It still stands as one of this city’s most iconic buildings after surviving a ferocious wartime bombing blitz.
But you could be forgiven for thinking the glory days of Portsmouth’s Guildhall have passed. New venues across south Hampshire have challenged its status in the entertainment world and as a cultural and community centre.
Portsmouth Cultural Trust, however, has other ideas.
In April this year, the 10-member trust – consisting of two politicians, seven businesspeople and a naval Rear Admiral, was appointed to take over the running of the Guildhall.
The charitable management body was set up after Portsmouth City Council, which had previously spent £115,000 a year on the building’s maintenance and repair, realised costs were set to shoot up.
It calculated £3.2m would be needed, on top of that annual £115,000, until 2015, and then another £5.2m between 2015-2020.
So instead, it allowed its contract with Developing Community Leisure, which had run the building, to terminate on April 1. Then it handed the operation of the building to the trust, which will run it for the next 25 years.
As the trust approaches six months in charge, trustee Jacquie Shaw says: ‘It’s been a consolidation period. Our first months have been looking closely at what we have here, and how we can bring it back to its original purpose, to be a venue for everyone in the city, a place the whole community can use and enjoy.’
The trust’s deal with the council will see the authority continue to cover maintenance costs.
Earlier this month, it agreed to spend £400,000 a number of building improvements, including replacing windows, refurbishing the front-of-house toilets and repairing and repointing the steps which lead to its official front door.
Jacquie explains: ‘The works are things that need doing, and also to improve the building for the extra visitors we’re hoping to attract.
‘What we’ve done so far is to look at where we are, where we want to be, and how to do it.
‘We’re already marketing ourselves as a venue more, and taking a very close look at how to bring people in, in the daytime and the evening.’
The Guildhall is perhaps best-known as a venue for live entertainment, with musicians, singers and comedians regularly attracting crowds which fill its 2,200-seat auditorium.
The trust’s decision to remarket the venue to tour managers and entertainment agents is one step towards engaging more people in the city.
Jacquie says: ‘One thing the whole city can be proud of is the Guildhall’s entertainment record. We want to make sure even more top acts are attracted here.’
And in the daytime, the trust hopes the Guildhall can present a more welcoming face to city folk. Jacquie explains: ‘We’ve already opened the Cafe Guildhall, which attracts customers throughout the day, and the work the council has agreed will mean it will be a venue which can be used by more people in the day and evening.
‘There are so many rooms, it’s such a large space, and it’s underused so much of the time. We are working to put that right.’
At present, large groups use the Guildhall for events, and the council for small and large meetings.
But the trust hopes to open up the venue for business and artistic use.
Jacquie says: ‘It’s for everyone. We want businesses to come in and hold conferencing events.
‘We want areas to be used for exhibitions. There are spaces which can be used for rehearsals for art and drama groups. It can be used as a wedding venue. It’s a great venue and it should always be busy.’
One symbol of the trust’s intentions is its plan, in partnership with architect and consultancy Stephen Browning Associates, to open up the building’s huge brown entrance doors.
‘They are almost always shut. Instead, people use the side doors and come into a quite unimpressive reception area. It’s not the impression we want to give.’
The cost of all these projects could run into millions of pounds, but the trust hopes its status will help it access funds.
Jacquie says: ‘We can go to places like the Heritage Lottery and others, which, as a private firm, our predecessors couldn’t really have done.’
Until 1890, when the Prince and Princess of Wales (later to become Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) opened the newly-built Guildhall in its current city centre location, Portsmouth’s town halls had stood in Old Portsmouth.
Portsmouth’s rapid expansion through the Victorian era convinced the city corporation to build a bigger hall, in a central location.
It bought the land from the War Department, which had itself taken it over and converted it from a brewery and the home of Sir Thomas Ridge.
The new hall was designed by Leeds architect William Hill, and cost £140,000 to build, supervised by Hill and fellow architect Charles Bevis.
But on January 10, 1941, during the Second World War, the Guildhall was badly damaged by bombing. Only three of its walls survived the attack.
The city corporation intended to demolish the remains of the building after the war, and build a new one.
But residents won a campaign to see the Guildhall rebuilt to its pre-war appearance, a mark of both the design’s popularity and a spirit of defiance against Hitler.
It was reopened by the Queen on June 8, 1959.
Portsmouth City Council agreed earlier this month to spend £400,000 on improvements to the Guildhall.
The cash is part of its annual payment to the building, as agreed with the trust, and work is set to be completed by April 2012.
Projects include replacing windows, some with safety glass and some with double glazing, which will cost £22,000.
Toilets will also be refurbished, the front of the building will be repaired and cleaned, and electrical systems replaced, at a combined cost of £177,000.
And the main steps leading to the building’s front entrance are to be repaired and repointed, at a cost of £15,000.
Cllr Mike Hancock, the city’s leader for planning and regeneration, says: ‘These are necessary repairs and improvements. It’s an old building and needs attention.’
Portsmouth Cultural Trust members
In November and December 2010, interviews to set up the trust were held by the council’s head of culture, Stephen Baily, and its leader for culture and leisure, Cllr Lee Hunt.
The trust now comprises:
Mark Smith - chief executive officer, Southern Co-operative
Janet de Bathe - former chief executive officer, Learning Links
Anthony Brown - marketing manager, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Simon Frost - chief executive officer, Parity Trust
Chris Gilder - senior manager, Warings
Nick Leach - head of catering, University of Portsmouth
David Steel - Rear Admiral, Royal Navy
Jacquie Shaw - head of communications and operations, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Robin Sparshatt - Portsmouth City Council corporate trustee
Gerald Vernon-Jackson - Portsmouth City Council corporate trustee