EXPERTS working on the £19.2m restoration and transformation of one of Yorkshire’s most impressive buildings believe it has the potential to become an international visitor attraction.
Seven months into construction work at Halifax’s Piece Hall, Calderdale Council opened the doors to VIPs for a sneak preview.
They revealed rarely seen cellars which are being painstakingly excavated to create office space for managers and 100 volunteers who will run the building and guide visitors when it reopens next summer.
Around 60 stonemasons and other specialist workers were on site yesterday making repairs to the stone roof and ensuring the building’s circular stone columns are preserved.
Claire Slattery, the council’s arts and heritage manager, described the Piece Hall as “unique and extraordinary”.
Speaking from one of the many cellars beneath the shop units, she said: “We are not entirely sure what these cellars were used for but they may have been used to store pieces of cloth.
“Cloths were made locally on hand looms and brought in on Saturdays for only two hours of trading,”
The Piece Hall, with its huge outdoor square, is unique in Britain, she said. There is only one other like it in Europe, Krakow Cloth Hall in Poland.
“The Piece Hall is absolutely extraordinary and considered to be one of the most important buildings in Yorkshire.”
Project leaders have set a target of 1.6 million visitors a year. There will be cafés, shops, restaurants, bars, an interpretation centre, two water features and open-air entertainments to ensure the crowds keep coming back – day and night.
Architect Emma Rose, of LDN Architects in Edinburgh, has been overseeing work on preserving the historic fabric of the Georgian building.
She said the units – which will be taken over by retailers – would be a “more flexible space” than they were before restoration.
“So much of the stonework that you see is original and most of it is in good condition. We are using stone from a quarry a few miles away.”
Original features are being exposed and recently-built walls within the units are being taken out to open up the space.
Marketing to future tenants has yet to formally begin but there is said to be a lot of interest.
A four-storey extension, which will not be visible from inside the Piece Hall, will have space for businesses wanting more space, such as larger restaurants.
By the time it is finished, there will be around 45 units for shops, offices and cafés, as well as the east extension and conference facilities.
Site manager Brian Stephenson said around 60 workers were currently on site but this will rise to around 100 by the end of summer.
He said there were around 130 circular columns which have all been examined and repaired by experts who have worked on sites including York Minster.
Ms Slattery said the venue deserved to be recognised as a world-class visitor attraction.
It has already been recognised as one of the world’s best public squares – alongside St Mark’s in Venice and New York’s Rockefeller Plaza – in the book, Great Public Squares: An Architect’s Selection.
“It’s our aim to make it much more known, nationally and internationally. It is reasonably well known in the region and loved in Halifax as it’s one of the most fantastic things in the town.”
Gary Hughes, regional director of Graham Construction, which is leading the refurbishment, said: “When the works are finished the Piece Hall will become one of the centrepieces of the regeneration of Halifax town centre, helping to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year with its unrivalled architectural, cultural and retail offering.
“In addition Graham also plans to create a lasting legacy in Halifax by hiring local tradespeople wherever possible, creating work placements for the long-term unemployed and engaging local schoolchildren in activities in order to inspire them to consider a career in construction.”
• THE Piece Hall is a Grade I-listed building in the centre of Halifax which dates from 1779.
It was originally built to support the trading of “pieces” of cloth, hence its name. It has been used as a marketplace, for political rallies, religious gatherings and for shopping and sporting events.
The poet John Betjeman said the Piece Hall was symbolic of the town’s “great worth” and hidden beauty.
He made the remarks in 1979, two centuries after the completion of the Georgian masterpiece.
English Heritage has described it as “perhaps Yorkshire’s most important secular building”.
In recent years, the maintenance costs and dwindling number of outlets led to the council forging ahead with a new vision. The plans include a new piazza and public events.