Published: 12 July, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
For the past 40 years or so Shoreditch Town Hall has hung slightly back from Old Street looking a little forgotten and forlorn – its once grand facade no longer fashionable, accruing grime and muck.
At one point the roof almost fell in and English Heritage had to put the Grade II-listed building on the “at risk” register.
But, in a way, all that might have worked in its favour.
The developers have ignored it.
The Assembly Hall still has its marble-veneered walls and maple wood-sprung dance floor.
The brick-lined labyrinthine cellars still have their original 19th-century fire places and ovens.
The Vestry Room still has its chandeliers and stained-glass windows with inlaid motto: More Light More Power.
Now these treasures – untouched since 1903 – have been rediscovered and new director Nick Giles is well on the way to turning the building into one of London’s most diverse and beautiful arts venues.
“There’s a lot of space and as we go forward it will just grow and we’ll develop it,” Nick says. “In the autumn we’ve got a pilot programme which includes Paines Plough and Roundabout theatre.
“The Almeida are going to come and do a site-specific piece in the basement.
Then there’s a big project with the Barbican, which is part of the Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Awards. They want to showcase all the finalists. So we’re doing eight pieces in this building in eight different spaces.”
In addition, classical musicians are queuing up to play there. Harold Pinter has already been staged in the cellars, and innovative new theatre companies – Theatre O and the London Snorkelling Team – will take up a residency.
The Town Hall, built in 1865 and extended in 1903, became surplus to requirements in 1965 when Shoreditch Council was merged with Hackney. That brought to an end one of the oldest town council’s in British history.
The building, explains Nick, is so sumptuous and light because the town councillors who built it spared no expense. It was a public building, and as such should accommodate as many people as possible – and only the best would do.
“By the time they got to the 1800s they were pioneering Victorians and wanted to be instrumental in affecting people’s lives,” he says.
They then went on to provide electricity for the populace by building a generating room across the street to burn rubbish, and used the surplus heat for public baths. That generating room is now the Circus Space.
“I think there was a feeling that they didn’t really know what to do with this building after 1965,” Giles says. “It became one of the busiest and most popular boxing rings in east London. This is where a lot of the big fights were. But when Ulric Regis died from brain injuries after a bout with Joe Bugner in 1969 boxing was banned in Hackney.
In the 1990s a trust took over, determined to save the building. They managed to raise the £5million to put in new wiring and heating, fix the roof and ensure it wouldn’t fall down.
But apart from hiring it out for events – a business which allows it to “wash its face”, Nick says – they didn’t quite know what to do with it.
Nick, 41, the former executive director of the Donmar Warehouse, came on board in October after seeing the potential of the building, and talked the trust into turning it into a venue.
Nick recalls: “I walked down to the basement and the question I had was: Why hasn’t it been used? What am I missing? Why hasn’t stuff happened here?
“So I said, ‘Look, it’s bigger than Battersea Arts Centre, and that’s an old town hall; its arguably in a more vibrant location, its got massive potential’.
“I love entrepreneurial projects and didn’t just want to go into a traditional theatre job again.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity to establish a new venue – to give it its own feel and character.”
His plan is to use each of the many rooms in the building for different types of theatre – promenade, experimental, studio and traditional, as well as a “destination” restaurant and bar.
“I knew it would be a challenge and I really wanted that challenge,” he adds.
The building was originally built for the people, and now it seems it’s being returning to them.
“We need to fill it with life again,” Nick says.
“If the last 10 years have been about preserving and restoring a real architectural gem, the next 10 are about what happens inside the building.
“I think that’s the journey the trust have gone on and now there’s a real excitement and buzz. I think now they get that.”
• To follow developments at the venue go to www. shoreditchtownhall.org.uk