First of all, lets raise a glass to the wonderful JD Salinger. I can’t believe he was 91. And I’m not alone in wondering what will happen to all those novels he has supposedly been stashing in a vault since he went into hiding in 1953.
Speaking of intriguing things stashed in vaults, I visited Stoke Newington Town Hall on Wednesday night to listen to a talk by the architects from Hawkins\Brown, who were responsible for its £8 million overhaul. And they had just two original drawings to work from when they began planning, which meant an awful lot of digging around to find out exactly how the joint was put together.
And what a joint it is. Built in 1935-37 by architect J. Reginald Truelove, it has a soaring council chamber and a vast assembly hall with a sprung dance floor (as in, on springs, so it’s bouncy – I’d never heard of such a thing but apparently it’s fantastic to dance on). Plus one of its walls is built from the remains of a Tudor mansion that once stood on the spot (you can see it in this photo). It also had many beautiful art deco features like sleek silvery hand rails, wrought iron racks in the cloakroom, oak panelled doors and beautiful light fittings.
But it was in a dire state by the time Hackney Council decided to give in a facelift. The exterior was painted in camouflage paint to protect it from bombing during World War Two. Broken chairs that once lined the dance floor had been dropkicked down a shute to form a sad little pile in the basement. A ceiling had been installed in the domed council chambers, with a steel beam shoved straight through the wooden panelling to hold it up. The beautiful dance floor was lined with filing cabinets, the oak doors were covered in twenty layers of paint, and judging by the state of the kitchen, a wafer of ceiling would have topped any dish that came out of it. It was leaky and stained and decrepit.
Not anymore. While a lot of the work is invisible to the untrained eye – damp-proofing etc – the architects have also added some beautiful details that place it firmly in 2010, as well as expressing original and historical features.
An alley between the dance hall and assembly room has now been turned into an inviting and rather grand entrance, with the Tudor mansion wall made more prominent by surrounding it with white ones. The camouflage paint has been left on – the architect, John Turner, explained that while some would argue for its removal, the camouflage paint is ‘part of the building’s story’, so they have retained it. They also got rid of the ugly ramp and the car park at the front of the building giving it more of a presence on Church Street and making it easier to access.
The council chamber (above), which is used for civil ceremonies and the like, has its wonderful domed ceiling revealed once again, and an original shell patterned curtain was dry-cleaned ‘at great expense’ and hangs at the back of the top balcony. One of the problems of getting hitched in these places is ushering everyone into the room without them seeing the bride, and this problem has been neatly solved by turning two small rooms just outside the chamber into elegant dressing rooms for the bridge and groom.
The assembly hall now looks amazing, and has what is apparently the second-largest disco ball in Western Europe (there’s one to drop into conversation at the pub). The dance floor has been polished up and surviving chairs have been re-covered in rich purple velvet.
The really clever part – and one that the architects seemed justifiably pleased with – was the way the original cloakrooms have been reinvented. Modern building regulations specify a certain number of toilets, so the cloakroom, which featured a timber counter and wrought iron racks, has been turned into male and female toilets. The racks now divide the loos up, and the wooden counter sits above the sinks.
All in all, it’s a beautiful building, as you can see from the photos. Weddings are already booking up fast, so for anyone interested in using it for this purpose should check it out, and there have been events on this week ahead of its official opening next week, including The Electric Ladies tonight– go along and test that sprung dance floor for yourself.