This bonus post – the final post relating to Open House London on the 18-19 September – offers a whistle-stop tour of some of the other municipal buildings featured, some grand, some more humble. We’ll begin with municipal seats of government: in chronological order, the town halls which manifested the civic pride of local government in its heyday.
It’s appropriate then to begin with the oldest and one of the most impressive of these, the City of London Guildhall and its present Grand Hall, begun in 1411 – the third largest surviving medieval hall in the country. Externally, it’s probably the 1788 grand entrance by George Dance the Younger in – with apologies to contemporary sensibilities – what’s been called Hindoostani Gothic that is most eye-catching. The adjacent Guildhall Library and Art Gallery are also open to view – great facilities along with others provided by the City but as the Corporation is hardly a triumph of democracy we’ll move on.
At the other end of the scale what is now the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow is a modest affair. It started life in the mid-18th century as a workhouse but included a room set aside for meetings of the local vestry. It was later adapted as a police station before becoming a very fine local museum in 1930. If you can’t make Open House, do visit it and Walthamstow Village at another time.
Shoreditch Town Hall, on the other hand, almost matches the Guildhall in its civic pretensions – chutzpah indeed for a building, designed by the impressively named Caesar Augustus Long and opened in 1866 as the headquarters of a mere vestry, the modest form of local government which preceded the Metropolitan Boroughs established in the capital in 1900. Shoreditch, however, was far from modest – it was one of the most ambitious and innovative such bodies in London, taking particular pride in its path-breaking municipal electricity undertaking. The Vestry and later Borough’s motto ‘More Light, More Power’ had more than metaphorical meaning. You might recognise the figure of ‘Progress’ enshrined in the Town Hall tower too.
After a long period of decline the Town Hall was reopened in 2005 and is now a thriving community venue operated by the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust. Look out for a full programme of events celebrating the building’s 150th anniversary later this year.
Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881, is a humbler building despite the Italian palazzo styling adopted by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston. It also started life as a Vestry Hall but one intended nevertheless as ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’. It went on to serve as offices for Stepney Metropolitan Borough Council – while its great hall hosted balls and concerts and even early ‘cinematograph’ shows. It was well known to Clement Attlee, mayor of Stepney in 1919 and later the district’s MP. It’s been run by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust as a community venue since 2004.
Battersea Town Hall, begun in 1892 – an ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ design by Edward Mountford – has had a similarly chequered history, most notably surviving a disastrous fire in 2015. Fortunately, repairs and improvements have re-established the Battersea Arts Centre – in business again – as a wonderful local resource. Its local government heritage survives, however – a worthy memorial to the time when Battersea’s radical politics earned it the title, the ‘Municipal Mecca’. (The Latchmere Estate, a fifteen minute walk to the north and the subject of my very first post, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour in 1903.)
Richmond, a municipal borough founded in 1890 in the County of Surrey, was a more conservative body although it can boast (since its incorporation in Greater London in 1965) the first council housing built in the capital. Richmond Old Town Hall, also designed in Elizabethan Renaissance style by WJ Ancell, was opened in 1893 and now houses (since the creation of the London Borough of Richmond) a museum, gallery and local studies archives amongst other things.
Finsbury Town Hall was opened in 1895, another Vestry Hall at that time, designed by C Evans Vaughan in ‘free Flemish Renaissance’ style according to Pevsner. Look out for the Art Nouveau entrance canopy and internal fittings too. It’s a beautiful building making good use of a tricky site, subsequently home to one of the most radical of London’s Metropolitan Borough Councils. If you visit, take time to look at Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre five minutes to the south and the Spa Green Estate just to the north though neither feature in the Open House programme. The headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board, opened in 1920 just across the road, do, however.
Back to Finsbury Town Hall, it’s been the home of the Urdang Academy – a school of dance and musical theatre – since 2006 and, in its words, ‘an inspiring and fitting environment in which to train’. The Town Hall is still a local registry office for weddings and, for that reason, close to my heart and that of the woman who puts the ‘dreams’ into ‘municipal’.
Croydon, created a County Borough within Surrey in 1889, didn’t amalgamate with London until 1965 but the Town Hall, to plans by local architect Charles Henman, was opened in 1896 to provide ‘Municipal Offices, Courts, a Police Station, Library and many other public purposes’. The Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower complex retains some local government functions – the Mayor’s Parlour and committee rooms – but also offers a museum, gallery, library and cinema.
The first ‘free Classical’ phase of Redbridge Town Hall, by architect Ben Woollard, was opened in 1901 for Ilford Urban District Council. A new central library was built in the 1927 extension for the newly created Municipal Borough and further office space in the 1933 extension, contributing to the eclectic Renaissance of the overall ensemble. Since 1965 it’s served as the headquarters of the London Borough of Redbridge. The Council Chamber is one of the finest in London.
A visit to the Tottenham Green Conservation Area gives you an opportunity view a whole slew of historically significant buildings. With my municipal hat on, I’ll draw your attention to Tottenham Town Hall (HQ of Tottenham Urban District Council from 1904 to 1965) and the other examples of local government endeavour and service adjacent – the public baths next door (now just the façade remaining but, as the Bernie Grants Art Centre supported by Haringey Council, still serving a progressive purpose), the fire station (now an enterprise centre), and technical college (built by Middlesex County Council). Passing the new Marcus Garvie Library, you’ll come across Tottenham’s former public library built in 1896 just up the road. It’s as fine an ensemble of civic purpose and social betterment as you could find in the country.
