One of East London’s earliest hospitals is currently being gutted, and there’s been a chance to see inside as they work to turn it into Tower Hamlet’s new Town Hall.
It became the Royal only as recently as 1990, but in 2005, it was decided to build a replacement hospital behind the old building, and a deal, somewhat controversial at the time, was agreed to convert the old building into Tower Hamlet’s town hall.
What looks like a large single building is actually a number of buildings that have expanded and merged over the years. The original hospital building sits in the centre, but the grand frontage we see today is actually a Victorian facade added on the front of the old building.
Two large wings on either side were added, tripling the size of the hospital, and over the past century, a cluster of shabby buildings filled up the gaps around the back.
The plans are to demolish the old buildings at the back and replace them with modern office spaces, while the innards of the old hospital building are being stripped back for conversion into more offices — all for the council.
Having been a hospital, even one in so impressive a building as this, its function was medical first and heritage second, so there’s little left of the old Georgian structure to salvage. The grand Victorian staircase is to be retained, and some of the old operating theatres will keep some decorative features, while the Victorian terrazzo flooring will be restored.
The truncated chapel will be restored, and turned into the staff canteen, although that’s now costing more than expected as the chapel suffered a lot of water damage after the hospital vacated the site.
Unsurprisingly for a building that’s evolved and changed over the years, they’ve found a lot of unexpected problems with stripping away the layers of industrial medical function so that the wards can be turned into offices.
Originally budgeted at £77 million, costs rose to £105 million, then again to £115 million as they found far more asbestos than expected, and also walls thought to be just partitions unexpectedly turned out to be structural. A tunnel running under the building turned out to be a bit different in reality from the plans.
Although the costs have jumped, they’re still looking at this as a long term cost saver for the council.
Of the £115 million current budget, they expect to pay back around £78 million from selling other buildings and moving staff to the new Town Hall. They also pay £5 million a year for the current Town Hall building in Blackwall, so the net impact is expected that they will have paid off the cost of the new building within 10 years, then saving around £5 million each year thereafter.
What they will have is a “one-stop-shop” approach to council services which also aims to improve how the council provides its services. One public aspect is that the eastern wing of the building, known as the Grocers Wing will have a double-height ground floor space for community services and local shared working offices.
The design of the new space will see the solid brick wall at the ground floor removed, and replaced with glass, so it will appear as if a large slot has been cut into the bottom of the building. Looks good in CGI, whether it will work in practice is will be down to the quality of the detailing in the final finish.
In the centre of the Victorian frontage, a grand clock turned out to be rather less impressive up close — it’s run off a battery. The space up here, rich in wooden supports was to be cleared until it turned out the wooden supports thought to be just loose partitions are holding up the roof, so something else needs to be done with the space.
Although the hospital archive went around identifying things to save, as the walls were stripped back unexpected finds turned up, including a WW1 air raid helmet and old newspapers from 1911.
The walls and ceilings are themselves revealing hidden mysteries about the building. Long lost bricked-up windows that no one knew had existed, to wooden blocks inset into the walls, and very curious concrete ceilings.
It’s expected that a lot of these features will be left exposed, as they add character to a building that was once, of necessity, clean and spartan. Colour details for the new offices will be designed to match the original flooring, which they aim to restore under the decades of coverings that were piled on top.
One of the oddities of the frontage that many people who looked up would have wondered at is a curious wooden block that sticks out from the brick wall. This turned out to be part of an operating theatre, and the wooden protrusion is standing space for students learning the art of surgery.
That will be retained as part of the refurbishment of the building, and will likely end up as an office for political meetings, which may be more animated than the anaesthetized patient who would once have dominated the room.
The site access was to mark an official event — the burying of a time capsule in the brick wall by the current Mayor of Tower Hamlets.
The conversion is due to be completed in 2022.
Some more photos