We have begun work to breathe new life into a medieval church as a creative community hub in Ipswich town centre.
St Stephen’s Church, which has been closed since 2020 when it housed the Tourist Information Centre, will reopen as the new home of the Smokehouse music venue. Owners Ipswich Borough Council says the renovation will encourage cultural activity in the town centre and has provided funding through the Suffolk Inclusive Growth Investment Fund (SIGIF).
Hugh Bunbury, Associate Partner here at Nicholas Jacob Architects, said the renovation of the grade II listed building is an interesting challenge. He said: “There are special, unique elements of St Stephen’s heritage that need to be preserved. Our focus is very much on balancing the preservation of historic features with the installation of modern upgrades.
“We are excited to be designing a modern performance venue for the Smokehouse, along with a daytime cafe and co-working spaces to support creators and artists.”
The new tenant is SoundsEast, a non-profit organisation which provides creative opportunities for young people and has outgrown its current home. The restored church will be able to host live music performances and events, while the daytime facilities will enable artists, performers, creatives and entrepreneurs to collaborate and socialise.
We will lead extensive works including internal and external drainage, free-standing ‘pod’ toilets in the Rush chapel, and creating a new, level entrance through the tower. A sound-reducing lobby and secondary double glazing will reduce noise for nearby residents. There will be a bar in the south aisle, designed to be both beautiful and functional, with the front recessed around the column bases.
Significant heritage assets, such as the superb Leman Memorial carving, which shows the family of Robert Leman, a wealthy member of the Fishmongers Guild kneeling at a prayer desk will be protected.
A free-standing stage will be installed by SoundsEast, with full performance lighting, speakers and storage underneath. The current carpet will be replaced with a wood plank-effect vinyl.
According to Sounds East, within three years, the new venue will support 1,000 independent artists, engage 50 local, national, and regional, organisations, bring 25,000 additional visitors and create 15 jobs. It will also bring in around £50,000 per annum – which they estimate will double after five years.
Joe Bailey, CEO of SoundsEast, said: “We are really excited about the project at St Stephens Church and breathing new life back into this historic venue. Ipswich has long needed a music venue around 225 capacity, and we’re thrilled to have been approached by Ipswich Borough Council to bring music, arts and culture to the heart of the town. The café will bring a vibrant daytime offer as well as our great mix of twilight and evening entertainment.”