Quick trivia: what famous London concert hall has its birthday today? Answer: the Royal Albert Hall, which was opened by Queen Victoria on 29 March 1871. The site of Albert Hall was originally meant to be part of Albertopolis (yes, that’s seriously the name he came up with for it), a series of facilities Prince Albert planned to build, dedicated to the enlightenment of the public. His death put an end to that idea, but the land Albert Hall sits on had already been bought, and the concert hall was proposed, opposite a memorial in Hyde Park.
Victoria certainly wasn’t going to stand in the way of some massive monument to her dead husband, so in April 1867 she signed the Royal Charter of the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences. She obligingly laid the foundation stone in May that year. Once it was finished, Victoria officially opened it, though she was too overcome to speak at the opening (her son, the Prince of Wales, gave the welcoming speech instead).
At a concert following, it quickly became apparent that there were some serious design flaws. Namely, the acoustics were horrible, which is kind of a problem in a concert hall. The room produced an echo so pronounced that people joked it was the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice. Engineers hung a canvas awning below the building’s dome in an effort to fix the acoustical problem, and though it helped, it didn’t fix it entirely. It wasn’t until a series of fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs were installed in 1969 that the issue was solved.
Unlike many notable buildings, Albert Hall was left mostly untouched by the bombing during World War II. The reason: German pilots used it as a distinctive landmark. Better than being blown to brickdust, I guess.
The Hall was heavily renovated between 1996 and 2004; work included the rebuilding of the great organ, which is now the second largest pipe organ in the British Isles (the largest is in Liverpool Cathedral).
Throughout its history, the Hall has played host to a diverse series of events, including classical and rock concerts, conferences, poetry recitals, ballets, operas, sporting events (including the first Sumo wrestling tournament to be held in London), and it featured in the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Man Who Knew Too Much. Every summer, the series of concerts known as The Proms is held at Royal Albert Hall, and the day before Remembrance Sunday is the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance. The Hall has also hosted several high-profile film premieres; most recently, the premiere of Skyfall, which was attended by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. The range of events and sheer number of them (more than 150,000 since the Hall was dedicated) have led to it being affectionately titled ‘The Nation’s Village Hall’.