Since 1877, Manchester’s crown jewel, the Town Hall, has played host to many civic meetings, hundreds of weddings, Hollywood movie sets, and even the historic announcement of the Brexit referendum result.
Today, it is home to the biggest heritage project currently happening in the country.
By 2024, after spending £300m, Manchester City Council hope to reopen the town hall which will be refurbished, restored and saved from fading away.
The town hall in Manchester has been the city’s crown jewel since the 1870s and is now undergoing much-needed restoration. Pic: Historic England Archive
For the first time, every inch of this Victorian establishment is being acutely examined, an army of over 400 workers enriched with various skills have the task of preserving and making this building more accessible to the public.
It’s become one of the largest construction sites across all of Europe.
Project director Paul Candelent told Sky News it’s “a massive undertaking”.
“The building is wrapped in a scaffold which is enabling us to get access to all parts that have perhaps not had attention for the best part of 140 years,” Mr Candelent said.
“It gives us the opportunity to actually restore the external stonework facades, the roof will be removed, restored and replaced, all of the mechanical electrical services are being completely stripped out.
“Effectively, we’re making the building fit for purpose for the next 140 years.”
The building is wrapped in scaffolding, which has allowed builders to get access to all parts of it
In the middle of this six-year restoration programme, through the sheer scale and hidden depths of this enigmatic building, new secrets have been revealed.
Many of them are embedded in the architecture and design – characteristics and features you can barely see from ground level, but with extensive scaffolding in and outside of this building, we can now see Manchester Town Hall like we’ve never seen before.
The town hall, covered here by scaffolding, has played host to many historic moments, including the announcement of the EU referendum vote in 2016
From the intricacy of 140-year-old paintings on the roof of the Great Hall, to the fine detailed stonework of statues and gargoyles proudly standing 250ft high, contractors working on the building’s plumbing uncovered an underground brick tunnel, and in the corner of the Lord Mayor’s chamber, a cast-iron spiral staircase was also discovered.
Mr Candelent said: “As we go around the building and peel back the layers, we’re uncovering lots of different detail, which is actually fascinating.
“There are plenty of surprises.
“We’ve uncovered loads of artefacts which talk a little bit to the social history for this building. Old cigarette packets and beer bottles hidden away below floorboards and in secret cubby holes up in the roof space.”
Art dating back 140 years hugs the ceiling of the Great Hall
This project comes with a heavy price tag and Manchester City Council – which will foot the £300m bill – says it’s worth every single penny.
Bev Craig, the council’s deputy leader, said without this work the city would “risk losing the building forever”.
She told Sky News: “It’s been a really difficult time for local governments over the last 10 years, we’ve seen our budgets reduced year on year.”
The hall has hosted civic meetings, weddings and Hollywood movie sets. Pic: Historic England Archive
She added: “I would emphasise, this doesn’t take away from the money we spend on services, because this is long-term borrowing.
“Essentially we had one shot at this. We could have spent less amount of money and we’d have to come back in 10 years’ time to do more work to it.
“So we wanted to do it one go, minimize disruption, do the job properly and make sure we have something that we will all be proud of.”
The council’s deputy leader said the work is essential, because without it the building could be lost forever
Naturally, Manchester’s Town Hall means so much to the city, but the Grade I listed building also has architectural impact around the world.
It’s why organisations like Historic England have been heavily involved in decision making around the painstaking heritage restoration work.
Crispin Edwards, a listings advisor from Historic England, said the intervention is crucial.
Detailed stonework statues and gargoyle stand throughout the building
“This is Manchester’s crown jewel, it’s a real icon of the city. But as well as that it is nationally and internationally important,” he said.
“It’s one of the best Victorian gothic buildings anywhere. It’s part of the best civic complex outside of London, it’s in the highest grade of listing and on par with buildings like the Houses of Parliament, the quality is the same.”
Many involved see this as more than just a restoration project, it’s an opportunity to give back to Manchester and allow the public, for the first time, to be able to appreciate one of England’s awe-inspiring buildings.