diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Open House: Something Hall

Last year, for no especially good reason, I visited lots of London's Town Halls for Open House. This year, for even less of a good reason, I visited lots of non-Town halls. And what a lot of different non-Town halls there were.

Freemasons' Hall: That's New Thames House, the MI5 HQ, if you watch Spooks. Or it's the centre of UK Freemasonry, the United Grand Lodge of England, if you're a man with a trowel. Blimey, what a building. A tall white Art Deco masterpiece on the edge of Covent Garden, with lofty belltower and towering columns. On Saturday those columns were plastered with car-related sponsorship, thanks to a London Fashion Week event that was taking place inside. At the side entrance waited a queue of uber-trendy dolled-up wannabes, for whom blown-back hair and unfeasible footwear were de rigueur. Meanwhile at the front entrance, beside a promotional Vauxhall, a trickle of less well-dressed Open Housers arrived for a scout inside. The interior is magnificent, as you might expect from an organisation nominally dedicated to the building trade. First up are three vestibules, blessed with stained glass windows and ornate spiky ceilings. These lead through bronze doors to the Grand Temple, which is essentially a rectangular-ish auditorium topped by a stunning painted roof [photo]. Here many visitors sat down to soak in the splendour of the azure blue mosaic cornice, or perhaps to wonder what strange trouser-rolling ceremonies might have taken place before the Grand Master's throne. Careful eyes would have spotted the Square and Compasses motif everywhere, perhaps atop a pillar, perhaps in the supports of a footbridge. The official route passed through the Library, open to the public as part of the Museum of Freemasonry, should you fancy a look around some non-Open-House day. And then a winding route back to the street, past mysterious rooms full of tapping fashion journalists, and beautifully coiffured stylists, and workmen lugging lighting equipment. Most peculiar, quite surreal, when three worlds collide.
Great Queen Street, opened 1933

Methodist Central Hall: In a prime position opposite the entrance to Westminster Abbey, yet often overlooked, is a large religious building with an impressive history. Central Hall was built to commemorate John Wesley's centenary, and comprises a mixture of spaces for worship, meetings and show. At its heart is a theatre-like Methodist chapel beneath a massive concrete dome, with a colour-changing organ dominating the front wall. It's a very flexible space, used for services and community activities, and also the location of the first ever meeting of the United Nations in 1946. Various major public enquiries are held in the lecture hall downstairs - indeed it was very much busier here before the giant Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre was built alongside. And if you've ever wondered precisely where the World Cup was when it was stolen in 1966, it was here. Understated, and they like it that way, yet a key London building for almost a century.
Storey's Gate, opened 1912

Conway Hall: Next a gathering place that's definitely not religious. Conway Hall was built as the headquarters of a humanist group called the South Palace Ethical Society, to be somewhere they could come to discuss and orate and think. It's tucked away in the corner of a Holborn square, partly resembling an Art Deco cinema and partly a 1930s church hall [photo]. The brick facade seems narrow but shields a larger irregular site behind. It's like stepping back in time, walking in through the entrance hall, with a solid yet mundane aesthetic that's comfortingly pre-war. The main hall is off to the right, with the three-sided balcony accessed up a winding staircase, and acoustics to die for. On the stage here you might listen to an anti-racism speech, or lead an interesting conference, or attend the regular Sunday evening concert (they've been going since 1887 and are reputedly the longest running series of concerts anywhere in the world). "To thine own self be true" reads the inscription above the boards, which is a phrase from Hamlet, not that you're likely to find the Bard's works in the Library. Think more leatherbound psychology, back copies of The Skeptic and anything by Richard Dawkins. You have to admire the collective resilience that's kept this building functioning over the decades, and it's definitely somewhere to consider if you ever need to host anything uplifting, worthy and non-commercial.
Red Lion Square, opened 1929

Drapers' Hall: A short bus ride into the Square Mile, a dramatic contrast. The Worshipful Company of Drapers is one of the three most important livery companies in the City, because people have always wanted to wear wool. The company's longevity has amassed it a great fortune, and some of that is on display as part of the sumptuous ornamentation throughout the building. Nothing here's older than the Great Fire, and they've had two, while most of the excess decoration date back to Victorian times. Never leave a plain surface when it could be heavily patterned, appears to been the motto of the various architects. All the rooms are stunning, especially the Livery Hall with its marble pillars, ceiling frescos and ring of golden arches. One lady guide remembered attending the Coronation Ball here - an epic evening of dancing in this gilded bubble until breakfast was served the following morning. There's money in sheep, and this place proves it.
Carpenters' Hall: What a difference a bomb makes. While Drapers Hall survived WW2 almost completely intact, Carpenters' Hall was destroyed when a gas main exploded along London Wall. The interior was completely rebuilt, slowly, gradually, throughout the 1950s, to create a modern twist on a traditional City HQ. Almost every surface and additional feature is made of wood, be that a panelled wall, a carved sculpture or a curving banister. Essentially the building allowed the Company's master craftsmen to show off, in teak or mahogany. The overall look may now be a little dated, but one careless flame is all it would take to spark a complete modern revamp.
Chartered Accountants' Hall: There are several non-medieval Livery Companies, one of which belongs to the official overseer of Britain's numbercrunchers. The exterior along Moorgate Place may look Georgian, yet much of the interior is terribly modern. There are comfy-chaired alcoves where you can imagine being schmoozed by a client, plus a large bland conference hall where there must have been so many one-day seminars on tax legislation. But take a few steps to the original wing and there's a magnificent classical reception with parallel murals rising to a skylit dome [photo], and a library with a Venetian bridge across the centre. Not everything about accountancy is grey and predictable.
Throgmorton Street (or thereabouts)

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