John McAslan & Partners reworks a nineteenth-century town hall as St Albans Museum & Art Gallery


Chris Foges
Nick Guttridge

Two discreet glazed links appended to the east and west flanks of the former St Albans town hall are the most visible evidence of the building’s recent £7.75m conversion into a city museum and art gallery by John McAslan & Partners (JMP). The most functionally and structurally significant alterations are elsewhere, however – notably the excavation of a new basement gallery between two of the building’s three existing subterranean spaces.


Illustration of the building in 1835

The grade II*-listed town hall was built in 1831 to designs by George Smith, and originally functioned as two distinct halves, with an Assembly Room at the front and a Courtroom to the rear, complete with cells. Despite several alterations over the years, this distinction largely persisted. Many of JMP’s interventions serve to connect the two parts, as well bringing the building up to current accessibility standards. A new lift and stair connect all three levels, and the glazed walkways link first-floor galleries at the front and rear of the building as well as providing high-level views into the court – now a cafe.

Assembly Room

Exhibition spaces were created in the entrance hall and the ornate Assembly Room, which has been carefully restored, and the history of the city is told in a display in the former jail cells beneath the Courtroom. In this work, the architect was guided by three principles: declutter, conserve to a high standard, and retain and enhance the significance of existing fabric. Listed building consent required the discharge of 33 separate conditions, and extensive discussion with Historic England, the council’s conservation team and the Heritage Lottery Fund. “We were all on the same page about what was significant”, recalls architect Katherine Watts, “but there’s always a discussion about what affects the significance adversely and what doesn’t”.

Court Room

Paint analysis revealed that pink was originally used, but the client’s preference led to the selection of off-white, stone and grey colours. New engineered oak flooring replaces a 1970s ‘gym-style’ floor in the Assembly Room sculpture gallery and adjacent exhibition spaces.

JMP has further rationalised the building by creating the first internal connection to some public toilets installed under the pavement at the front in the 1970s, and by removing partitions to create an axial view from the main entrance through much of the ground floor to the ordered lifts and stairs in the centre of the building. The entrance hall itself is now a multi-functional space, comprising both an expanded cafe, a shop and the city’s visitor information centre.


A number of more radical interventions – such as a mezzanine in the Assembly Room, and an additional structure over part of the roof – were explored but not executed, either for reasons of cost or because they were judged not to be necessary or appropriate. With spaces such as the top-lit octagonal Courtroom lending ample spatial and historic interest, the architects have been able to focus on “enhancing the existing building with respectful interventions”, says Watts.

Download Drawings


John McAslan + Partners
Structural engineer
Alan Baxter
MEP engineer
Atelier 10, REL
Willmott Dixon

Roof to glazed link
Curtain walling
Kawneer, Alcoa
Cast iron gutters and downpipes
Floor and wall tiles
Engineered timber flooring
Solid Wood Flooring Company
Courtroom flooring
Forbo Marmoleum
Internal partitions
British Gypsum
Breathable paint
Duravit, Ideal Standard
Secondary glazing