Hornsey’s history as a parish and administrative area goes back to at least the 13th century. For most of that time, Hornsey was a rural backwater in the county of Middlesex but, with the coming of the railways in the 1850s, developers realised the opportunity to create a suburb.
In 1861 there were just over 11,000 people living in the parish of Hornsey. It became a Borough in 1903 and by 1921 the population was nudging 90,000. Since 1869 Hornsey had been administered from offices in Southwood Lane in Highgate – a building not much bigger than two residential villas.
A new municipal centre
It was clear that the lack of space was untenable and in 1920 Hornsey bought a plot of land in the centre of Crouch End’s Broadway and started working on plans for a new municipal centre on the site of the old Broadway Hall and Lake Villa. But what to build on this peculiar wedge shaped site?
Hornsey decided to run an architectural competition, and appointed C. Cowles Voysey RIBA as assessor. He had a good track record and was responsible for the well thought of Worthington Town Hall.
The competition was launched in October 1933. This was a time of rapid change in municipal architecture. Local Authorities were breaking away from traditional Victorian/Edwardian styles and Scandinavian design was becoming influential with steel framed buildings with brick skins becoming the preferred construction method.
A ‘dignified’ building
The brief called for plans that would incorporate a 1000+ seat performance/ community space, a council chamber, mayor’s parlour, committee rooms and an abundance (compared to the old Highgate building) of office space. Described as a building that would be ‘dignified and indicate its purpose’. Tellingly, the Hornsey councillors encouraged competitors not to include, ‘elaborate decoration and detail which is not required.’
The budget was only £100, 000 and well over 200 architects submitted their ideas. The winner, announced in late 1933, was a young New Zealander (only qualified in 1929) called Reginald Uren, aged 27. Work started almost immediately in 1934.
Uren’s design remains one of the most distinctive landmarks in London and was influenced by the works of the Dutch modern movement architect Whilhelm Dudok who had won a RIBA gold medal for his Hilversum Town Hall. Uren had arrived in England in 1930 and worked in several practices including that of Chares Holden who was responsible for many of the London’s Modernist tube stations including several on the north section of the Piccadilly Line. Uren’s prize was £150.
An elaborate opening
Hornsey Town Hall was opened in November 1935 with an elaborate ceremony attended by the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The building attracted much praise (although a local journalist compared it to a Jam factory) and several awards including a Royal Institute of British Architecture bronze medal: it is still possible to see two of them proudly attached to the left hand side of the main entrance.
For thirty years the building housed all the major departments of what was known as the Green Borough (a nod to the excellent parks, trees and open spaces) and also as a well run and efficient borough. The assembly hall also became one of the main cultural and social centres for north London hosting dances, concerts, pantomime, community and political functions and countless other events.
In 1965 the Greater London Council was formed and London’s one hundred boroughs rationalised with 33 new ones emerging. Despite protestations, Hornsey found itself amalgamated with Wood Green and Tottenham to form Haringey.
With three town halls and a railway running north south through the centre of the borough, it was unsurprising that the political and administrative headquarters drifted to Wood Green.
Surplus to requirements
In 2000, with a shrinking council workforce, the building was declared surplus to requirements and a long exercise started to find a new use.
For many years the fabric had been neglected and, by now listed as Grade II* a large sum had to be found to remove it from Historic England’s at risk register. A plan was conceived to sell of the car park at the rear and use the funds for the restoration. Ownership would be transferred to a trust to provide arts, community and educational uses.
With the financial crash of 2008, this scheme never took off. An attempt was then made by Mountview Theatre School to take it over but the finances proved impossible.
Currently, Haringey, subject to a successful planning application, is poised to hand the keys to a Hong Kong based property developer. Two large blocks of flats will be built on the car park and to the south of the site. Plans for uses in the town hall proper remain unclear.