Your travel guide to William Brown Street and St George’s Hall
As city centre districts go, this one is relatively small: a cluster of buildings along a cobbled street, with Lime Street Station at the top and the Queensway Tunnel entrance at the bottom. But what it lacks in size, this chunk of Scouse real estate makes up for in kerb appeal: the buildings along William Brown Street are an integral part of Liverpool’s World Heritage Status.
Dominating them all is the neo-classical grandeur of St. George’s Hall which, if you’re travelling to Liverpool by train, is one of the first sights to greet you. And what a sight: architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described it as one of the finest neo-Grecian buildings in the world. Put more prosaically, it’s a massive Greek temple. Opened in 1854, it was originally a curious combination of law courts and an entertainment venue, its Great Hall sitting smugly above the miscreants languishing in the cells below.
When designed in 1840, scale drawings were made of other, similar buildings: Birmingham’s Town Hall was one. The plans for St. George’s were superimposed on top, just to check that it would be bigger. Although it was a hall for the people (and criminal fraternity) of Liverpool, St. George’s was designed to express the city’s wealth and ambition. Something small and modest just wouldn’t cut it.
Small and modest the Great Hall is not, a room whose ornate interior feels at odds with the cool, classical exterior. An immense tunnel-vaulted roof sits on red granite columns, the arches between containing ornate balconies, which are in turn decorated with coloured marble. The mosaic floor is a thing of wonder (it numbers 30,000 tiles), so much so that it’s hard to know where to look, although the 7,737-pipe organ clamours for attention.
The hall reopened in 2007 after a £23m restoration. It now has a Heritage Centre which is open six days a week and provides access to the Great Hall (from a viewing balcony), cells, courts, a small shop and cafe. The Small Concert Room, where Charles Dickens held many of his readings, is as opulent as the Great Hall but both are only open occasionally.
The hall continues to play a central role in Liverpool life. Outside is the long, low Cenotaph, its relief sculpture depicting an unusually truthful (and humbling) illustration of grief and loss. It’s here that Liverpool gathers at times of protest, celebration and remembrance; in September 2012, for example, 10,000 people paid their respects to those who died during the Hillsborough disaster here, their vigil triggered by the independent report that exonerated the football fans originally blamed for the tragedy.
The buildings lining William Brown Street have the same restrained classicism of the hall. Among them are the Walker Art Gallery, the World Museum, Central Library, and the County Sessions House. There are also statues to the great and good, from Queen Victoria to local lad, William Gladstone. All the while, Wellington stares down from his pedestal.
The Central Library is closed for a £50m refurbishment but, when it opens in 2013, make a beeline for its Grade II listed Picton Reading Room, a circular room with 30-metre high bookshelves lining the walls. There’s an atmosphere of hushed reverence here that’s partly to do with the hefty tomes and partly due to the fact that every movement echoes conspicuously around the chamber.
The Walker Art Gallery is a petite but perfectly formed art gallery. Its excellent Victorian artworks (including Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces from the likes of Holman Hunt and Rossetti) are bolstered by a broader collection that spans seven centuries, as well as a series of temporary exhibitions and the biennial John Moores Painting Prize. A café, small shop and excellent dedicated children’s gallery – one of the best in the city – completes the offer.
The World Museum is a different beast. Monumental in scale, it’s a hybrid of old and new: outside, all Corinthian columns, while inside a newish atrium connects it with what was the Central Technical School. An enormous pterosaur swoops down from the ceiling and to the left is a shop and café. To the right, lifts connect five floors of natural history museum exhibits that range from dinosaur displays, a bug house and a planetarium to an aquarium and Egyptian remains. The place is mobbed on weekends and during school holidays.
St. John’s Gardens is a formal garden filled to the brim with statuary and memorials; its rose flowerbeds forming the backdrop to St. George’s Hall. It’s a good cut-through to the city centre, though loses some of its charm thanks to the traffic roaring into the Queensway Tunnel at its foot.
There was a saying that did the rounds during the Industrial Revolution that drew a line between “the Liverpool gentleman and the Manchester man”. While Manchester was about mills and manufacture, Liverpool was commerce personified. It didn’t have to dirty its hands quite so much; it could afford the space to create such grand architectural gestures as St. George’s Hall. The style it chose to do it with was entirely fitting, a style that alludes to maritime legend and to gentlemen of high intellect – and even higher ambition.