All the York Buildings You Can Get Special Access to with York Unlocked this Autumn
Event founder Kathy M King has the key and she’s sharing the city’s secrets
The first open weekend of this kind (La Journée Portes Ouvertes) was held in France by the Ministry of Culture in 1984. The Netherlands held their first Open Monumentendag in 1987. Sweden and the Republic of Ireland joined in 1989, and there are now 60 Open House cities around the world.
The London one (which is the one that I first became aware of) started in 1991 and I went every single year that I could (maybe 15 to 20 times),’ says Kathy. ‘Masses of people from all over the world have become very engaged in these open weekends. When I moved to York in 2019 I asked locals when we had ours and they said “we don’t”, but what a fantastic idea it was. So I went to bigger organisations within the city, like the York Conservation Trust to see what they thought about York Unlocked, and they seemed really keen as well.’
Kathy hopes that visitors will take this chance to explore York’s urban landscape and appreciate and understand the diversity and richness of its heritage. Herbert House (a Grade I-listed building dating from the 16th and 17th centuries), The Guildhall (a municipal building behind York’s Mansion House) and RIBA award-winner Bootham Bar Café (also known as Bean & Gone) are just three of the buildings involved. ‘I think for York to continue to evolve and maintain its uniqueness, people need to engage with the urban landscape and educate themselves about it a bit more. For some of the older buildings like The Guildhall, they’ve needed some changes over the years, but when they explain why they’ve done it and you see the end result people start to appreciate the challenges and the difficulty of coming up with a workable solution.
‘A really good example of that is Herbert House. It’s a Tudor building that the Conservation Trust bought. They buy buildings, fix them up and then rent them out. At Herbert House they have a big conservation challenge on their hands. How you can conserve something so amazing but also make it fit for purpose? They want to use the opportunity provided by York Unlocked to ask people what they think. People are very possessive about a lot of the buildings in York, and conservation is such a hot topic.’
Kathy has learned plenty about York while preparing for this event but found two aspects most interesting: recycling and repurposing. ‘Throughout hundreds of years, York has recycled its buildings and building materials. If you go to somewhere like Holy Trinity you’ll see a massive range of building materials spanning many hundreds of years. I love the way they take parts of other buildings and incorporate them into their own. A good example of repurposing from my point of view is the City Screen Picturehouse building, which of course used to be a print-works. They have completely repurposed the space and made it, I think, absolutely spectacular. A lot of people come to York who don’t know about that building and don’t go down that little alleyway off Coney Street,’ she says.
‘This is about encouraging people to actually look at parts of York they don’t normally see. Another good example is the Brew York building. You go down a little alleyway and you wouldn’t think twice about going into that building, but when you do go inside and up the stairs and open the door, it’s just “wow”. I know loads of people who live in the city who’ve never gone into that space. We’re making people rethink the buildings and parts of York they don’t normally go into.’
One building that’s rarely open to the general public is independent Quaker boarding school, Bootham School. It was founded in 1823 but it wasn’t actually based on Bootham at that time, it was over on Lawrence Street. When looking for ways to celebrate their bicentenary next year, the school’s development director Elaine Phillips was keen to get involved in York Unlocked. ‘I wanted to find a way to welcome people from the city into the school because we have some really beautiful facilities,’ Elaine explains. ‘Because we’re a school, we have to be very careful with safeguarding. We can’t just let anyone walk in. By chance, Kathy got in touch with me with her York Unlocked idea – it was an ideal combination. People can come into our building and get an idea of what we’re celebrating.’
Visitors will walk into the entrance hall on Bootham to start their tour of the school. ‘That building dates from the 18th century,’ Elaine tells us. ‘From there, we’ll look at a part of the building which comes from the 19th century. The school flourished throughout the 19th century but right at the end, in 1899, there was a complete disaster where a significant part of the back of the school burnt down. In 1900 and 1902, the back of the building was rebuilt and it was actually rebuilt in an Arts and Crafts style.
‘We can then look at some early 20th century architecture. They decided that actually it wasn’t a good idea to have the science faculty in the same building as everything else so they built a completely separate science school, and as part of that, they built an observatory. We’re actually one of very few schools in the UK to have an observatory. We’ll then show visitors a 1960s brutalist building. We also have a building from the 21st century which sits alongside that one. That’s a nice contrast. Guests can see four centuries of buildings, and we’re still using them all today. We have these architecturally significant buildings and they are full of history. They’re part of the York story and I think as far as possible it’s important to share that with York’s visitors and the city’s residents.’
'A good example of repurposing from my point of view is the City Screen Picturehouse building, which of course used to be a print-works. They have completely repurposed the space and made it, I think, absolutely spectacular'
Elaine is excited about being involved in the first York Unlocked event. ‘I love the idea of people being able to go into buildings and seeing different things that they don’t usually have access to,’ she continues. ‘It looks like a really exciting programme, and I’m just sad that I won’t be able to get to see inside any of the other buildings because I’ll be busy showing people around Bootham. I think Kathy has done a fantastic job and I hope that it’s going to be a great success and we can carry on doing it in years to come.’
Kathy says that all depends on the success of this year’s event. ‘This year we stuck mostly to within the city walls (although there are a couple just outside the walls, like Bootham School) but in the future we’d like to go further out into York,’ Kathy says. ‘With the first year under our belts, people will see the value it can have to business owners as well as to the local tourism economy. We know already that people are coming up from London and Manchester for example. I think some people will tell us that we’ve opened too many buildings but I know that London opened around 800, and you can cherry pick your favourites. I’d like all our pre-booked tours to sell out quickly (which I think they will) and next year I’d like for more big York-based organisations to get behind us and make it even more of a success – and perhaps a permanent fixture in York’s events calendar.’