Manchester Town Hall
Described as one of the most impressive buildings of our time, Manchester Town Hall is a neo-gothic building, completed in 1877 and designed by architect Alfred E. Waterhouse. The towering municipal building acts as the Headquarters for Manchester City Council, holding several council departments within, as well as a collection of imposing murals by the artist Ford Madox Brown depicting important events in the history of the city. The Town Hall was rated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building in 1952 and the Town Hall Extension, completed in 1938, was Grade II listed in 1974.

After an investigation of suitable sites, including Piccadilly, the site chosen for the new town hall was an oddly shaped triangle facing onto Albert Square. The choice of location was influenced by a desire to provide a central, accessible, but relatively quiet site in a respectable district, close to Manchester's banks and municipal offices, next to a large open area, suitable for the display of a fine building.

A competition was held to design the Town Hall. Of the 137 entries in open competition for the design, Waterhouse's design was chosen, mainly for his ingenious planning, and he was appointed as architect on 1 April 1868. The foundation stone of the new Town Hall was laid on 26 October 1868 by the Lord Mayor of Manchester, Robert Neill. Construction took 9 years, used fourteen million bricks, and cost £775,000 (£53.5 million as of 2010).

The Town Hall was opened by Lord Mayor Abel Heywood, who had championed the project, on 13 September 1877 after Queen Victoria's refusal to attend the opening. The building exemplifies the Victorian Gothic revival style of architecture, using themes and elements from 13th-century Early English. The choice was influenced by the wish for a spiritual acknowledgement to Manchester's heritage in the textile trade of the Hanseatic league and also an affirmation of modernity, the fashionable gothic style being preferred over the classical architecture favoured in neighbouring Liverpool. 

The exterior, faced with hard Yorkshire sandstone known as "Spinkwell stone", is decorated with carvings of important figures in Manchester's history. The interior is faced with multi-coloured terracotta by Gibbs and Canning Limited. The painted ceilings were provided by Best & Lea of Manchester, who had also provided the ceilings in the Natural History Museum in London, also designed by Alfred Waterhouse.

A competition to build the Town Hall Extension was won by Emanuel Vincent Harris in 1927, as well as a separate competition to design Manchester Central Library. Work began on the extension in 1934 and was completed by 1938. The later building features stained-glass windows by George Kruger Gray. The Town Hall was listed by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building on 25 February 1952, and the extension was Grade II listed on 3 October 1974.

The stone facades of the town hall were slowly blackened by soot from the industrial revolution which boomed in Manchester, this has now become a feature of the inner courtyard, a sort of memorial to Manchester's fastest era of growth. Rapid industrialisation and population growth in Victorian cities caused great problems for architects including, denial of light, overcrowding, awkward sites, noise, accessibility and visibility of buildings, and air pollution. Design stipulations for the Town Hall had Included provision for "the sufficiency of window light supplied throughout the building." This was addressed by the use of a number of architectural devices; suspended first floor rooms (made possible by the use of iron-framed construction), "borrowed lights" and skylights, extra windows and dormers and glazed white bricks in conjunction with mosaic marble paving in areas where the light was "less strong".

Clear glass was used in important rooms with lightly coloured tints for coloured glazing as "the sky of Manchester does not favour the employment of deeply stained glass." In Manchester, many important Georgian buildings had become blackened by atmospheric pollution. By the 1870s the local soft red Collyhurst sandstone was deemed to be to be unsuitable for public building and tough Pennine sandstones were preferred.

The architectural competition entries for the Town hall were judged on their suitability for the “climate of the district” and sample stone types were investigated. Waterhouse believed that it was ‘a matter of great difficulty to find a stone “proof against the evil influences of the peculiar climate of Manchester” but decided that the Yorkshire quarried "Spinkwell stone" would resist “the deleterious influences of Manchester atmosphere”. The interior decoration was also chosen with a view to providing permanent colour and cleanable surfaces. Public corridors were faced with terracotta rather than plaster, and extensive use was made of stone vaulted ceilings, tiled dados and mosaic floors.

Waterhouse's design for Manchester's new Town Hall, used a Gothic style with limited carved decoration and a uniform colour. This, along with a limited amount of modelling detail, was a departure from the High Victorian heaviness and use of colour in other contemporary Gothic buildings, and the Town Hall was criticised by some Manchester inhabitants for not being Gothic enough. Many also commented on the decision to spend large amounts of money on a building "when most of its architectural effect would be lost because ruined by soot and made nearly invisible by smoke." Waterhouse's design proved successful, however, and although the exterior was blackened by the late 1890s, the stonework was not badly damaged and was in a suitable condition to be to be cleaned and brought back to its original appearance in the late 1960s.

Despite its medieval styling, the building was designed to support the practical technologies of the 19th century. These included gas lighting, and a warm-air heating system which provided fresh air drawn through ornamental stone air inlets placed below the windows and admitted behind the hot water pipes and 'coils' of rooms. Warmed, fresh air was also fed into the stairwells and through hollow shafts within the spiral staircases in order to ventilate the corridors. The pipes that supplied the gas for the lighting were ingeniously concealed underneath the banister rails of the spiral staircases.


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