Walk 6: The Civic Plunge Revisited

On the 24th March we set off, led by John East and Nicola Rutt, on an epic tour around thirteen town halls in North London. Even if the occasional stop was fleeting, this was a long, full and fantastic day, accompanied by lovely sunshine.

Following a similar tour undertaken by the Society in 1989, this trip provided opportunities to see how buildings had fared in the intervening twenty-two years. Focusing on ‘adaptation, re-use and restoration’ (John East, Walk Notes) this day offered the chance to reflect on the transformation of these (and many other public buildings) in the nineties and noughties, a process of change which may well accelerate with the current climate of austerity.

The group met at St Pancras Town Hall (A.J. Thomas, 1934-7) and Annexe (Camden Architect’s Department, 1973-7). Here we were able to see right from the start the changing needs and uses of council buildings; the Annexe is soon to be demolished, and, although the Society considered asking for it to be listed, in the end a decision was made that it wasn’t a good enough example to warrant a campaign.  The Annexe will be replaced with a twenty storey mixed use tower built by a developer.

Camouflage at Stoke Newington Town Hall

From here we were soon whisked on, by coach, to Stoke Newington Town Hall and Assembly Hall. Built in 1934-7 by Reginald Truelove, this building is looking very dapper following a refurbishment by Hawkins/Brown in 2009. Highlights for me included the Art Deco interiors, painstakingly returned to their original glory (and with hidden high tech touches), learning about the technology behind sprung floors for dancing, and the very unconvincing camouflage paint on the exterior, applied in World War II to hide the building from enemy view (left).

Following a brief look at Hackney Town Hall exterior (Lanchester and Lodge, 1934) we moved on to the Portland stone-clad classical Islington Town Hall and Assembly Rooms (E.C.P. Monson, 1922-5) where we were again let loose inside. Though the Assembly Room did not seem to impress the group (too crammed, too many details), the opulent entrance hall and council chamber were grand, with the former sporting lovely green paintwork. Here we encountered one of the key contemporary uses of town halls at the weekends: weddings! With more than a dozen on the timetable for the day we witnessed three couples arriving and appeared in the background of photographs of one of the happy parties whilst trying unobtrusively to exit the building.

Wembley Municipal Offices

Smiling handles at Wembley Municipal Offices

After this we went on to Wembley Municipal Offices (Clifford Strange, 1935-9), a dramatically different building to those we had seen before: pared down brick moderne (left). ‘Neither fanciful nor drab’ according to Pevsner, this building did nonetheless tickle my fancy, with beautiful fixtures and fittings still in situ (right), partly as a result of limited council funding for modernisation.

The council will be moving to a new building within the new Wembley complex in 2013, and after that the listed 1930s building will need to find a new use. The Society will need to keep its eyes peeled over the coming months…

After a drive-by view of Wood Green Civic Centre (Sir John Brown, A.E. Henson and Partners, 1955-8), with time pressing, we made a stop off at Tottenham Town Hall Complex (A.S. Tayler and A.R. Jemmett, 1903-5). Here the unexpected orange Moorish-style domed ceiling in the first floor council chamber was a delight, whilst the Bernie Grant Centre (David Adjaye Associates, 2006-7), provided pause for thought about the changing politics of community life in the local area over the last fifty years, the achievements of the building’s namesake, and the changing priorities and material shape of council spaces in the twenty-first century.

Walthamstow Town Hall

In the late afternoon sun we made it to the surprisingly grand and imposing Walthamstow Town Hall (P.D. Hepworth, 1937-42, right). Feeling very European (and whisper it, a little fascist?!) this huge site with classical buildings, green bell tower and formal fountain certainly made a statement about the role of the council in the borough.

The next highlight, after a very bleak drive through Dagenham, was a real gem of a Civic Centre (E Berry Webber, 1936-7), which again, we were allowed inside. Dagenham Civic Centre was refurbished very sensitively in 2003 and looks fabulous today. With a huge portico marking the entrance, the entrance hall, and particularly its brightly patterned ceiling is particularly lovely (below). The semi-circular Council Chamber also drew very positive comments from the group as we all took the opportunity to sit and rest our feet.

Ceiling at Dagenham

Our final stop was at Bethnal Green Town Hall (Percy Robinson and W. Alban Jones, 1909-10), which, following years of neglect after it was vacated in 1993, has now been reconstructed as a swanky boutique hotel. Along with eye-watering prices, the building also offers many original features, such as the furnishings in the council chamber, now hired out for classy conferences. Here we encountered another wedding party in full flow, and a building delightfully full of life. A place I need to go back to for a cocktail or two…

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