Meet the people working behind the scenes at the Piece Hall makeover
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 September 2015 | UPDATED: 21:36 18 April 2016
Joan Russell Photography
The iconic Piece Hall in Halifax is currently a multi-million pound building site, but all the dust, scaffolding and high-vis materials in the world can’t disguise its beauty – or its potential as one of the key sites on the cultural map of Britain.
Sam Mason, the first chief executive of The Piece Hall Trust, a newly-formed organisation tasked with running the Grade I listed building when it reopens next summer after a £19.2 million makeover, is confident it will not only establish itself as a world class tourist destination but will also push Halifax to the top echelons of the cultural league.
‘We have to be the best in the world,’ said Sam, laughing a little at the audacity of the statement. ‘This really is the last chance for the Piece Hall to make its mark. It’s a truly unique building with incredible potential as a major venue. It’s not achieved that potential in the past but, with the support of this amazing town, the council and Yorkshire as a whole, I believe its time has come.’
If anyone can do it, it’s going to be Sam. With his mix of commercial, creative and heritage experience, he has the ideal CV for the job – almost spookily so.
He was commercial director at the National Science Museum Group, which includes the Science Museum in London, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the National Railway Museum in York and the National Media Museum in Bradford. And before that was director of Kendal Mountain Festival; chief executive and artistic director of Brewery Art Centre in Kendal; director of Blackfriars Arts Centre in Boston, Lincolnshire; and education manager at Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.
Piece Hall behind the scenes
Sam Mason, chief executive of the Piece Hall Trust on site of the redevelopment
Sam Mason with David Garner, project manager
Sam Mason and David Garner discuss the detail of the redevelopment
The entrance to The Piece Hall belies the major work going on behind the closed doors
The Piece Hall will look dramatically different
Stonemason Keith Ojo at work at The Piece Hall
Stonework prepared for The Piece Hall
The Piece Hall is a big part of Halifax heritage
‘It’s almost as if I’ve been specifically building my CV for this role,’ he said. ‘My career has not taken a straight route but, looking back at it now, it seems it was always leading me here.
‘My job – and the job of my team, once they’re in place – is to create experiences. I want people to come in and engage with the building all day, every day. In its simplest terms, my job is to make people happy – how fantastic is that?’
When it opens next summer – no one will be pinned down to an exact date yet – the stunning 18th century hall will be revealed as an impressive collection of independent shops, cafes and creative businesses around a buzzing piazza designed to host seasonal markets, major festivals and all manner of music, theatre and entertainment events, including an ice rink in the winter months.
‘It will be a very flexible space, said Sam. ‘As a concert venue, it will comfortably hold 5,000 people, but I want it to be busy all the time, whether there’s a big event happening or not.
‘I want people to pop in on their way to work to grab a coffee and a croissant and families to gather in the evening for a relaxed dinner. This is a distinctly European building and I want it to have that fantastic European atmosphere you get when a community comes together for food, drink, shopping and entertainment in the town square.’
There will also be a heritage and visitor centre in the south gate, telling the story of the Piece Hall from its origins in 1779 as a place to trade pieces of cloth and on through its various guises as a marketplace, social space and home for political rallies, religious gatherings, shopping, sport and entertainment.
Its rich history is very apparent at the moment as the 60 or so craftsmen working on the building (that number will double as the project progresses) have stripped it back to its original stonework. It’s a painstaking, time-consuming process, but worth every meticulous moment, according to David Garner, the man in charge of construction on site.
‘It’s a major challenge and a once in a lifetime opportunity for everyone involved,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to understand that this is a unique site. It’s massive for a start, but then you have to factor in that everything has to be custom-made. Every replacement stone has to be carved by hand to replicate the original. I can honestly say that craftsmen built this place and craftsmen are rebuilding it now.’
David is no stranger to major projects, having worked in the construction industry for many years tackling everything from five-star Kuwait hotels to industrial sites for Boeing, but even he has been staggered by the sheer size of the task at hand in Halifax.
‘It bowls me over each and every day,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t even aware the Piece Hall existed before I came here, and now I live and breathe this building. This is definitely my epitaph project.’
The ambitious Piece Hall project has received many millions in public money through English Heritage and Calderdale Council, but Sam firmly believes it will be completely self-sustaining within three years of opening.
‘You’ll be able to measure its success in how busy the shops are, how crowded the markets are and how packed the concerts are,’ he said. ‘But I’ll also measure the success by how proud the people of Halifax are – and how jealous visitors are that the Piece Hall is not in their town.’
If all goes according to plan, the revitalised hall will become a cultural hub for Halifax, Yorkshire, the north and, with the help of a suitably large PR campaign, the UK as a whole, but Sam is keen to stress that it will still be just one part of Halifax’ rich offering.
‘I’ve no doubt the Piece Hall will benefit the whole town,’ he said, ‘but I’ve also no doubt that while visitors might start here, they’ll then move on to Eureka!, the Minster, the town hall, the shops, restaurants and bars, Dean Clough, the Victoria Theatre, the Orangebox – everyone will get a share of the increased footfall and visitor spend.’
There is still a year to go, numerous stones to be hand-chiselled, retailers to be installed and major entertainment names to be signed up, but there’s already a sense of excitement in the air around the Piece Hall. People want this to work. Not least, the man at the helm.
‘It’s a beautiful town, but it’s the people that really make it,’ said Sam. ‘I want to repay their kindness, warmth and support by creating a truly inspiring space for them.
‘The future for Halifax is very exciting because it’s full of passionate people with bold ambitions. I’m not dragging the town along with me. It’s leading the way.’