Bomb shelter, wedding venue, civic hub: A last look around Camden Town Hall
- Credit: Archant
When Camden town hall was built – construction began in 1934 and was completed in 1937 – few would have imagined that just a couple of years later its basement would need to house air raid shelters behind heavy iron doors.
Fewer still would have expected that, more than 80 years on, the same bombproof rooms would be home to records of Camden’s births, deaths and marriages going back as far as anyone can remember.
You see, deep in the bowels of Judd Street in King’s Cross is where Camden Council has long kept its registrars’ records. But in a few months’ time, all that will change, and the council’s operations will move to a temporary building in Crowndale.
Ahead of the impending closure and refurbishment of the town hall in Judd Street, the Ham&High was given the chance to poke around behind the scenes.
The town hall in 2018 is a confusing mixture of civic opulence and dated plasterboard. Although the 1990s partition walls that dominate the upper floors won’t win any beauty contests, they are juxtaposed with forgotten nooks that remind you that this building pre-dates Camden Council itself by two decades. Of course, before Camden was formed from the amalgamation of the boroughs of Holborn, Hampstead and St Pancras, the building was used as St Pancras town hall.
Even some of the utilities have a classy touch – one gas and electric cupboard on the third floor is a delightful wood-panelled affair with a twist: you can only access it by climbing a mysterious old iron staircase that sticks out of the wall.
Another oddity stands out, too. Off the public gallery that overhangs the right-hand side of the council chamber, a nondescript door hides an old meeting room that tricks a visitor into thinking they may have accidentaly wandered into the 1980s.
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There’s even a retro plastic telephone sat on an abandoned table.
At the other end of the public gallery, we are shown a quirky short cut. A steep, narrow set of stairs led downwards, before one of the building’s characteristic heavy oak doors opens out into the town hall’s dramatic marble first floor landing.
But some of the more familiar spaces in the building will probably be the most missed during the refurbishment.
When we are sneaking around, the current mayor Cllr Jenny Headlam-Wells is out, and one of her assistants lets us take a peek around the parlour. This is a grand old room, often used for entertaining, that wouldn’t look out of place in Whitehall.
Best of all, it has a stunning view out over Euston Road and the refurbished St Pancras station.
It is also home to another flashy legacy of Camden Council’s predecessors, with not one but three mayoral maces sitting pride of place in an ornate glass cabinet.
The building is of course listed, so when it re-opens, the grand council chamber and the imposing marble staircase will be among the historic features retained and reinvigorated. A council official explains to us even the carpets may well have to be replicated as part of the prescriptive listing.
But from August, most council functions will move to a remodeled building in Crowndale for at least three years. This will allow the council to refurbish the town hall so it is then able to rent out office space in the future.
The plan is to use spare areas to boost the council’s coffers and attract small businesses and entrepreneurs – who will be encouraged to lease space in the revamped building – to the area.
The ground and first floors, which are where the council’s meetings and public events take place, will be retained.
Cllr Richard Olszewski, the cabinet member leading the project, said: “We are investing in Camden town hall so it can remain at the heart of democracy in Camden.
“The refurbishment will update the whole building while preserving its history, improving its sustainability, reducing running costs and transforming the way we use the space.”
Before work goes ahead there is the small matter of the fact the £44.2million town hall development doesn’t yet have planning permission. Nor is it even scheduled to go before the planning committee until October, two months after the council is due to move out.
Meanwhile, the finishing touches are just being made to the Crowndale centre – which has had a mock chamber put into it.