The inspirational architecture of the racecourse that gave the world its first grandstand
“It is reasonably believed there had always been some form of horseracing from the very earliest moment at which there were two horses and two Yorkshiremen in the county of Ridings,” reflected Robert Black, a 19th-century authority on British racing. Horseracing in York is celebrated for its ancient pedigree. Lore has it that it was imported to the city by Emperor Septimus Severus in the third century A.D.
Moreover, it boasts an architectural pedigree that, in the history of racecourse buildings, is second to none, for, in the 1750s, it became home to racing’s first grandstand.
Racing commenced on the present site of York Racecourse, the Knavesmire, in 1731. By the end of the decade, its August race week (now the Ebor Festival, which runs from today until Saturday) was the annual highlight of the city’s social calendar. Visitors swarmed to the course, and racegoers of all social classes jostled shoulder to shoulder as they vied to glimpse the action of the track. The haut monde often took refuge in the comfort of their carriages stationed in the infield, but otherwise, amenities at the racecourse were sorely lacking.
This typified racecourses up and down the country. Permanent buildings were not part of racing culture. However, with York Racecourse’s growing popularity, there arose a mounting need for a permanent building that would both physically and metaphorically elevate spectators.
On December 7, 1753, the York Corporation authorised the building of a grandstand on the Knavesmire. Its opening, three years later, was a momentous episode in the history of sports architecture. This was not merely York’s first grandstand; neither was it simply the first grandstand at a Thoroughbred racecourse; it was – in the modern sense of the word – the first grandstand anywhere in the world.
Designed by local architect John Carr, it was an elegant, classical building, two storeys tall with a rooftop viewing platform. On the ground floor, a rusticated arcade led to a hall; above, a reception room extended the length and breadth of the building. From there, racegoers could socialise and watch the races, either from its large arched windows or from the stepped balcony that encircled the first floor.
The Grandstand provided a space in which to both socialise and view the action in comfort, and, through its sophisticated architectural vocabulary, it enunciated the éclat of York races and its patrons. In sharp contrast to the makeshift viewing stands of other courses, it quickly came to be emblematic of the meeting itself and, for the rest of the century, inspired a succession of other grandstands at other racecourses across the country.
The second half of the 18th century was an illustrious era for the York Races. By the 1830s, though, its star was in eclipse, due in large part to the ascendency of rival Doncaster Racecourse. Fortunately, recovery was at hand.
In 1842, a group of local racing enthusiasts banded to reverse this situation, forming the York Race Committee, and almost immediately set about making considerable alterations to the Knavesmire.
By 1844, the course had been made circular, an enclosure was built in front of the Grandstand, and a weighing room was built. A Stewards’ Stand was erected in 1851, to be replaced by another in 1853, on the north side of the Grandstand.
This, too, was short-lived. In December 1865, the Race Committee elected “to erect a new Stewards’ Stand with private boxes, retiring rooms, and other accommodation, for the use of the stewards and other subscribers to the stand”. In 1866-7, the 1853 Stewards’ Stand was taken down and replaced by the County Stand, which survives today.
“The ground front,” described The Yorkshire Gazette on the building’s opening in May 1867, “is principally of stone, designed so as to harmonise with the original Grandstand, having circular headed windows and stone pilasters. The terrace is enclosed with richly wrought iron work. The front of the saloon and private boxes is also protected with ornamental iron work, and the roof is supported on chaste iron columns with fretwork girders.”
For the rest of the century, the racecourse saw an almost continuous stream of new construction and additions. In 1875, a saddling paddock was created and a weighing room erected on its southern edge. This is the building known today as the Press Stand.
By 1880, a small polygonal stewards’ stand had been erected between the County and Press stands and, circa 1884, the Half Crown Stand was built south of the Grandstand.
In 1890, the 1756 Grandstand underwent a radical remodelling. Following the spring races that year, the upper storey and roof were demolished and, with the exception of the original arcade on the ground floor, all was swept away. Two new storeys of raked seating were erected above it, supported by ornamental iron columns and capable of holding more than 2,000 people. It was typical of the architectural typology of grandstands of the era.
In 1907, the Committee embarked upon its most dramatic phase of development since the racecourse’s creation nearly two centuries earlier. Since 1855, the Committee’s position on the Knavesmire had been one of tenants paying an annual rent on a year-by-year basis. However, in 1907 the racecourse was granted a 35-year lease for the land it had long occupied.
