The Free Trade Hall - Radisson Edwardian Hotel
This is a building that probably brings back lots of memories for people who grew up in Manchester. I saw Leonard Bernstein conducting the Hallé Orchestra there and every year my school held its Speech Nights there. In fact in first year, before they discovered that I was the horrible noise in the back row, I sang in the school choir on the stage at the Free Trade Hall.
Somewhat more momentous is the fact that it was on that same stage that Bob Dylan shocked the world by setting aside his acoustic guitar and going electric! Long before that the ground on which it stands was St. Peter's Field, the site of the Peterloo Massacre.
The Free Trade Hall was built between 1853 and 1856 by Edward Walters. The mandate was to build a hall suitable for "literary, religious, musical and other purposes" and the name derives from the prominent part played by Manchester in the repeal of the Corn Laws and the promotion of Free Trade. In 1969 Pevsner described Walters' design as "perhaps the noblest monument in the Cinquecento style in England."
The building suffered extensive damage during the WWII bombing of Manchester. You can see in the photograph below that the building was a shell with just the outside walls standing and no roof as late as 1946.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the interior was rebuilt by Leonard Howitt, the City architect. The hall became synonymous with its major tenant the world famous Hallé Orchestra until it moved to its new home, the Bridgewater Hall in the mid 1990s.
Below you see the back of the hall on Windmill Street. Eight stone figures represented the variety of activities that took place in the hall.
The building remained empty for a number of years and there were a number of proposals to transform it into a hotel. Eventually that was the solution to its future and below you can see the demolition of the interior.
The reconstruction preserved the Peter Street front and part of the Southmill Street facade, for which I suppose we should be grateful. The end result though gives the appearance that a large and rather undistinguished glass and concrete modern hotel has crashed into the back of an elegant 19th century masterpiece.
However, it must be added that the Radison Hotel has done an excellent job of preserving some important features of the old hall. The white stone sculptures that graced the Windmill Street side of the building have been given pride of place in the atrium lightwell and emphasized by sympathetic lighting. Ironically they are much more accessible now than they were in their original position.
Inside the Hall a number of crests were hung along the side walls. These were the coats of arms of city bodies and neighbouring local authorities. Today those crests are mounted above the reception desk.
On Level 2 of the hotel you will find this crest of the City of Manchester that once hung over the entrance doorway to the auditorium.