And without doubt, Woolwich Town Hall, an elaborate Baroque design by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, is one of the most impressive town halls in the capital. Queen Victoria presides over the main stairway of the building’s staggeringly impressive central lobby but the building was opened, following Labour’s capture of the Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903 by local MP and dockers’ leader Will Crooks. That take-over by one of the largest and most active Labour organisations in the country (don’t neglect the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society here) heralded a proud era of reform to raise the health and living standards of the local working class.
Another fine example of Baroque revival is Deptford Town Hall, designed by the noted team HV Lanchester, JA Steward and EA Rickards and completed in 1907. Its exterior sculptures capture local pride in the area’s naval heritage. The guided tours focus on more controversial times – the Town Hall’s role as a court for trying conscientious objectors during the First World War.
Moving to the immediate pre-war period, the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster – originally housing, amongst other things, the offices of Middlesex County Council – was an unusual building for its time, designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in free Gothic style. It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.
The interwar era featured a new wave and new style of municipal architecture. Probably the most notable example, Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End, doesn’t feature in Open House this year but, now a local arts centre, can be viewed at other times.
Opened one year later in 1936, Romford Town Hall (now serving the London Borough of Havering) is a less elaborate building, designed by Herbert R Collins and Antoine Englebert O Geens in an architectural competition stressing the need for strict economy. It remains, however, a very fine example of the new International Moderne style in vogue at the time. Though its steel-framed construction is hidden here by brickwork and stone, rather than the white cement often favoured, this was a consciously forward-looking, more democratic architecture shedding the detritus of the past.
Walthamstow Town Hall (now belonging to the Borough of Waltham Forest) probably has the best setting of any town hall in London – a grand civic complex fronted by sweeping lawns and a grand central pool and fountain. The Town Hall itself was commissioned by the new Borough of Walthamstow created in 1929 and designed by Phillip Hepworth in a stripped down classical style with Art Deco touches owing something to Scandinavian contemporaries.
Begun in 1937 and completed in wartime, these straitened circumstances led to some economising in fixtures and fittings but it remains an impressive building. Walk round the back to see five figures by Irish sculptor John Francis Kavanagh, inspired by local hero William Morris, and note the Borough Coat of Arms mosaic at the entrance (and elsewhere) with its motto taken Morris – ‘Fellowship is Life’. You’ll see this inscribed on the pediment of the Assembly Hall, contemporaneous, to the right. The Magistrates’ Courts to the left weren’t built until the 1970s.
All these buildings, in different ways, reflect perhaps the proudest and most progressive era of local government – seen most practically in the health centres, washhouses and baths and housing which I’ve written of elsewhere but manifested too in administrative headquarters intended to represent and mobilise a civic patriotism.
Some of that shine had rubbed off by the 1970s – an era of civic centres in which function outweighed form in terms of design. Harrow Civic Centre, despite a distinguished architectural pedigree – it was designed by Eric Broughton, the winner of an architectural competition judged by a panel including Sir Basil Spence and Sir Hugh Casson – is no exception in this respect. Opened in 1973, it’s essentially a Brutalist, checkerboarded concrete box built around a large central courtyard.
Now it’s due for demolition. According to Chief Executive, Michael Lockwood:
45 years ago, Harrow Council built this Civic Centre because local government was growing and workers needed a building to match. Today, with the cuts faced by every Council, local government is changing all around the country.
It’s proposed to relocate, in his words, ‘a smaller and more agile organisation’, in three new centres. Presentations on the regeneration scheme will be presented in the Council Chamber during Open House.
All that could stand as an epitaph for local government but the new Brent Civic Centre, opened in 2013 near Wembley Stadium lets us end on a positive note. Brent chose a different path; the centre unites Brent’s civic, public and administrative functions under a single roof – in the words of its designers Hopkins Architects, ‘a new hub and heart for the community where residents can meet, shop and eat’. The latter, of course, is another reflection of changed times and priorities and an ethos in which public service is at best complemented by commercial imperatives and, at worst, subordinated to them.
I haven’t seen it but it looks, to be fair, a rather stunning building and, since it houses a community hall and library as well as a civic chamber and offices for the 2000 employees who keep the borough’s services going, let’s celebrate it as a worthy update to the civic heritage this post records.
I could add much, much more. I’m conscious that I’ve not included the many schools which feature in Open House, nor the libraries, old and new. Those endeavours reflect the cultural ambitions and achievements of municipalism but I’ll conclude with a brief mention of examples of more prosaic but vital functions.
Two example of Hackney public baths feature, firstly the small but beautifully formed bath and washhouse on Shacklewell Road now the Bath House Children’s Community Centre, designed by Borough Architect Percival Holt in what’s described as Modernist Classical style, opened in 1931. It’s been converted as the name implies.
Four years later, Holt designed a grander Art Deco scheme in Hackney Wick. The former Gainsborough Road Baths are now the Cre8 Centre, a busy cultural and event space.
These provided slipper baths and laundries. Finsbury was again more ambitious. The Ironmonger Row Baths, designed by specialist architect AW Cross and opened in 1931, included those, two pools and then – unheard of luxury for working men and women – Turkish baths.
The Council believed ‘facilities for healthy recreation and personal cleanliness…essential for the health and well-being of our people’. The words speak to the best of service to community which local government has embodied.