Photo of a painter touching up the ceiling using yellow paint
Restoring the ceiling of the Assembly Room in St Albans Grade II* listed town hall, now the St Albans Museum and Art Gallery © St Albans Museums
Restoring the ceiling of the Assembly Room in St Albans Grade II* listed town hall, now the St Albans Museum and Art Gallery © St Albans Museums

Redundant Town Hall Now Vibrant Museum and Gallery in St Albans

The new St Albans Museum and Art Gallery opened in 2018 in the historic and nationally important Grade II* listed St Albans Town Hall. It was commissioned by the St Albans City and District Council, the St Albans Museums and Galleries Trust and the University of Hertfordshire.

Built in 1831, the classical Town Hall was designed by George Smith. It occupies a prominent position at the heart of this historic city and served as a centre for law and order until the construction of the new civic centre in 1966. From then on it became largely redundant and underused, its condition gradually deteriorating.

The existing St Albans Museum, founded in 1898 on Hatfield Road, welcomed the opportunity to move to a more central location. The Town Hall was identified as a suitably prestigious new location, and in 2012 plans to develop the old Town Hall into a new museum and gallery began.

In 2013 The Heritage Lottery Fund (now known as the National Lottery Heritage Fund) awarded first-phase development funding of £282,000, enabling the council to develop detailed plans. In 2014 the architectural practice John McAslan and Partners was appointed to lead on the design.

The proposed redevelopment of the Town Hall was welcomed by local residents. More than 1,600 people paid £250 to have a name inscribed on panels based on the historic wooden panels in the Courtroom. These donations raised almost £400,000 towards the work, with another £1 million donated by businesses, trusts and individuals.

The extensive refurbishment and redevelopment project sought to maximise the functionality of the building and also its sustainability by reducing its energy consumption, whilst ensuring that the building’s historic features were kept and even enhanced.

The scheme included:

  • The extension of the basement to provide a new temperature-controlled gallery space
  • Restoration of the octagonal Courtroom for partial re-use as additional café space
  • Conversion of a number of holding cells beneath the Courtroom into toilets
  • Creation of new spaces for education and flexible hire use – including the refurbished Assembly Room
  • First-floor glazed link extensions to improve visitor circulation

The installation of insulation, under-floor heating, LED lighting and secondary glazing significantly improved energy efficiency, with annual savings of 19,500 kilowatt hours – which equates to a reduction of over 6,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Surface materials were chosen carefully, with oak-faced engineered boards for the new wooden floors coming from an ethically sustainable source, reducing the impact on the environment whilst ensuring a sympathetic, durable and stable surface.

This ambitious redevelopment project creates a ‘one-stop shop’ – celebrating local heritage and culture – right in the centre of St Albans. This exciting scheme provides a much-needed boost to both the local economy and tourism, providing a wonderful opportunity for people to explore the wider history of this beautiful city.
Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Engagement East of England at National Lottery Heritage Fund

In the year since the Museum opened it has welcomed over 300,000 visitors (an increase of 65% on the target of 200,000) and has hosted more than 135 events, a demonstrable success for the vision and execution of the project.

The quality and sustainability of the design was recognised at the Hertfordshire Building Futures Awards 2018 where the project won Retrofit for the Future Award and was highly commended for Project of the Year. The project also featured at the RIBA Regional Awards 2019 where it won both the RIBA East Award and a RIBA East Special Award for Conservation. The project has recently been shortlisted for the Refurbishment Project of the Year in the 2019 Building Awards.