Changing London

Modernism in Hornsey: Touring Crouch End’s redundant interwar town hall

Pass through the squeaky revolving doors and you enter the light and airy foyer of Grade II * listed Hornsey Town Hall. It’s a wonderful building dating back to 1935 and, despite its crumbling appearance (the gents toilets being a case in point), contains many fascinating original features. Apparently there are 76 clocks, powered by a master clock in the basement, although none seem to work!

But don’t come in here expecting to conduct any council business – the last Haringey Council staff moved out in 2004 and it is now a community arts centre, as well as offering space for local businesses. Much of the site in the heart of Crouch End, north London, however, stands empty while plans for re-developing it as a hotel and residential apartments as part of a £27 million scheme are firmed up.

Council Chamber at Hornsey Town Hall

Designed by an unknown New Zealand architect called Reginald Uren, it was built for Hornsey Borough Council, which had been formed as a municipal authority in 1903 and was relying on using premises at neighbouring councils for holding meetings. It was officially opened in a ceremony attended by the Duke and Duchess of Kent.

The new, RIBA award-winning building was one of the first in the UK to be built in a modernist style and was intended to make a bold statement in a borough that was growing fast. While some likened it to a jam factory and confused it as a new Underground station, the Hornsey Journal said that the “architect deserves thanks for boldly breaking away from the deadly classicism of the Victorian public building.”

Although the building clearly needs some attention, features ranging from original cork tiles to curtains remain. And when I had a look round, I even heard someone reminiscing about paying their rent at one of the surviving wooden counters.

Growing borough

The arrival of the railways (by the late 19th century six lines had reached the area), made Hornsey popular with middle class clerks. Until then, the land around where the Town Hall was later built would have been rural – a period of time remembered on wonderful etchings around the revolving door.

Detailed re-development plans still need to be drawn up for the site, but while that is happening Crouch End Walks is running a series of guided tours of the building. I joined one and saw the Council Chamber where 40 councillors would have sat in a semi-circle on the bulky facing the Mayor for council meetings. An upstairs balcony provided space for 40 members of the public to observe the proceedings.

We also saw the long Committee Rooms – overlooking Town Hall Square and which could be divided into three, allowing a series of smaller meetings to be held. The wood-panelled Mayor’s Parlour, which has an adjoining private bathroom, has changed little over the years. Outside this room there are two wooden boards displaying the names of all the Mayors in the municipal borough’s history from 1903 to 1965.

Uren’s building was more than just a place of administration however. The adjoining Assembly Hall was until the 1980s, when it closed for regular events, a popular entertainment venue. Some one thousand people could be accommodated at standing events, or 500 sitting. In the entrance hall blue lines painted on the floor provided queuing space for 200 people – a thoughtful feature allowing those waiting to reach the box office counter to keep dry if the weather was bad outside.

Assembly Hall

Queen, with Freddie Mercury, held its first performance here – attended by just six people! The Kinks also had one of its first gigs here. It also had a spring floor which could be raised by four inches, allowing dances to be held. Fascists meetings were also held in the room.

Abandoned

For the 15 years or so years when the building was virtually abandoned the Assembly Hall fell into a terrible state of disrepair and it was only following the relatively recent restoration of the roof that it was safe to enter the vast room. The stage has also now been renewed allowing gigs to be held here again.

In the 1960s there was a mass reorganisation of London’s councils and Hornsey Borough Council was abolished and it was incorporated, along with Wood Green and Tottenham, into Haringey Council. Although the centre of the new administration was shifted to Wood Green, Uren’s building continued to be used for offices and occasional meetings.

But faced with high restoration costs, the last Haringey staff were moved out of the old Hornsey Town Hall in 2004. The council planned to sell the building for re-development, as had happened with other redundant town halls in London, but they were met with fierce opposition in the Crouch End community which formed a group called Crouch End for the People.

After standing empty for so long, parts of the building were re-opened as a community arts centre two years ago. But in February 2017 Haringey Council entered into an agreement with Far Eastern Consortium to re-develop the site, incorporating a new hotel and 144 residential homes. It has been stipulated that the public access must be guaranteed to the key rooms that I visited on my tour, however not all are happy about the plans.

Uren’s masterpiece is a wonderful space to while away some time. Visit the cafe or just take a seat on one the comfy sofas in the foyer and admire the modernist features – like the pillars faced with marble – that were ahead of their time when the building was opened.

First floor stairwell and landing

Assembly Hall entrance hall, with queing lines marked on the floor

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