into an experimental mixed-use facility, which could be used by multiple different groups for different reasons at different times.

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“It’s three acres, why do we have to decide?” said Sam.

“If churches need a big space once a month, and artist need a big space three times a month, why don’t we time share?

“If there are food markets and farmers markets that plays into tourism, why not work with pre-existing restaurateurs and actually offer a great opportunity for growth?

“A multi-use space that can be used for everybody and designed by everybody is the best case scenario.”

At a time when huge projects like the Better Queensway scheme, the Marine Plaza and the Seaway development are changing the landscape of the town, Concrete Culture are proposing a complete re-utilisation of one of Southend-on-Sea’s oldest buildings.

Sam said that Concrete Culture see the potential renovation of the Kursaal as an opportunity, not only to make sure the town keeps hold of its history, but also to celebrate it.

“Firstly, we want the building to be officially recognised as an important building,” he added.

“The Esplanade isn’t there anymore, the last place left is the Kursaal, it has to be preserved.

“It’s Grade II listed because it’s beautiful, not because it’s old, but it’s legacy is massive.

“I’ve been in situations all around the world where I’ve got ‘I’m from Southend’ and people have said: ‘Ah Dr Feelgood! Kursaal Flyers!’

“We should be archiving this stuff and teaching it.”

“There’s a possibility of turning this dream into a reality”

The iconic Kursaal building
The iconic Kursaal building

Sam and the rest of Concrete Culture are under no disillusions on how big of a challenge a full scale renovation of the Kursaal would be.

Although Southend Borough Council hold the freehold license on the building, the current leaseholder has a 250-year lease to use the building.

Any progress would require either the current leaseholder to surrender their lease, or for Concrete Culture to work alongside them.

Sam thinks that although the mountain ahead of the team is huge, it’s not impossible.

He said: “It would be one of the most intense and large scale projects in a very long time and no one is in denial about that.

“Three acres of indoor space for a modern, brand new scheme that no one has ever tried before.

“We can pull that off in Essex, we’ve got that pride and creativity.

“We need to find a way, if there’s anyway possible, whether it’s working alongside the leaseholder or whether it’s buying it or whether it’s taking the lease on.

“There a possibility of turning this dream into a reality.

“Our objective is to do this, but we are under no illusions on how big that is.”

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Concrete Culture have already achieved a difficult part of task, by getting their foot in the door with Southend Borough Council.

Labour councillor for the Kursaal ward Matt Dent has long called for a public consultation on the future of the Kursaal.

He has already attended online meetings held by Concrete Culture, and he says that he’s very impressed with what he’s seen.

Cllr Dent said: “I attended their Zoom call the other week, and I’ve got to say I was absolutely floored.

“It’s exactly the sort of stuff that we’ve been talking about since the first time the bowling alley closed.

He added: “It’s come up organically, from the community which is absolutely wonderful.

“They’re so serious about it, and they’re not just thinking of ideas of what the Kursaal could be used for, they’re looking at how they can reach the point where it can be used for that.

“That’s the difficult side of it, they’ve really grasped the bull by the horns.”

“I think we have a real opportunity here”

Cllr Matt Dent said he was delighted by Concrete Culture’s plans

Yesterday evening (Thursday, December 10), Cllr Dent brought up Concrete Culture’s work at a full Southend Borough Council meeting.

From that, Cllr Kevin Robinson – the council’s cabinet member for business, culture and skills – has agreed to meet up with the Concrete Culture team to discuss the next steps.

Cllr Dent said: “What I wanted to secure last night was from the pay-in from the top of the council of the political side of things.

“I’m incredibly pleased that Kevin has agreed to meet with them about it. I know Kevin shares my enthusiasm for getting the Kursaal reopened, and I think he’ll be able to help the facilitation of it.”

He went on to explain that Concrete Culture’s focus on heritage is a brilliant idea, and a good way to make sure their plans come to fruition.

He said: “What they’re talking about, with promoting the heritage side of it, and looking into sources of heritage funding; I think that’s the missing link.

“The ideas are great and we all want to see the Kursaal brought back into the community, but it’s the getting from A to B and I really feel their ideas around heritage funding could really bridge that gap.”

A recent statement from the Kursaal’s current leaseholder appeared to show intention to turn the building into a hotel.

However, Cllr Dent has dismissed these comments saying: “I’m not convinced this hotel suggestion is any more than just musing out loud.”

Indeed, no evidence was presented to show that these plans were being seriously considered.

For Cllr Dent, the unique multi-use arts community hub is the clear path forwards.

He said: “I think actually there’s a lot of viability in what Concrete Culture are suggesting – it’s not pie in the sky stuff.

“Their passion is really paying dividends, but so too is their thoroughness.

“I think we have a real opportunity here.”

From December 21, Concrete Culture will be holding an online consultation open to residents and businesses.

To get involved, click here.

Essex Live