Town Hall: The Focus of Finsbury
On the intersection of six Finsbury streets, set in an island bound by Rosebery Avenue, Garnault Place and Rosoman Street lies the town hall for the former borough of Finsbury. This outstanding example of late 19th century civic architecture provides a fitting monument to the proud inhabitants of this tiny borough on the edge of the city.
Before the six streets became lined with houses and shops they were paths that crossed fields belonging to the New River Company. Later, on the intersection stood a watch-house erected for the local Paving and Lighting Commissioners, then in 1857 this was replaced by a vestry hall for the parish of Clerkenwell. Prior to the formation of the borough councils the parish vestries would have been responsible for collecting local taxes, looking after the poor and the sick, and keeping the streets clean and safe.
In 1892 the Clerkenwell Vestry decided that larger premises were needed to conduct business efficiently. An architectural competition was arranged and from eleven sets of plans submitted, those of C. Evans Vaughan were selected. The contract for the building work was given to Charles Dearing and Sons of Islington (then a separate borough) as their quote of £14,712 and 13 shillings was lowest.
The completed Vestry Hall was opened in 1895 by Lord Rosebery barely a month after the completion of Rosebery Avenue.
The 1857 Vestry Hall did not survive into the 20th century. Originally, the Vestry had planned to sell the old hall, but decided on demolition to make way for an extension to the New Town Hall. The extension, again the work of C. Evans Vaughan, was completed in 1899 and included an indoor stone yard, which survived only until 1901.
According to Nikolaus Pevsner, the famous architectural guide writer, Evans Vaughan’s design of the Town Hall’s brick and stonework is “free Flemish Renaissance” in style. There are Baroque influences seen in the female figures and carved frieze above the first floor at the Rosoman Street and Garnault Place junction.
Many internal and external details are heavily influenced by the Art Nouveau – quite a radical statement considering when the Town Hall was built. The exterior glass and wrought iron canopy above the main entrance on Rosebery Avenue is one such Art Nouveau detail; the stained glass very reminiscent of the Tiffany lamps that were so popular in the early 20th century.
The public hall on the first floor has some elaborate Art Nouveau detail, such as the winged figures lining the walls and holding the sprays of light bulbs.
Town Hall At Work
When the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury was formed in 1900 the offices of several old vestries were absorbed. The municipal offices of Clerkenwell were already housed in the Town Hall, but those of St. Luke’s Vestry also needed accommodation there.
Throughout the early 20th century office space was rearranged to cope with increasing workloads. In 1928 a Special Town Hall Committee agreed a warehouse conversion on Rosebery Avenue to serve as an annexe to the main buildings, providing more office space.
The Town Hall provided a focal point for the municipal life in Finsbury. In 1929, for example the buildings housed the Town Clerk’s Department, the Borough Accountants, the Public Health and Borough Engineers departments. Additionally there would have been committee rooms, the Councillor’s rooms and the Mayor’s Parlour.
The first floor housed the Council Chamber and the public halls used for civic functions and public hire. Finsbury Council actively encouraged local residents to regard the Town Hall as their civic home resulting in a wide range of activities being held there for many years.
In 1965 the system of municipal administration as again altered and functions of the Finsbury Council were absorbed by the newly extended Islington. From this point on the main function of the Town Hall became that of registrar for Islington, administering family records for the area. June 2003 saw this final Council function removed to the Islington Town Hall in Upper Street.
(Written by the Islington Local History Centre)
Finsbury Town Hall today
The premises of the Urdang Academy previously were in a Covent Garden warehouse but Urdang began looking for new premises in 2003.
Its research led to the Finsbury Town Hall, a fine Victorian building in need of restoration, which at that time was on the English Heritage list of Buildings at Risk. Islington Borough Council agreed to its sale to Urdang in January 2004.
Early stages of the project were aimed at ascertaining its feasibility and producing outline proposals. Large spaces were needed for studios and the only possible location was found to be on the ground floor under the first floor Great Hall.
This implied removing two central structural walls of this listed Grade II* 1895 building, and the essential approval of English Heritage was sought and obtained.
Funding was obtained. as well as planning permission and Listed Building Consent. A Conservation Management Plan was produced as well as an Access Statement for this building, which now benefits from two lifts.
Works began in November 2005 and lasted a year. Resources were concentrated on restoring the building internally and providing Urdang with the essential facilities that would allow it to move in and to function immediately. Facilities now include six studios plus the Great Hall, a large multi-purpose space, which can be used for performance and as a dance studio. Urdang students have found the space to be an inspiring and fitting environment in which to train.
The basement is used for changing facilities, singing rooms and treatment rooms. The existing ground floor hardwood panelled wedding room was relocated on the other side of the main Rosebery entrance and other facilities now include a lecture room and several offices.
(Written by Pierre Goumain, Urdang's Facilities Director)