Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday November 12 2010
As the series covering some of the landmark locations that have grounded Arsenal`s history develops, it`s time perhaps to focus on the most iconographic of Gooner monuments. The place is often used by journalists and commentators as a reference point for the whole football club, a place so entrenched in the image of the club and so tied into its commonly referred to traits of class and tradition. It is a place that signifies the revolution of the club under Chapman in the 1930s into the prominent power in English football, our very own answer to Buckingham Palace. (Although it wasn`t heavily subsidised by taxpayers). Simon Inglis, author of Football Grounds of Great Britain described it thusly; "It really is the Lords of the football world. It is an institution." I`m talking of course of the lobby area in the East Stand, Highbury, popularly referred to as The Marble Halls.
When an increasingly spendthrift chairman Henry Norris was banned from football in 1929, manager Herbert Chapman was freed from the parsimonious shackles of his autocratic chairman and set about building his footballing place of worship. Chapman realised that in times of economic depression, supporters were going to need more than a couple of uncovered banks of earthy terracing to keep them clicking through the turnstiles at Highbury. With motorsports and particularly speedway increasing in popularity in a nation still in the thrall of the new fangled motor car, Chapman realised football`s hegemony as the national pass time was under threat. The West and East Stands at Highbury were previously uncovered mounds, Chapman set about turning them into palatial monuments of Arsenal`s standing. The West Stand was the first to be erected in 1932, replete with cantilever roof and plush, roomy seats. But the East Stand would become Chapman`s coup de grace. Arsenal hired top architects William Binnie and French designer Claude Ferrier. Ferrier had caught Chapman`s eye for some of his art deco work which had become renowned in French artistic circles. Given the man who effectively brought the curtain down on Highbury with his own vision for our future, it is fitting that the Marble Halls were crafted with a Gallic influence in mind.
The construction of the East Stand went enormously over budget, finally costing a cool £130,000, mainly due to the eye catching cream facade, with Arsenal Stadium etched onto the front in brilliant blood red, with cannon beneath. No expense was spared on the stand, which also held the dressing rooms, the club offices, the main entrance, as well as the quite unheard of idea to house match day entertainment facilities, such as a restaurant and cocktail bar which kept the likes of Buster Keaton coming back in the 1930s. The Arsenal crest was omnipresent; embossed onto napkins in the restaurant, the Arsenal A in its hexagonal framing formed the door handle and of course, was etched into the marble floors. (Which were not actually marble, but terrazzo.) As a piece of corporate branding, it echoed through the ages and never dated. The entrance was flanked by art deco lamp standards and approached by steep steps. To add even further to the sense of grandeur, Arsenal deployed a commissionaire at the entrance that doffed his cap at players from both the home and away sides upon their ascent into the building. On the inside, the terrazzo floors were overlooked ominously by the bronze bust of Herbert Chapman, carved by top contemporary sculptor Jacob Epstein. Likewise the dressing rooms cemented the palatial standards, with heated floors and marble baths in both dressing rooms. Luxury that was unheard of in depression era England. Middlesbrough striker from the 30s Wilf Minion marvelled, "The dressing rooms were beautiful with marble baths and heated floors. It said so much for the Arsenal that they catered for your every need. They had the class to treat opponents as equals."
Chapman was a stickler for sportsmanship and camaraderie. He insisted on visiting the labourers constructing the East Stand and speaking with the foremen on a daily basis. Soup and hot tea was laid on for workers free of charge. This sense of equality permeated the completed structure, despite its aristocratic allusions. To this day, the flowers in the boardroom are always dyed in the colours of the visiting team. (Chapman also insisted his players line up in the centre circle prior to kick off and applaud all four sides of the ground, regardless of whether they were home or away, to show respect to those that had paid their money. It is another custom that persists to this day). The Chief Executive`s office, the Chairman`s office, the manager`s office and the boardroom were also housed within the confines of the Marble Halls, all oak panelled with the Arsenal crest etched onto the door handles. It truly was football`s answer to the Taj Mahal. George Graham, speaking some seventy years after the stand`s erection commented, "It`s like walking into a five star hotel." The place upheld some of its quirky tradition, Peter Hill Wood, Arsenal`s third generation of Chairmen from the Hill Wood family, commented that his chair in the boardroom had a fifth leg. This was apparently, because his Grandfather Samuel liked to tip his chair when he was angry in board meetings. The piece of furniture stayed in situ for over 70 years.
The stand itself opened in October 1936 and was a two tiered structure that could seat 8,000, most of which was covered by a cantilever roof, serving the dual purpose of keeping spectators dry and keeping the noise brick walled into the stadium. A far cry from the uncovered muddy hill that it had replaced. The stand was flanked by two iconic, Perspex screens in the Upper Tier, which provided further protection from the elements. The edges of the stands were also curtained by an iron horseshoe design, which also ring fenced the Director`s Box, containing its plush leather seats. Naturally, with the club crest stitched into them in gold typography. The front row of the upper tier was embossed by concrete rendering that gave the impression of velvet curtains sloping off the balcony. It was luxury more akin to the theatre or a Hollywood movie premiere; it was simply a trailblazing monument for spectator comfort unseen in British sport. When he used the East Stand`s facilities and marble hall entrance for his 1962 fight with Cassius Clay at Highbury, boxer Henry Cooper was moved to snort, "These footballers have got it cushty!" Spectators with a seat in the East Stand could even expect to relieve their bowels in covered the toilets- a rare luxury in 1930s football grounds where urinating in fellow supporters` pockets or in uncovered troughs was par the course.
The East Stand and the Marble Halls were Chapman`s big statements that Arsenal were a club to be aspired to. Their commitment to gentlemanly behaviour towards their opponents showed the extent to which Chapman didn`t want Arsenal to be a club to be feared, but a club to be revered. That the Marble Halls became the main entrance point to the ground put it at the forefront of people`s conscience, not just for Highbury, but for Arsenal too. The facade, the commissionaire, the terrazzo floors, these weren`t items of garish bling designed to make others feel inferior, but touches of class intended to inspire awe. Shortly before Highbury closed its doors for good, Steve Bould said; "(The Marble Halls) were awe inspiring. The place made you feel you were upholding a tradition. It was never just 'Arsenal`, but 'the Arsenal." With Chapman`s lugubrious eye guarding the place through the medium of Epstein`s bust design, Chapman`s standards of excellence was a constant bar for Arsenal Football Club to remain in touch with. On the 18th July, 1997, the structure was granted listed status as a Grade II listed building, ensuring its preservation. Now Highbury is no longer a football stadium, the marble halls remain as a reception area for the Highbury Square flats- pied-a-terre to the likes of Robert Pires. The Marble Halls have become a metaphor almost, an artistic symbol of the club. Its far reaching ambition, its class, its heritage and its commitment to excellence. Conducting internet research for this article was next to impossible, for when one Googles 'the Marble Halls`, you see the phrase used as a reference to the club itself, as opposed to the structure. It was a work of mimesis. "The signing of Dennis Bergkamp sent shockwaves through the marble halls." The words are so inculcated onto the insignia of the club, that the very utterance of them to any football fan will be sure to bring to mind, not just 'Arsenal`, but 'the Arsenal.`LD.
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