A new Piece of history

Sam Mason, chief executive of The Piece Hall Trust.
Sam Mason, chief executive of The Piece Hall Trust.

“My dream booking would be Ed Sheeran, being a Calderdale lad. But he’s not touring at the moment and, unfortunately, I don’t know him personally.”

Sam Mason, the man putting the new-look Piece Hall in Halifax together, is thinking big. Which is just as well – the Piece Hall is a whopping big place.

“The courtyard is 66,000 square feet,” Mason says proudly, gazing at what is still a building site populated by more than 120 tradesmen. “If you want a comparison, Somerset House in London is 44,000.

“That has a brilliant reputation for events, but this is half as big again and takes twice as many people. There is nowhere like it on this scale. No one I’ve brought in over the last nine months has been disappointed. The first thing most people say when they come in here is ‘wow’.”

For all this understandable excitement, the Piece Hall has been here before. In its 237-year history it has had more relaunches than The X Factor. Built at the expense of local clothiers on land provided by the Caygill family, in the late 18th century it was here that businessmen flocking to Halifax came to buy their cloth.

In the 19th, the textile trade having upped sticks to Bradford, it morphed into a wholesale fruit and vegetable market complete with crowdpleasing stunts. In 1861 a cable was stretched from its corners and the world famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin, fresh from crossing the Niagara Falls, wobbled along it to the excitement of the hordes below.

Fast forward to 1976 and the Piece Hall was being restored at great expense with market stalls springing up in the courtyard and shops using the more than 300 rooms on the building’s three levels, or galleries. It played host to vintage car shows and open air performances.

But the current £20m overhaul of this great site is something else entirely. One that is set to make the Piece Hall a destination in its own right, bringing daytrippers from West Yorkshire and far beyond to marvel at the architecture, the sheer scale of the place and, it’s hoped, to spend big in its shops.

Sam Mason wants it to become nothing less than a new town centre for Halifax, a focal point with a magnetic pull that acts as a catalyst in the creation of a whole new identity for the town, bringing far-reaching benefits for all. “Yorkshire’s brand has grown enormously over the past few years,” he notes. “This is another gem for it to offer.”

And prospective occupants of the new-look Piece Hall, set for a late summer opening, are buying into that vision in spades. Sam and his team have so far fielded more than 400 expressions of interest for just 25 retail units. A few would-be tenants are being shown round while I get the grand tour.

The idea is for the ground floor to be populated by restaurants, cafes and bars to make it a dining and drinking destination. As for the shops, Mason wants them to be independent and individual. “I think clothing will work very well, especially given its history as a cloth trading hall, so I’m really hoping we’ll have clothing.

“Some of those more luxury goods, the soap, the beauty stuff I think would work well too. I’d love to get an old bookshop in here. Handmade cards, those sort of things. The artisan maker stuff, the things you’re not going to find in your home town.”

The top level will be given over to office space and creative industries, to have people working here every day, giving it some life and making full use of the amenities. As for the courtyard, with room for some 7,500 people it’s the ideal events space, perfect for music concerts (the elusive Ed Sheeran and Kaiser Chiefs are examples offered up by Mason), an outdoor cinema, ice rink in winter, Christmas markets, the whole nine yards.

“We will become known as one of the most unique venues in the country and one of the most beautiful,” Sam confidently predicts. Rents “won’t be the cheapest” but are pitched realistically at up to £17 per square foot annually for shops and £13 for businesses.

With Eureka children’s museum just down the road and late-night opening to 11pm, the Piece Hall is looking to tap into family days out and become a hub of European-style evening culture.

Amid all this boundless optimism the one grey area is whether this all-singing, all-dancing destination will come with enough parking.

None is attached to the Piece Hall, but Mason – a former theatre director turned commercial chief of the National Science Museum Group – doesn’t see this as a problem.

“Road and rail links are very good,” he points out. “There’s a straight line to London and the M62 gives you Manchester and Leeds.”

As for a roof, they decided early on it just wouldn’t look right. “People want to be outside. You accept it rains in this country and you live with it.”

Claire Slattery, arts and heritage manager for Calderdale Council, has been working on the revamp since 2009. “It’s always been a really important building for the people of Halifax,” she says. “From the 19th century onwards we staged massive celebrations of civic life here, we held Big Sings where Sunday school choirs came into the main space and sang, we’ve had political rallies, we’ve had the Olympic torch come through here. People love it and everybody has a story to tell about the Piece Hall.”

The reopening will see the collection and sharing of those stories. There will be a learning centre on site, for school groups as well as for everything from baby ballet to 18th century dance lessons.

An interpretation centre, The Piece Hall Story, concentrates on early days of trading at the site, while a Map Room shows how Halifax developed.

The doors of the new Piece Hall will be thrown open to the public in early September, to coincide with the nationwide Heritage Open Days event. Given that it’s considered to be the most significant Georgian building of the people in the North of England – not to mention the the £7m stumped up by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the rest coming from the council and some smaller donations – it seems only fitting.

“People are dying to come and see it,” Slattery enthuses. “This is going to become a must-see destination.”