Text by Jacqueline Banerjee. Top two photographs, and last one, by the author. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. The three images in the middle row, which have been taken and slightly modified from an original collage, are used here by kind permission of BBC News Online. Many thanks.

Former Methodist Central Hall, Birmingham. Ewen and J. Alfred Harper. 1900-03. Red brick and terracotta, matching the materials of the Victoria Law Courts by Aston Webb & Ingress Bell, diagonally opposite it on Corporation Street. Grade II* listed building (the Law Courts have a Grade I listing). The Harpers' three-storey, twelve-bay structure has a very tall tower, not centrally placed but with seven bays to its right, and a return along Ryder Street. Its strong vertical lines make it very impressive: it not only complements the London architects' Law Courts, but serves as the prominent local firm's riposte to them. Andy Foster points out that while the courts are "angled to the street, the Hall follows its curve," and while the courts are "picturesquely informal, the hall's three very tall storeys are powerfully defined by vertical piers, cornices and a parapet" (106). The listing text notes that the "elaboration of detail" at the top of the tower "matches that of the lower façades."

Left to right: (a) Arch over main entrance. (b) Sculpture in the right-hand spandrel, matching one on the left, showing a young woman reading to cherubs or small children (in the other one, the female figure holds lyre). (c) Panel showing Wesley preaching to listeners of different ages.

The entrance porch has a deep arch "with excellent figure carving over and within it" (listing text again) by the renowned terracotta and faience specialists, Gibbs & Canning, a Staffordshire firm established in 1847, which had also worked on the interior of the Law Courts. This firm supplied architectural terracotta all over the country, in the north for buildings like Manchester Town Hall, and in London for such internationally renowned buildings as the Royal Albert Hall and the Natural History Museum. The spandrels show allegories of Methodist teaching, and the panels on each side of the porch show scenes from Wesley's life (see Foster 107).

Closer view of window and façade ornamentation.

This massive building looks even bigger than the Baptist minister Rev. Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle in London (which Primitive Methodists also used). Its main hall was only ("only"!) designed to seat 2000, as against the Tabernacle's 5000, but there were three school halls too — hence the emphasis on teaching as well as preaching in the architectural sculpture. There were of course many additional rooms.

What is to be done with such buildings now that "congregations that were 2,000 have gone down to 20" (qtd. in Moore)? Remarkably, the Metropolitan Tabernacle is still used for its original purpose. But Birmingham's Methodist Central Hall has had a chequered history in recent years: for some time its grand main hall became a nightclub. Repeated applications have been made for its conversion into residential accommodation, a problematic change in view of its listing status.

Related Material

Sources

"Buildings A-B." Gibbs & Canning. Web. 15 April 2013.

Foster, Andy. Birmingham. Pevsner Architectural Guides. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

"Methodist Central Hall." Looking at Buildings. Web. 15 April 2013.

"Methodist Central Hall, Birmingham." British Listed Buildings. Web. 15 April 2013.

Moore, Kenneth. "What happened to the Methodist Central Halls?" BBC News Online. Web. 15 April 2013.


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Last modified 15 April 2013