The Architecture of Conway Hall
In 1922, the Society purchased an L-shaped strip of land at the North East corner of Red Lion Square, Holborn, spanning the block between Theobald’s Road and Lamb’s Conduit Passage. This presented a tricky aspect in which for Mansford to fit the new headquarters. The main entrance is at the North East corner of Red Lion Square, with little space on the square itself. Mansford therefore created two elevations one for the main entrance and another for the extension along Lambs Conduit Passage.
The main entrance bay consists of a grand arch rising between two pilasters to the top of the upper floor. The pilasters project from the wall acting as gatekeepers to the large proportion of glazing that is squeezed into the wall space between them.
The top half of the arch contains a balcony with fully glazed doors and windows leading into the library. The combination of the fenestration with the distinctive criss-cross pattern of the glazing bars and the white plaster of the balcony are nods to the Art Deco style that flourished during the 1920s and 30s. These Art Deco features appear elsewhere in the building including the oculus windows that are found along the second elevation adjoining the entrance. The distinctive geometric patterns of the glazing bars within these circular windows are reflected in the logo of Conway Hall.
Mansford used a silver-grey brick for the exterior, popular during the Arts and Crafts movement, which he interspersed with red-brick detailing that creates a rhythm for the eye to move over. The second elevation along Lambs Conduit Street and is plainer than the more visible main entrance facing the square. In an attempt to unify the two elevations, Mansford placed six large Baroque style stone urns, purchased from the Union Bank, along the upper floors; two atop the pilasters of the entrance and four along the roof of the Main Hall.
On entering the building you are presented with the clean lines and curves of the lobby’s simple decorative features. To the right a central pink granite column with Tuscan capital divides two segmental arches which are repeated in the entrance to the north passageway and the bar area (originally the women’s cloakroom). The walls are panelled below the dado in an Indian yellow terrazzo which continues up the stairwell to the gallery and library. The colour scheme of pinks and yellows is repeated in the ceramic floor tiling giving the space quiet/unified harmony.
A niche can be seen in the lobby which was included for the bust of Conway made by the sculptor Theodore Spicer-Simson in 1904.
To the right of the entrance hall is the Main Hall which can seat 400 people (300 on the ground floor plus 100 in the gallery). The walls are lined with oak-faced panelling, 1¾ inches thick, nailed directly to the brickwork and the facing of the concrete balcony with oak plywood. This along with the use of acoustic plaster helped to give Conway Hall the reputation of being one of the best halls in London for the performance of music, a reputation which it still holds today. At the time these were advanced techniques which under the advice of acoustic consultant Mr. Hope Bagenal, who’s other acoustic projects included The Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House, also included, where practical, disconnecting the walls and floors. This attention to detail gave Conway Hall the reputation, which is still holds to this day, as being one of the best venues in London for Classical music. Other features that made the hall seem modern and forward thinking for its time was the glazed ceiling of the auditorium which helped to make the hall feel light and airy as well as the heating and ventilation system (mentioned in more detail later in this text).
The auditorium has been the platform for many musicians and performers, including world famous chamber musicians such as the Griller Quartet and the Amadeus Quartet, blues legends such as Muddy Waters and jazz supremo’s such as Humphrey Lyttelton who recorded a number of live albums in the Hall. In the sleeve notes of Humph at the Conway, Lyttleton describes Conway Hall as his ‘spiritual home’. For a first-hand account of what it was like to play at Conway Hall listen to the wonderfully appealing reminiscences of Gordon Honey, a retired tenor, who sang at Conway Hall in the 1960’s.
The hall was also been a stage for many plays and vignets, with the great actress of stage and screen, and active member of the Society, Athene Seyler organising much of the theatrical entertainment. Of course the Society used the hall too for the talks and debates that it is famous for and had and continues to have some of the most eminent men and women within the world of progressive thought upon its stage. These have included H. G. Wells, Marghanita Laski, Dora Russell, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway , Sir Jonathan Miller and Mary Stocks. More recently the hall has had speakers including A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Samira Ahmed, Caroline Criado-Perez and Brian Cox as part of the Society’s London Thinks programme.
Above the proscenium arch over the main stage where such pre-eminent lecturers and artists have appeared can be found the words, To Thine Own Self Be True, a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The atmospheric library can be found up on the first floor past the high arched windows of the stairwell, allowing in yet more natural light and creating a sense of open space. The library contains a unique humanist collection of several thousand books that are to be found on oak bookcases around the room’s four walls. On first entering the library visitors are greeted by an impressive Arts and Crafts style fireplace, presented in memory of John Aldred, who took a leading part in the formation of the society. The fireplace is in black marble with oak surround, relieved with blue ceramic tiling. To its left and right are small benches reminiscent of church pews. The floor around the fireplace contains a mosaic or azure blues and greens which together with the other features create a peaceful, contemplative space.
