Charles Dickens gave public readings from his books in this grand public building; for a century, free concerts were held in its 3,000-seater Great Hall; judgments were passed in its twin law courts. There was no doubt about it: St George's Hall, Liverpool, built in the 1850s and shrouded in altruism, was one of the greatest of all British public buildings. It was, said Queen Victoria, 'worthy of ancient Athens'.
But since its Victorian and Edwardian heyday St George's Hall, like Liverpool itself, has fallen on hard times. Expensive to run and maintain, and seemingly out of step with the demands of a contemporary city, this great Greek Revival temple has become a white elephant: structurally unsound, failing to meet modern fire and safety standards. In 1989 it was closed to the public.
The Great Hall - the heart of the monument - reopened at the end of May, thanks to a one-off pounds 3m government grant under the Urban Programme. It is to be leased for concerts, lectures and receptions, and next year will become a temporary home for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, while its own hall is being refurbished.
It is a start, and Liverpool council hopes it will give the building fresh purpose and encourage investment in it. But the building as a whole remains decrepit and out of bounds, and its lovingly restored and resplendent Great Hall merely serves as a sad reminder of what was once all around it.
It is estimated that complete restoration would cost anything from pounds 10m to pounds 15m - money that Liverpool does not have. Even if such a sum could be found from a combination of government, council and private funds, St George's Hall threatens to be a permanent drain on Merseyside's stretched resources.
Michael Hayes, Liverpool's planning officer, says: 'We are a provincial city in hard times, but St George's is a monument of international stature which must survive. Our dilemma is how to regenerate a building that has outlived its original role.'
St George's Hall has never lacked friends. Even as it crumbled, Liverpudlians and tourists flocked to see the city's greatest building. In the summers of 1987, 1988 and 1989, tours of the hall attracted thousands, before its deficient fire and safety standards closed it down.
Since then several entrepreneurs, including Madame Tussaud's and the Jorvik Heritage Centre in York, have considered taking over the building. Developers have proposed turning it into a hotel, a casino, a film-making centre, or even a 'Liverpool experience', with video displays and electric cars gliding past tableaux of the Beatles. But every proposal has foundered over the question of finance.
When this 500ft colonnaded Greek temple was built, Liverpool was growing rich. By the turn of the century there were more millionaires per head of population here than anywhere else in Britain.
St George's Hall was the result of a design competition for a building to house two concert halls and assize courts. The winner was Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, a 25- year-old architect from Sussex. The hall took 15 years to build and half way through its construction Elmes, who had personally supervised every aspect of the work, died of consumption. But his design was carried through by his successor, Charles Cockerell, the architect of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
St George's became the inspiration for an elegant arc of classical civic buildings built around it later in the century, giving Liverpool one of the most impressive centres of any British city.
The sheer bulk of the building strikes you as you emerge from Lime Street station. Its colonnade of Corinthian columns flanked by wings of square columns on the east front, and its pedimented portico to the south, are as monumental as those of the British Museum. But there is no grand entrance. Doors that are too mean lead into lobbies and corridors that are too gloomy.
But the Great Hall at the centre of this cavernous building still has the power to take your breath away. It was designed to hold 3,000 people and its heroic proportions - 170ft (52m) long and 70ft (21m) wide - are accentuated by the decorative vaulted ceiling and the interlocking circles of the Minton tiled floor. Massive polished porphyry pillars reflect glittering chandeliers. Marble architraves set off sculpted cast bronze doors. Statues of politicians and local worthies dressed incongruously in classical robes stare out imperiously from five bays down each side.
The Great Hall has a sister concert hall at the north end of the building, designed to seat 1,000. It is an intimate, elegant, elliptical chamber with a cast-iron balustrade.
Between the concert halls are St George's two perfectly preserved lawcourts. They were made redundant in 1984 when Liverpool's courts were moved into a single modern block, and are now used mainly as film sets for Victorian melodramas.
St George's is an outstanding example of Victorian craftsmanship - and ironically it is this craftsmanship that has caused the problems. The Minton tiles are too precious to walk over and have been covered with protective wood slatting. The chandeliers will each cost pounds 20,000 to restore - but even then they will not provide enough light.
Liverpool council is actively promoting the building to raise funds for further restoration and to make it earn its living. The Great Hall will be leased for exhibitions and other public events, the small concert hall for conferences and music, and the basement for arts-related projects. The National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, including the Walker Art Gallery which is funded directly by the Government, would like to use
the basement for storage and exhibitions.
The council believes that architectural tours of the hall could prove popular. The high spots would be the lawcourts and the once revolutionary heating and ventilation system, based on a steam engine in the basement fanning air through a series of grilles and trap doors - now regarded as a fire risk.
More than 40 bookings have already been made for the Great Hall since it reopened. Its wiring, lighting, heating, plumbing and fire safety measures have been modernised, and kitchens and lifts installed. A third of the roof has been renewed.
The most recent champion of St George's Hall is the Prince of Wales, who describes it as 'one of the greatest public buildings of the last 200 years sitting in the centre of one of Europe's finest cities'. On his recommendation the New York-based World Monuments Fund has adopted it as its first British project, and will shortly launch an appeal.
Liverpool's architectural legacy is magnificent and municifent, and St George's Hall is the greatest Liverpudlian building of all. It needs government support, at least in the short term, until the recession lifts and developments such as the Kings Dock (see below) give the city back some of the economic vigour it had in its remarkable heyday.
St George's Hall, once a popular venue for concerts, plays and banquets, has become like a frail work of art, almost too valuable to use. But there is still a chance that it may come into its own again.
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