diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Open House: London's Town Halls
London is awash with Town Halls. 32 are current, but there are umpteen redundant town halls because most modern boroughs are amalgamations of three pre-1965 boroughs. Over Open House weekend several of these town halls, old and new, were open, so I tried visiting lots of them. Call it civic pride. Or call it an attempt to avoid queueing, because it seems very few Londoners shared my desire to look inside these municipal temples. Here's a brief report on six of them, progressing chronologically so you can see how architectural styles change.

Stratford Old Town HallStratford Old Town Hall
(Opened: 1869) (Style: Italian Gothic) (Current use: conference & wedding venue) [factsheet]

Despite living nearby, I hadn't realised that the old West Ham Town Hall on Stratford Broadway was usually open to the public. A ground floor corridor hosts exhibitions, of a sort, and the rear courtyard houses a cafe which runs with minimal publicity [photo]. But we got to see rather more than that, behind the scenes of what is now a venue hired out by the council to all and sundry. On Sunday that meant sharing the building with several evangelical churches, some of them extremely loud as they chanted and screeched and sang for the Lord. We saw the main hall, its chandeliers crafted on what is now the Olympic Stadium site, and its plasterwork restored to former glories after a vicious fire in 1982. We went down into the basement to see a row of 24 cells where they now store all the spare tables and chairs. And, best of all, we went up the belltower to look out across the length of Stratford Broadway [photo] [photo]. If the new (ambitious) centre manager gets her way, climbing up here might not remain a once-a-year treat in the future. Here's hoping.
(Tour guide: member of staff) (Tour size: 15) (Worth seeing? Yes)

Finsbury Town HallFinsbury Town Hall
(Opened: 1899) (Style: Free Renaissance) (Current use: dance school) [factsheet]

One of the early London town halls this, initially a Vestry Hall from the years when church boards ran public infrastructure, but upgraded with an overstated exterior flourish. It's also a very early example of Art Nouveau, as you may have seen from the rather gorgeous stained glass nameplates on the wrought iron canopy in Rosebery Avenue. The Great Hall is most impressive, as it had to be in those days to encourage bookings. The ceiling is covered by elaborate plasterwork throughout, while the light fittings comprise ethereal winged figures carrying sprays of illuminated bulbs [photo]. This lovely town hall's been underused since 1965 when Islington displaced Finsbury, and redundant since 2003 when the registrar's office moved out. The new tenant is a dance school, whose students cavort and sing and get generally artistic within ornate Victorian walls. Looks like the transformation's working well.
(Tour guide: volunteer) (Tour size: 9) (Worth seeing? Yes)

Lambeth Town HallLambeth Town Hall
(Opened: 1908) (Style: Edwardian Baroque) (Current use: Town Hall) [factsheet]

You'll have seen this one - it dominates Brixton town centre on the corner opposite KFC. I walked in through the automatic doors behind a very drunk man, who hurled some unintelligible verbal abuse, waved a can of lager and then stumbled out. Other than that, this was my most civilised and informative tour, led by one of Lambeth's esteemed councillors no less. He had a deep knowledge of everything he was showing us, from the type of marble on the grand staircase to identifying the seat John Major used to sit on in the council chamber [photo]. Best of all, this was the only tour of an existing town hall where we were allowed into the Mayor's Parlour. Our councillor had never held the role, but knew all about the Doulton on the sideboard and the origin of the two spades on the wall. All the rest of the tour was of public spaces open to all, but brought to life with verve even for a non borough resident like me.
(Tour guide: councillor) (Tour size: 3) (Worth seeing? Yes, for locals)

Walthamstow Town HallWalthamstow Town Hall
(Opened: 1938) (Style: Swedish inter-war) (Current use: town hall) [factsheet]

It looks most impressive from the road outside, viewed across lawns with municipal flowerbeds and a whopping great fountain [photo]. A little less so inside, especially when the Open House volunteer hasn't turned up. So I got taken round by the bloke who's whatever the official title for a caretaker is, and he was wonderful. If you want to know how a building really works, ask the bloke who keeps it ticking over. This is where they split one of the meeting rooms in two, sorry this door's locked, and here are the Chesterfields where the councillors mingle before a big meeting. He didn't know that pre-war spending cuts had led to terrazo being used in the foyer instead of marble, but he could recount where the queue for social services used to sit, and where the awards cabinet was, and what it's like to have to hand a note to the chairman during an important council meeting [photo]. Not what the man was expecting to do on his morning shift, but oh so very much appreciated.
(Tour guide: caretaker) (Tour size: 1) (Worth seeing? Ish)

Brent Town HallBrent Town Hall
(Opened: 1940) (Style: Dutch modernist) (Current use: town hall) [factsheet]

According to the Open House Guide, Pevsner believed this to be 'The best of the pre-war modern Town Halls around London'. He can't have gone inside. I've rarely been more underwhelmed by a building, but with a charming caretakery bloke showing us around I was far too polite to say so. He took us first into a large committee room with ugly brown furniture, which could easily have been transported from a mothballed failed secondary school. And then into the council chamber which, apart from its wood veneer walls, failed to inspire any architectural enthusiasm in me at all. Even viewing it from the public gallery didn't add anything, except for wasted time. The main hall might have looked better but there was a Hindu wedding kicking off in there, and they'd tarted up the space by covering the entire ceiling and all four walls with drapes. Sorry Brent, it may function well but yours was by far the most tedious town hall I saw over my Open House weekend. [no photo]
(Tour guide: member of staff) (Tour size: 2) (Worth seeing? No, really not)

Westminster City HallWestminster City Hall
(Opened: 1966) (Style: Sixties UglyTower) (Current use: city hall)

There are few architectural reasons for visiting Westminster's local seat of government. It's a hideous tower block on Victoria Street, whose only redeeming feature is that it's very tall. This means there's an excellent view from the 18th floor, where the Mayoral suite is located, and to which the public was admitted throughout Saturday. If you didn't get up to the top of 55 Broadway, this was the next best (or maybe better) thing [photo] [photo]. There was also rare access to the top floor vault where the borough's plate collection is stored. This being Westminster some of that was pretty special, most notably a series of silver Tobacco Boxes whose exteriors are covered by metal plates commemorating 'notable events'. Over two and half centuries these events range from the battle of Culloden to the imposition of the Congestion Charge, plus a suitably eclectic bunch inbetween. As for the rest of the building, and how the council HQ actually functions, not a clue.
(Venue guide: member of staff) (Tour size: n/a) (Worth seeing? Yes, for the view)

Merton Civic Centre
(Opened: 1962/1985) (Style: curved monolithic) (Former use: office block) [factsheet]
Hang on, I covered this one on Saturday. Enough already.

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