Interestingly, the original plans were for a gallery which would have formed part of the top of the fireplace recess and continued around the room allowing for the collection to be extended.
Another notable feature of this space is the arched fenestration facing the leafy outlook of Red Lion Square and reflects Mansford’s desire to allow in natural light wherever possible.
As well as the collection of humanist materials covering such topics as rationalism, philosophy, religion and ethics, you will find the majority of our portrait and bust collection. On the walls above the shelves you will find likenesses of our most eminent ministers, William J. Fox and Moncure Conway and other important figures from our Society and our kindred Societies, including Annie Besant, Charles Bradlaugh, Thomas Henry Huxley and Bertrand Russell.
Sitting in one of the shady corners of the library is an elegant and unassuming desk which the society is fortunate to have been the bestowed. A small brass plaque at its centre informs the visitor that it was ‘The favourite writing desk and fellow prisoner of Richard Carlisle during his struggles to obtain the freedom of the press 1816-1834.’
Fixtures and Fittings
All too often we miss the small details, so busy are we in our daily lives but sometime the small details are what hold the whole together. It is therefore worth pointing out some the details you might miss while rushing to a concert or talk in the Main Hall or searching out the elusive Artist’s room for the meeting you’re late for. Such details include the rather fine brass door handles that you can see on the doors to the main hall and library that have the organic shapes favoured by the Art Nouveau style and Arts and Crafts movement. The toilet cubicles adjoining both the Green room and the Artist’s room still have the original locks that flipped a sign to tell you if the room was engaged or vacant. Looking at the top of the pilasters forming the proscenium arch in the main hall you will see plaster bas-reliefs by Violet Stuttig, depicting a man, woman and child holding a light (on the left relief) and a mirror (on the right relief). There is nothing in the archives to state definitively what the significance of the imagery is, however it is likely that the mirror represents self-knowledge and the torch a symbol of enlightenment, both of which have underlined the Society’s ethos and is reflected in the motto painted across the proscenium arch 'To thine own self by true’.
Other features such as the light fittings tell us a story of changing tastes. Whist researching for documents and images in our archives that helped to reveal the story of our building we discovered a design for a light fitting for the Main Hall. The light fitting had an art deco almost sci-fi look to it and was nowhere to be seen in the hall, however it triggered off the recollection of seeing something similar in one of the dark corners of our labyrinthine basements. Sure enough, after finding a torch and crawling through some uncomfortable spaces we found the original light fittings secreted by the old electrical fans for the building’s ventilation. We thought due to the ‘deco’ flavour of the design we’d found the lights that had been part of the original designs when the building was opened in 1929, however on checking photos from its inaugural year we realised this wasn’t the case. In fact the original light fittings looked to be brass with glass panels making up a hexagonal design. Feeling slightly disappointed we didn’t have the originals we tried to find out when they had changed the design. Unfortunately the few images we have of the hall haven’t helped to come up with a good approximation of the date as neither the design for the light fitting, nor our committee records shed light on the matter. From their style it would be probable that they are from the 1950’s although we are happy to hear other suggestions! Most recently, after thinking the original light fittings were long gone, a hawkeyed member of staff spotted two familiar looking hexagonal light shades hanging up in the flies (and therefore hidden from view) of the main stage. Sure enough they appear to be the original light shades that hung in the hall when it was opened in 1929. Whilst light fittings might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the detective adventures that library and archives throw up make the job a lot of fun, especially when your endeavours reveal the answers.
Conway Hall Ventilation
Air is drawn from a point above the roof, where it is most free from dust. It is then drawn through a "filter" by means of an electric fan. The filter consists of a series of aluminium perforated plates, each covered with a sheet of wadding chemically treated. As the perforations in these plates are "staggered" (that is, not opposite to each other) the course of the air current is circuitous. This enables about 90 per cent. of the dust to be deposited on the wadding, which has to be cleaned from time to time. The purified air then passes over coils of hot-water pipes (in cold weather), and, thus warmed, is blown into the halls through air trunks under the floors and in the walls. The air enters the halls through a number of gratings well distributed.* The largest are those in the platform front, and it is inevitable that the air currents there should be very perceptible. Those visitors who wish to be near the speakers and object to air currents, even when slightly warmed, would be wise to try the seats in the ends of the balcony, especially that on the left of the platform, because in the right balcony there are windows which are sometimes open. Exhausted air is extracted from the ceiling at four points. The halls are also warmed by radiators, as otherwise the incoming air would need to be almost scorched to produce the right temperature for a seated audience.
* A considerable number of air inlets occur under seats in the balcony; these can be selected or avoided according to the preference of members. The consulting engineer was Mr. J. Roger Preston, President of the Institute of Ventilating Engineers.