25 Mar 2015

The Gas Hall and Waterhall

Visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery often ask us about the origins of the exhibition spaces known as Gas Hall and Water Hall. In recognition of Museum Week I am going to explain the histories of these beautiful Victorian and Edwardian buildings.

By the 1870s, Birmingham had reached the peak of its prosperity, and there were 33 municipal gas undertakings in the country. In 1874 the Mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, persuaded the Council to vote by a huge majority in favour of buying the companies out. An Act of Parliament in July 1875 authorised the deal and the Birmingham Corporation Gas Committee was set up.

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Portrait of Joseph Chamberlain by Hubert von Herkomer, c.1880-1900.

Birmingham Council House designed by Yeoville Thomason, was built in 1874 and in 1885 an extension was added. This part of the building, although now known as the Water Hall, was originally used to house offices for the Birmingham Gas Corporation. In 1912 when the Museum Bridge Gallery extension was built it became the Water Hall and remained in use until 1972. For the city’s population it provided an impressive ground floor banking hall for Birmingham Corporation’s public water supply, with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on the first floor above.

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The Waterhall today.

The offices used by the Gas Corporation moved to the new extension and became known as the Gas Hall. This later became the office where the public made their gas payments.

In 1993 the entrance hall, which had been altered in the ‘50s after bombings during WWII was remodelled to make a welcoming lobby and waiting area. In the following year the renovation was presented with an award by the Royal Institute of British Architects. It has played host to local artists, installations, touring exhibitions, dinosaurs and even a Gruffalo!

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The Lost in Lace exhibition in the Gas Hall in 2011.

In 2001 the Water Hall followed suit and opened as a new gallery exhibition hall, following a renovation supported by Birmingham City Council and European Regional Development Fund. Its Victorian interior has six fluted iron Corinthian columns and riveted iron beams. The original windows remain and light is filtered by four layers of adjustable solar louvres and blinds. It now houses Modern Art and temporary exhibitions

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Inside the Waterhall gallery.

In an age of electronic billing it’s hard to believe such prestigious buildings as these were used for gas and water payments.

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The door to the Gas Hall.

The Waterhall gallery is currently showing the Art from Elsewhere: International Contemporary Art from UK Galleries exhibition until May 31st 2015, and the next exhibition opening in the Gas Hall is Love is Enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol which runs from April 25th to September 6th 2015.