The Grade II* listed Council House is well known to all residents of Birmingham.
It is passed by hundreds of people every day, as they walk through Victoria Square. The renaissance style captures the opulence of 19th century classicism, but its true significance lies in the ideals it stands for. Designed by local architect Yeoville Thomason, it is a grand reflection of Birmingham’s pride in its civic achievements.
In 1874 the first stone was laid by Joseph Chamberlain, who was Lord Mayor at the time. Hidden behind its walls, many of the interior spaces share the Victorian elegance and grandeur of the façade. Aside from its administrative functions the building houses a plethora of impressive spaces including the Lord Mayor’s suite, the Council Chamber, committee rooms and a richly ornamented banqueting suite of elaborate reception rooms.
Situated on the curved corner of the first floor is the Lord Mayor’s Parlour. The Parlour remains relatively unchanged since Joseph Chamberlain sat at the same desk nearly 150 years ago. Many gifts, which have been presented to the Lord Mayor over the years, are displayed around the Parlour.
On the floor above, the semi-circular Council Chamber is the beating heart of political Birmingham, housing monthly council meetings. The space is also used almost daily for meetings, discussions and consultations.
The ornate classical room was expanded in 1911 to increase capacity from 80 spaces to 117, introducing formal curved benches, which focus on the Lord Mayor’s central rostrum.
Behind the Lord Mayor decoratively carved oak and walnut panelling depicts ‘Truth’ and ‘Justice’ and in front is an area for press representatives. At the rear of the room is a public gallery, who from time to time are required to sit in on council sessions.
Just outside the main chamber a surprising glass corridor provides a direct link to the art gallery, although travel through it is restricted. Ornate wrought ironwork, with floral detailing, supports the glass roof. The light, bright and colourful space is lined on one side with ceremonial furniture used for special events and royal visits.
In contrast to the opulent interiors of the upper floors, beneath Edmund Street lies a warren of empty spaces, now home to nothing more than dust and spiders.
During the Second World War these tiled spaces acted as a mortuary overspill for the hospital. Victims of bomb attacks and fires were brought here when there was no room at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Bodies would be stored and preserved in the dark tunnel. This was widely unknown by the public, who wandered mere feet above.
The circular glass light wells, which can still be seen in the pavement, were the only visible link between the two worlds. The original doors which segment the sections still cling to their frames. Now the space, accessed through a hidden door in the council house’s basement kitchen, is uninhabited, far too damp and cold for any practical use.
Article by Matthew Goer, Director, Associated Architects
Published in the Birmingham Post, 26 December 2013