Last edited 08 Mar 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The repair and restoration of Manchester Town Hall

A heritage-led strategy for the repair and restoration of Manchester Town Hall aims to secure the building in its designed use, encourage access and conserve its significant heritage values.

Manchester town hall interior.jpg
A typical corridor in the town hall: efficient, well-lit, richly decorated and with leading views to the courtyard and other areas.



Manchester Town Hall, the civic heart of the city, is a critical link to the achievements of its innovative and industrious history. This is reflected in its outstanding design by Alfred Waterhouse, which is as functional as it is beautiful.

The combination of practicality and glamour can be seen in everything from the police cells to the banqueting rooms, and perhaps nowhere better than in its circulation spaces. The near-diagrammatic plan form of the building allows for the efficient layout of civic functions, and circulation between them. Corridors and stairwells efficiently surround the richly-detailed courtyards, transforming simple circulation spaces into moments of great interest and expression. The three great spiral stairs, cleverly located at the nodal points of this near-triangular form, act as efficient circulation, beautiful design pieces, and even passive ventilators for the building through the placement of heating elements at their base.

If the town hall is to remain as the functioning civic powerhouse, it needs repair, restoration and carefully considered alteration. The Our Town Hall project aims to secure the building in its designed use, encourage access and conserve its heritage values. Alongside the city council, Purcell, the design and heritage lead, works with a team that includes Mace, Faithful and Gould, Arup, Planit IE, Ramboll, Deloitte and Lendlease. Purcell developed a bespoke heritage-led approach to managing change to the building.

The project objectives were:

Purcell’s team developed a ‘statement of significance’ for the building, setting out the primary attributes that contribute to significance. The significance assessment strategy was transparent and repeatable. In a Grade I listed building comprising over 700 rooms and a vast range of different materials and elements, understanding relative significance was key to effective decision making. The team applied Historic England’s Conservation Principles (2008) to provide a clear process in evaluating why anything from the Great Hall to a police cell was of significance, and to what degree.

The result was a short statement, centred around five primary attributes that embody the significance of the building, which all contribute to the nationally-recognised heritage values.

Built fabric and construction technique

The town hall was built in the late 19th century, at a time when mass production was rapidly expanding and handcrafts were being replaced by mechanisation. The construction is both typical and innovative, in different ways. For example, the concrete construction of the jack arches and the use of riveted steel were newly patented techniques, and internally we see the use by Waterhouse of applied terracotta for the first time. In other areas, commonly-used techniques and the overall scale and repetition of fabric reduce significance. Many of the decorative features are of the highest quality, and designed specifically for the building or space.

Plan form and circulation

The plan form was designed to allow multiple uses and the corridor plan is one of the key components of the building’s significance. There are the triangular site, four entrances, spiral staircases, and the central corridor with periphery internal spaces, enclosing the Great Hall and Police Station in the central area, within courtyards. The layout is simple and legible, allowing the separation and expression of various uses in a hierarchy of spaces.

Civic pride and collective memory

The collective memory derives from the meaning of a place for the people who relate to it, and the position the town hall holds within the collective past, present and future experiences of visitors and the people of Manchester. It is crucial to understanding significance locally and nationally. From a gathering place for commemorative events to a public visitor space, the town hall has both positive and negative experiences associated with it, differing for each individual. The continued civic and ceremonial role that the town hall embodies is significant.

Continued use and functionality

The town hall continues to function in its original use as a civic and ceremonial hub. These uses are tangibly expressed within the building and the designed functionality of the spaces adds substantially to their importance.

Architectural form

The architectural language of the town hall is coherently expressed externally and internally throughout the building as a monument to neogothic architecture and the aesthetic movement. The high-quality carvings, techniques, materials and decorative details are part of the building’s aesthetic significance, and its presence within the townscape of Manchester is highly important. Its setting within Albert Square expresses its hierarchical intent through decorative detail, and many of the internal rooms exhibit the hierarchy of spaces through their embellishment.

The next key element of the strategy was to secure heritage-led change as part of the decision-making process. This required a clear and succinct pathway for decision making that could apply to everything from the restoration of decorative paintwork to the insertion of new lift cores. The methodology was brought forward into presentations and regular engagement sessions with Historic England and the Victorian Society, whose input throughout the project has been valuable and constructive.

The Victorian Society has called it ‘one of the biggest and most significant projects the society has been engaged with for many years… we consider the nature of the consultation process to date has been exemplary.’

The heritage-led strategy for the Our Town Hall project engaged and empowered professionals in related fields to engage in the positive conservation of significance as an integrated part of the design process. Not only did this lead to better collaboration and understanding of positively managing change to heritage sites, but it formed the basis of further bespoke conservation principles and strategies for the building – for everything from restoration to the distribution of plumbing.

This article is a companion to ‘Respecting Waterhouse’ by Christina Sinclair, Rebecca Stone and Tom Waterson, Context 159, May 2019.

This article originally appeared as ‘Manchester Town Hall: understanding significance’ in IHBC's Context 164 (Page 36), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in May 2020. It was written by Christina Sinclair, senior heritage consultant and Rebecca Burrows, associate heritage consultant, both with Purcell.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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