Boss Nicky Chance-Thompson aims to level up Piece Hall
Not content with reviving the fortunes of an entire borough, Halifax’s Grade I-listed The Piece Hall is soon to be thrust into the Hollywood spotlight as a landmark location for the Marvel movies mega-franchise. Some locals may bristle at contrived labels such as “the Covent Garden of the North”.
But a dazzling menu of restaurants, history, boutiques, art, niche bars and cultural events has made Yorkshire’s Most Important Secular Building one of the country’s hottest weekend destinations.
“This is leveling up in action,” says Nicky Chance-Thompson, chief executive of the Piece Hall Trust.
A Londoner, she first visited the sleeping giant when her Halifax-born husband took her on a tour of the neglected Georgian gem in 2006.
Nicky adds: “It was run-down and there was nothing here, but it felt very European – like I was in St Mark’s Square or Barcelona.” The vast building surrounding an open piazza opened on January 1 1779 and cost £12,000 to build.
Its 315 rooms were used to trade “pieces” of cloth – 30-yard lengths of woven fabric produced on a handloom – as West Yorkshire took a lead role in the global wool industry.
But the Industrial Revolution triggered a shift away from these small producers to large regional mills that dealt directly with exporters.
The Piece Mill was turned into a wholesale market and later a Victorian public square, before the merchants’ units were turned into shops. Its fate looked sealed in 1972 when councilors suggested replacing it with a car park to serve the town center – but it survived by one vote and became a market square.
Piece Hall in its trading heyday
The markets left in the mid-1990s leaving its shop owners marooned, and daily visitors fell to a trickle.
But in 2017 Heritage Lottery cash let the council realize its vision of bringing The Piece Hall back to life as Halifax’s cultural centrepiece, and a catalyst of regeneration. The trust was formed and awarded a 125-year lease on peppercorn rental terms.
Following a £19million overhaul the piazza boasts cascading stepped water features and finely grained sandstone, while the original clothiers rooms have been combined into 43 units for independent shops, cafés and offices.
Last year The Piece Hall received more visitors than the Tower of London and it was the second most Googled attraction in all of Yorkshire, beaten only by York Minster.
As a result, Marks and Spencer bosses chose to keep their Halifax store and a ripple effect was felt across Calderdale. Historic England calls it “the most successful renewal project of its time”.
Trust boss Nicky says: “Our dream was to fill the place with shops, bars and restaurants, put on major events and become the key economic driver for Halifax.”
Around 5,000 people were expected to visit on the opening day – but more than 23,000 turned up. Every cashpoint was emptied, restaurants ran out of food and bars were drunk dry.
In the next two years five million visitors pumped £26 million into the local economy.
Future annual growth is put at £15million – a benchmark for what can be achieved across the UK where hundreds of mid-sized high streets are in decline.
Nicky says: “If you expect to just open up and be fed as a retailer these days you are living in cloud cuckoo land.
“You’ve got to be friendly, you’ve got to be engaging and you have to think outside the box.”
She admits: “Not everywhere is lucky enough to have such a historic building.
“But many places do – there are opportunities everywhere.
“I get so sad when I see high streets making the mistake of thinking they should do more of the same, replicate what they did in the 1980s.
“People and shopping habits have changed significantly. It can’t be about saving the high street – it’s got to be about re-inventing it.
Loafers… coffee and vinyl LPs
“There is no point saving what doesn’t work, homogenised stuff, it’s gone. Let’s reinvent and re-imagine.” Nicky believes free access is crucial during the cost-of-living crisis – free parking on a Sunday also helps – but a bigger priority is getting the government to invest heavily in the North’s dilapidated train network.
She adds: “I couldn’t believe when I arrived that a 12-mile train journey to Leeds took 50 minutes. It’s no better now.
“That has to change. Bradford 2025 [City of Culture] is around the corner and we are arguing about creating a proper station.
“We are between Leeds, Manchester and Bradford but the majority of visitors reluctantly have to drive.
“The best way for us to prosper is to remain free to enter – however that requires a very commercial approach.
“As some very well-established arts organizations are discovering, what can be freely given can be freely taken away and so I didn’t want to be a hostage to fortune of running a business model of 80 percent government funding 20 percent commercial. I reversed that.”
Hosting concerts and art exhibitions has been absolutely crucial.
Nicky adds: “To me it’s really important that the building is preserved, it’s beautiful. And I’m very possessive because if we ruin it then it’s gone, it’s lost forever.
“But it has to be living heritage rather than a museum.
“Not everybody is in love with the past but they can fall in love with the new experiences. Nobody outside of Halifax had heard of it until recently.
“It’s such an important heritage site – it’s the only remaining Georgian property of its kind left in the world.
“It is our Eiffel Tower if you like. We had to think how do we project this building into the hearts of the minds of people, not only locally but regionally, nationally and internationally?
“We have done it by linking it to other huge events, be that hosting Sophie Wright’s sculptures or having Sir Tom Jones on stage. That gives us iconic status.”
Gentleman Jack tourism has all over the world to The Piece Hall.
The BBC period drama chronicles the life of Anne Lister, the unconventional
Halifax businesswoman, played by Suranne Jones, left. She considered visiting the hall for commercial purposes to be beneath her social station.
She did, however, watch public entertainment there – she once arrived too late for a fireworks display.
Viewers from as far afield as Canada and New Zealand have been flocking to one of the few buildings from her lifetime that has survived intact.