It might be a year late, but will the new look Piece Hall prove that good things come to those who wait? Sarah Freeman finds out.
A year ago Mark Richardson wasn’t thinking about a career change. He worked for Royal Sun Alliance and his job came with a good salary and decent prospects. Then at the end of March he was unexpectedly made redundant which is how he came to be standing in Halifax’s Piece Hall working out how to use a rather impressive looking coffee machine and waiting for his delivery of vinyl to arrive.
“When I left RSA I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I thought I pretty much had a job for life, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I didn’t just want to get another office job. I had a bit of redundancy money and so I’m trying something a little different.”
Come August 1, when Piece Hall finally reopens its doors after a £19m redevelopment which has taken a year longer than predicted, Mark will be stood behind the counter of Loafers, his new record and coffee shop, which will also double as a gallery for Manchester artist Vinyl Soul.
“I’ve got pretty eclectic taste in music, so people who come into the store are as likely to hear Simon and Garfunkel as they are the Chemical Brothers,” says Mark, who grew up in Leeds but who now lives in Lightcliffe, just down the road from the Piece Hall. “I looked at a lot of possible units, but none of them felt quite right. I wanted somewhere that people could come and browse, the ambience had to be right. As soon as we walked back in here, that was it.
“I don’t think there could be anywhere better to start this new chapter, I mean look at the place.As for the name of the shop, well I like a good pair of shoes. In fact I have bought a new pair for the grand opening.”
Mark won’t be the only one making a special effort on Yorkshire Day and when the powers that be at Calderdale Council officially hand over the Piece Hall to the new trust, which be in charge of its day to day running, there will be sighs of relief all round.
The redevelopment has not, it’s fair to say, gone smoothly. Because no detailed architectural plans exist for the hall, which first opened in 1779 as centre for cloth trading, it was only when the team of conservationists and civil engineers got on site that they could properly assess the extent of the work that needed doing. And perhaps unsurprisingly the vital underpinning and remedial work was more extensive than anyone had previously thought.
There were other things too. A graveyard underneath the Piece Hall revealed 200 ancient bodies and bodged repairs done in years gone by needed to be redone. Then at the start of this year, when everyone involved insisted the project was just weeks away from completion, the chief executive Sam Mason departed without much explanation.
Then as now, no one wants to go into detail about what happened, insisting that it’s important that everyone “looks forward, rather than back”. Certainly, the enforced three-and-a-half year closure has given the new chief executive Nicky Chance Thompson, who was previously on the board of trustees, time enough to think about how the new look Piece Hall will work.
While it’s architecturally impressive, in its previous incarnation the independent traders operated random opening hours, meaning that many of the units were often closed, and come 5pm the place was a ghost town. Not any more.
“There is an expectation that all the businesses will be open seven days a week,” says Chance Thompson, who prior to taking up the Piece Hall job had a background in delivering major infrastructure projects. She comes across as a woman who can get things done and alongside Roger Harvey, department store founder and Halifax force of nature, it’s an impressive team. “There will also be restaurant and bars open until 11pm which will give the place life after dark.
“The Piece Hall is vital to the economy of this town and if we can get the offer right then it will have a massive knock-on effect to other businesses. This place is nothing if it isn’t used by the people of Halifax. We want to give them back their town square, we want them to pop in after work for a drink or something to eat. We want the Piece Hall to be the beating heart of the town.”
It certainly feels like this corner of Halifax is on the brink of something exciting. The nearby Calderdale Industrial Museum will reopen in September and the impressive Square Chapel Centre for the Arts has also just had a £5.2m makeover.
However, while the opening next week will focus on what’s next, there is more than a nod to its past. While it has the appearance of one of those grand Victorian structures built by some wealthy textile magnet, the Piece Hall was in fact built by the people of the town and there will now be a small museum telling the story of the building and a map room so visitors can chart the changing face of Halifax through the years.
The Piece Hall only opened for two hours once a week and it’s heyday in the dying embers of the 18th century was also short lived. By the early decades of the 19th century industrialisation had gathered pace and the need for cloth halls declined. It is now one of only two surviving cloths halls in the world. By 1868 the building had been handed over to the Halifax Corporation and for many years was home to the town’s market. Since then the Grade I listed site has had a chequered history as successive generations have tried – and often struggled – to find a use for the place.
One of the key elements of the new look Piece Hall is that the central square will now be able to host events. It’s not an entirely new idea. Back in the day, the building hosted mass singing competitions, Pulp played a concert there before making it big and during the 1980s Black Lace led a conga round the courtyard. However, the current ambitions have only been made possible by the removal of the old cobblestones which met with significant opposition despite having only been put in place in the 1970s.
“There was a misconception that they were original,” says Chance Thompson, looking out across the new flagstones. “They weren’t. They were also very uneven and it meant there were accessibility issues. Now we will be able to get up to 7,000 people in here and that presents us with an awful lot of opportunities.”
The first of those will be on Tuesday when the public get to see where the money, which includes a chunk of Heritage Lottery Funding, alongside £7m from the council, has been spent. And for some businesses it will be more of a homecoming.
“I couldn’t get my old unit back as that’s now part of the food and drink section,” says Isobel Hampson, who runs Creative Crystals and who is one of just two returning traders. “But this is pretty nice. We have all missed the place and now it feels like we have our old friend back.”
The Piece Hall will reopen on August 1 with a full day of entertainment. For more details go to thepiecehall.co.uk