On the corner of busy Brixton’s main road is Lambeth Town Hall, a grand municipal building that has recently completed a major refurbishment. And tours were held for this year’s Open House Weekend.
The building was constructed for Lambeth Council in 1906-08 in the Edwardian Baroque style, and opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 29 April 1908. A later extension was opened by the same Princess of Wales in 1938, who was by now Queen Mary.
Over the years, bomb damage and the gradual accretion of internal additions saw the grand building becoming increasingly unsuitable and costly to maintain, until a refurbishment in 2018 cleared out a lot of the clutter, while also reducing the cost of the council’s office services.
They’re planning to cut the number of offices rented from 14 to just two, although at the moment it’s still three due to the need for covid spacing. That’ll save the council around £4.5 million a year.
And at the same time, they gained a much improved Town Hall.
The main change has been to open up the central lightwell, which had been filled in with a 1st-floor office rendering it a dark and gloomy place. As with other refurbishments of Edwardian buildings, there’s the now-standard model of putting a roof on top of the lightwell and opening up the bottom as a meeting space. Here there’s also a bridge linking the former front entrance with the new main entrance which is now at the back of the building, where a much more practical open space exists for crowds and meetings.
A subtle thing to look for is that where the old white tiles had been damaged, suitably stained replacements were hard to find so the infill is often a painted effect, but they’ve also preserved damage in places as a reminder of the lightwell’s previous uses.
Upstairs is where the main council rooms can be found, up a curving staircase and into a reception foyer lined with stained glass and motifs of council heritage. The Prince of Wales is represented here a lot not just because he opened the building, but mainly through the Dutchy of Cornwall, he owned a large chunk of land in Kennington. Still owns the Oval cricket ground.
A nice touch is that some of the windows are plain, and being filled in when significant events take place, so do look for the Festival of Britain in one of them.
One thing that was pointed out on the tour is that most of the rooms are fairly plain in that they lack paintings and decorations — as council rooms serve a dual function as they can be hired out for events. A plainer wall is preferred over one lined with portraits of (invariably) middle-aged men.
Up here is also the main council chamber. Apparently, people sometimes comment on the blue fabrics in a rather less than blue council, but it’s just a colour, not a political slogan. Not to mention, could you imagine the cost of changing all the decorations whenever a different party is in charge? Sadly the days of walking through the Ayes and Noes doors have long since been replaced by a voting button on the desk. I like a bit of pomp myself.
The original part of the building shows some of the fashions of the time, such as art nouveau decoration on the door handles, that swiftly passes to inter-war plainness when you get to the building extension.
As a building that was always intended to be used for public events, there’s a huge hall, which does rather have the air of a school hall or gymnasium to it, possibly because so many schools were built around the same time. An extending stage is currently stuck in the closed position.
As a refurbishment, it’s clearly turned a difficult building for modern working into something usable again, as the alternative was to sell it off for conversion into flats. The council, rightly, preferred to be in the heart of the town centre, and while the £80 million spent on the refurbishment is substantial, it’s also covered by lower office rentals elsewhere, and increase rental from hiring out the spaces inside.
It also looks a lot better inside, and the tour guide taking us around who works in the building says it’s a much nicer place to work.
And the atrium is a wonderfully airy space.