The change in tenure presented the Committee not only with greater security and control over the land, but also with an opportunity to expand its premises northwards. This marked the launch of an extensive and transformative redevelopment scheme, and the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between the Committee and architect Walter Brierley.
Brierley was Yorkshire’s most prominent architect. From 1907 to 1913, he presided over a series of improvement projects, which included extensions to the 1867 County Stand and the 1875 Press Stand, and new 5/ and 2/6 Stands.
Perhaps the most significant changes, though, were those made to the paddock. Between 1907 and 1909, the property line of the north end of the racecourse was expanded, allowing the creation of a new boundary wall, entrance gates, bars and weighing room.
The new perimeter wall and adjoining structures formed a unified ensemble built in red brick, humanly scaled and classically proportioned. Its coherency of massing, style and materials set the tone for succeeding building schemes throughout the 20th century, creating a visual consonance that few other courses can rival.
At the southern end of the expanded paddock, Brierley sited a standalone weighing-in room, built into the wall. To the north of the weighing-in building, he inserted a bar. This was no run-of-the- mill bar. Demonstrating a precocious appreciation of architectural history and example of adaptive re-use, it was created by re-erecting and re-purposing the only surviving portion of 1756 grandstand – the ground-floor arcade (now known as the John Carr Stand) – along the paddock perimeter.
Brierley’s improvements to the stands and the paddock had a transformational impact. They “elevated the Knavesmire into a specimen of what a model 20th-century racecourse ought to be”, applauded the Hull Daily Mail in 1909. “The place has no equal in Great Britain,” echoed the Sheffield Evening Telegraph.
Post-World War II
The 1950s and 60s saw profound changes in the approach towards racecourse design the world over. Society’s growing commercialism and leisure options bred new demands at racecourses: more comfortable seating, more seats under cover, more food and beverage outlets. All this ‘more’ necessitated bigger buildingYork entered into the spirit of the age, and began an almost continuous sequence of building.
In 1957, a new stand was erected to the north of the Press Stand; the following year, the 5/ Stands were demolished and, in 1959, and new stand was opened in their stead, built to accommodate 7,000 at a cost of £100,000. In 1965, the historic Grandstand was demolished and in its place rose a large, five-tier stand.
These were buildings of their age: they provided bigger audiences with modern amenities. However, compared to the characterful stands of the Victorian and Edwardian era, they were lacking in spirit and personified instead by utilitarian standardisation. One by one they have all since been replaced.
In 1989, the 1957 stand was succeeded by the Melrose Stand, a three- storey, 27-box stand with red brickwork and a pitched roof intended to resonate with the Edwardian buildings of the Brierley era. Seven years later, the Knavesmire Stand opened on the site of the 1959 stand and in 2003 the Ebor Stand was completed where once the 1965 stand stood.
Both the latter buildings were designed by practice GWP, and reflected the new priorities for grandstand design: commodious, flexible internal spaces and unobstructed sightlines of the turf.
In 2015, the racecourse has completed its most ambitious remodelling since that of Walter Brierley in the early 20th century. Under the direction of architect Brendan Phelan, the paddock area has been transformed. Racegoers now enjoy improved hospitality amenities – most notably with the painstaking restoration of the John Carr Stand – but the focus of the project has been the horses and horsemen.
The equine athletes have a large new pre-parade ring, sporting timber-lined, slate-roofed saddling boxes and improved veterinary provision; adjoining the ring, jockeys can enjoy a new weigh-in building, far bigger, more commodious and more easily accessible than its Edwardian predecessor; while owners, trainers, and winning connections have two dedicated buildings nearby.
While the new buildings and landscapes offer modernised facilities for horses, horsemen and spectators, they have not diminished the historic spirit of the racecourse; indeed, they have succeeded in capturing and enhancing it. Paying deference to York’s heritage through a red brick and slate palette and ornamental cast iron, the newest chapter in York’s physical history is a fitting addition to the architectural legacy of this venerable track.
T. Gibson, ‘The Designs for the Knavesmire Grandstand, York’, The Georgian Group Journal, vol. 8, 1998, 76- 87
Hull Daily Mail, 30 August 1909
P. Roberts and I. Taylor, Racecourse Architecture, New York: Acanthus, 2013
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 24 August 1909
J. Stevens, Knavesmire: York’s Great Racecourse and its Stories, Pelham Books, London, 1984
R. B. Wragg, ‘The Stand House on the Knavesmire’, York Georgian Society Report 1965-6, 3-9
The Yorkshire Gazette, May 1867