Investigating the past, the present and the future at Hornsey Town Hall, the UK’s first Modernist-style building

Hornsey Town Hall

Arriving at Hornsey Town Hall for its last-ever guided tour before its redevelopment(more on the reasons behind this later), I was intrigued to see a camera crew milling around outside. I later found out that this is a very popular location for filming, not to mention a lucrative source of income for the local council: EastEnders, The Hours, Whitechapel and The Crown have all spent time here on location.

Although construction began in 1935, plans for a new town hall had actually been drawn up as far back as the 1880s, when Hornsey was a rapidly-expanding collection of villages. In due course, a Town Hall was built upon Highgate Hill; however, as the suburb expanded eastward, Highgate became less as suitable as a home. Any thoughts of moving the Town Hall, however, had to be put on hold with the advent of the First World War.

The area in which the existing Town Hall would eventually find itself became very popular during the 1920s, when it was effectively the heart of Crouch End. With the local council continuing to purchase houses and gardens in Haringey Park, by the 1930s there was enough space to build a municipal building.

Who, though, should design such a prestigious building? Following the example of a number of its London counterparts, the Council duly held a competition to which 218 entries were submitted. The winner was 27-year-old New Zealander Reginald Uren, promptly rewarded with a £100,000 budget and a two-year deadline. He would go on to deliver the building on time – and only just over budget.

It has to be said, from the outside, Hornsey Town Hall is somewhat unprepossessing. This is not a building which makes your soul sing. That, however, is intentional: Uren wanted the austere style to reflect London’s grief, post-War. With an entire generation of men having been wiped out during the War, he was also hindered by the loss of so many building and design skills.

This was, however, a very modern building incorporating air conditioning, electricity and underfloor heating, by no means common features in the 1930s. It was given a very striking entrance, its bronze gates and the frieze on its tower decorated with animals, to represent the Bishop of Hornsey’s hunting ground.

Inside, the building feels very different. Finding ourselves in its spacious Reception, we immediately noticed the marble-topped columns and bronze carvings which appear throughout the Town Hall. Remarkably, some original 1935 curtains hang in the Reception – adjacent to a group of tellers’ desks; this is where Hornsey residents used to come to vote – and also to pay their rates.

Inside Hornsey Town Halljpg

The other thing you notice is how much you’re surrounded by glass. This, our guide explained, was necessary because when built, the Town Hall was surrounded by imposing Victorian buildings which blocked out much of the natural light in the area.

From Reception, we meandered into the Town Hall’s Assembly Rooms – which are unexpectedly large. In fact, the entire interior was bigger than I expected: it belies its exterior. It was in these Assembly Halls that the Town Hall’s Opening Ceremony took place, in November 1935, and where 1,100 seated attendees awaited the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, who turned up in an open-topped sports car. The Mayor, who had invested his heart & soul into the planning, commission and building process, was so emotional that he spent much of the Ceremony in tears.

Later that day, a banquet was held for a more select group, who were entertained by the famous ventriloquist Ernest Sewell before being given a tour of the Town Hall while the Assembly Rooms were made ready for them to dance the night away.

On their tour, guests would have seen into the cosy Mayor’s Parlour, furnished with wooden panelling, drinks cabinet, in-built electric fire and en-suite bathroom – all of which were considered both modern and unusual. They would have wandered down The Long Room, noting its Tudor influence – and into the Council Chamber, whose 48 seats were laid out in the style of an Athenian debate. These 48 seats were matched numerically in the Gallery, the idea being that a member of the public would be present in respect of each Councillor. Interesting historical fact: the Council Chamber is quite dark inside, being dependent upon borrowed light; this wasn’t considered an issue at the time the room was designed, because the majority of Council meetings took place before 5pm – in those days, councillors were expected to be gentlemen of leisure.

Council Chamber

Once back in the Assembly Rooms, the guests enjoyed a spectacular evening of entertainment, topped off with a lavish buffet. This tradition of entertainment would continue for the next few decades: dances, school concerts, political rallies and panto would all take place here – as would Queen’s debut concert, attended by a grand total of seven people.

What does the future hold now for Hornsey Town Hall & Arts Centre? For some time now, this Grade II-listed building has been in urgent need of restorative work and refurbishment – both of which its owner, Haringey Council, says it is unable to afford. The Council has now found a buyer – a developer who is planning a mixed-use scheme combining community spaces, a boutique hotel, restaurants and a residential development (affordable housing, we are told). In the meantime, parts of the building are being operated by arts group ANA as the Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre.

I hope this is the right decision by the Council. I can understand why it feels unable to fund the restorative work on its own, but there is always a danger when you sell to a developer that the character and accessibility of a building will be lost. I also can’t help being cynical at the promise of “affordable” housing – it will be very interesting to see what that actually means. Still, this is a Grade II listed building, meaning that a number of restrictions will be imposed upon the developer; let’s hope that they cherish Hornsey Town Hall in the way that the residents of Crouch End, and all that visit this iconic building, clearly do.

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