Manchester town hall £325m refurbishment reaches halfway point - take a look inside

Once complete, the project promises to make the 150-year-old building more accessible than ever before, with many of its treasures to be put centre stage.
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For years now, one of Manchester’s most iconic buildings has been in hiding.

The city’s ‘magnificent’ town hall has been undergoing a major £325m restoration in the biggest heritage project currently under way in the UK. Since closing in 2018, the building has become encased by a white weather-tight ‘wrap’ covering some of the most extensive scaffolding in Europe.

Underneath it, specialist workers are carrying out the painstaking task of restoring every aspect of the Grade I listed Victorian neo-gothic building. The project is now halfway through the construction stage and set to finish in summer 2024 – although it might be longer before it reopens to the public.

Once complete, the project promises to make the 150-year-old building more accessible than ever before, with many of its treasures to be put centre stage.

However, until then, this remarkable building will remain hidden from view. Over the last two years, old redundant pipes and cables have been stripped out before they are replaced by new mechanical and electrical installations.

Heavy engineering works have taken place to create cores for the installation of five new lifts with the aim of improving access to every part of the building.

Manchester Town Hall under a scaffolding wrap in December 2022. Credit: Manchester Town Hall.Manchester Town Hall under a scaffolding wrap in December 2022. Credit: Manchester Town Hall.
Manchester Town Hall under a scaffolding wrap in December 2022. Credit: Manchester Town Hall.

Lead architect Jamie Coath said accessibility is a key objective of the project. He explained: “They’re serving every level and they’re also acting as evacuation lifts in emergencies, but also to make sure that everybody can get to all the interconnecting spaces.”

Approximately 3,700 tonnes of scaffolding has been installed allowing for roofing works, stone replacement to the facade and window restoration.

Hundreds of leaded and timber sash window have been restored and refurbished and extensive stone repair works have been undertaken, including the dismantling and rebuilding of 30 out of 34 chimneys so far.

In total, 140,000 tiles across all of the building’s roofs are being replaced, including 19,543 on the Great Hall which is currently covered by one of the largest temporary roofs in Europe, covering approximately 10,000 sqm.

The project team is currently part way through the complete replacement of the roof slates and approaching the final stages of the stone restoration work.

Attention will now turn to the restoration of the ‘exquisite’ internal building finishes and all of the work that will bring the internal spaces back to life.

Most of the work inside the Great Hall – which includes repairing the ceilings, putting new windows in and cleaning the stone work – has been completed.

Inside Manchester town hall in December 2022 Credit: Manchester city councilInside Manchester town hall in December 2022 Credit: Manchester city council
Inside Manchester town hall in December 2022 Credit: Manchester city council

The organ has been removed and being restored off site, before it will be brought back to the Great Hall where its pipes will be tuned in a process known as ‘voicing’ which is expected to last around three to six months.

Around half of the scaffolding which filled the Great Hall has now been dismantled, with the rest of the scaffolding set to disappear in January.

But the temperature and humidity of the hall is still being monitored to protect the Manchester Murals – a series of twelve paintings by Ford Madox Brown.

Steve Hannon, building logistics lead, explained: “Attached to the face we have a Japanese rice paper, attached to that we have a probe and that probe measures our temperature and relative humidity. We are micro monitoring these at the moment.

“I don’t think they’ve ever been monitored to this level so there’ll be a record of how we’ve kept them and that record will stand us in good stead when we bring this Great Hall back to full public events use.”

In December, a new feature named the Artisan Studio was opened on Albert Square, offering a facsinating glimpse into the specialist work at the town hall.

Inside Manchester town hall in December 2022 Credit: Manchester city councilInside Manchester town hall in December 2022 Credit: Manchester city council
Inside Manchester town hall in December 2022 Credit: Manchester city council

Passersby can now watch and listen as skilled artisans carry out painstaking and intricate work, explaining what they are doing in weekly demonstrations.

Stone masons, mosaic-makers and their apprentices will restart the demonstrations at the studio opposite Brazennose Street in early 2023.

As well as the safeguarding the town hall and improving access to the building and its treasures, one of the project’s key objectives is to create a legacy of skills, jobs and inspiration, which contractor Lendlease is helping to achieve.

So far, 237 new jobs have been created through the project, 75 level two and three apprenticeships – 68 of them taken up by Mancunians – and a further 48 higher level apprenticeships, including three at Lancashire firm Stone Edge.

Our Town Hall project director Paul Candelent said he cannot wait to see the refurbished town hall return to being the ‘heart and soul’ of Manchester again.

He said: “This project has always been about more than creating a functional workspace for the council to deliver its services from and looking ahead to when the building reopens a massive part of what we’re doing will open the building for the people of Manchester with everything that that has to offer.”

Bev Craig at Manchester town hall Credit: Manchester city councilBev Craig at Manchester town hall Credit: Manchester city council
Bev Craig at Manchester town hall Credit: Manchester city council

Manchester council leader Bev Craig added: “We’ve been clear from the beginning that we wanted to have a restoration project that did justice the beautiful building but also delivered to the people of Manchester and that’s why social value has been so important and at the heart of everything we do.

“From the spend that we have in our local economy, right through to the creation of over 200 new jobs, over 100 new apprenticeships and thousands of opportunities for pupils in Manchester to learn from what we’re doing, social value runs at the very heart of what we do.

“Everyone in our city is proud of Manchester Town Hall and I’m proud of how the work to restore Manchester Town Hall is delivering for Manchester people.”

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