Repurposed spaces: the abandoned church

A handful of visionary developers are reclaiming forgotten hinterlands, creating arts venues out of disused factories, churches and coal mines. In the first instalment of our three-part series on unusual spaces that are being repurposed for the arts, Claire Ramtuhul explores a former church that now houses an orchestra

Prior to 2013, St Peter’s Church on the outskirts of Manchester was just another abandoned building, a faded relic of the city’s former industrial glory like the mills and factories surrounding it. Once the spiritual home of the Ancoats district, the church closed in 1960 as the suburb’s population and economy dwindled, eventually falling into disrepair.

Empty for half a century, last year the building began a new chapter in its history, repurposed not by a commercial developer, but by an orchestra. St Peter’s now exists as the majestic rehearsal space of the Hallé orchestra, choirs and youth groups.

Alongside huge arches and replica stained glass windows, acoustic flooring, variable lighting and soundproofing technology have transformed the space for its new owners. And although just a few ecclesiastical elements remain, there’s a tranquility about the place which is undeniably church-like.

Hallé St Peter's main hall
Hallé St Peter’s main hall

‘People behave in a slightly reverential way when they come here, whether they’re religious or not,’ says the Hallé’s project and events manager Martin Glynn, as he guides me through the venue. Clean, contemporary lines have been tastefully constructed into the space; a spiral staircase winds upward to a small rehearsal and recording room, which has been built into the huge vaulted ceiling, and a piano store securely houses three grand Steinways.

Two all-important ‘tea stations’ lie modestly at the perimeters, and as a nod to the past, the old balcony has found a new purpose as the disabled access ramp frontage. Thanks to a sensitive restoration, St Peter’s combines a heritage site with modern practicality.

What led the Hallé to take on such a challenging development? ‘Everyone was of the view that our artistic standing had really progressed since Mark Elder’s arrival as music director in 2000,’ says Glynn. ‘But our rehearsals were nomadic. Although we’re the resident orchestra of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, we are tenants in that building, and therefore pay commercial rates whenever we want to use it…which can be expensive.’

In 2008, when the Hallé learnt that a previous deal to buy St Peter’s had fallen through, Elder and chief executive John Summers spotted an opportunity. Here was a chance to give the orchestra a home in a central location, one steeped in history that would be the perfect ground for creative expression. ‘We didn’t see the point of housing the orchestra in a breezeblock, windowless, soulless space,’ says Glynn.

St Peter’s had already been partially renovated by the Heritage Lottery Fund some years earlier following an application from the Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust, but the orchestra still needed to raise at least GBP500,000 (€603,164) to acquire and repurpose the building. In the midst of the global recession, it was not a decision the board took lightly.

‘It was a well-considered strategy,’ says Glynn. ‘We consulted architects and acousticians and decided on three proposed budgets: half a million, a million, and one and a half million.’

The lowest target would cover the costs of adapting the space at its most basic level, whilst the top two would enable more ambitious elements to be added, such as sophisticated acoustic technology.

‘We didn’t see the point of housing the orchestra in a breezeblock, windowless, soulless space’

‘Our deputy chairman [Martin Macmillan] in particular helped with the fundraising stage, finding some individuals who were prepared to act as guarantors for the first rung of the tiered spend costs. If we didn’t get any money, we would still have been able to go ahead because we’d have backup from those three individual donors.’

Because the project was so different to anything the Hallé had previously undertaken, the orchestra’s development team was able to seek out investors it wouldn’t normally approach. Viridor Credits provided the majority of the finance (GBP750,000). As the charitable arm of waste management company Viridor, the organisation was keen to invest in a green, community regeneration project as recompense for the environmental impact of landfill and waste.

Along with smaller investments from other companies, Elder, Summers and the team achieved the top tier goal of GBP1.5m.

‘The case was strong,’ says Glynn. ‘It was about creating an artistic facility for the Hallé, providing a disused building with life, but also providing the community with a new facility that they could also use.’ As well as being a stable base for the Hallé’s orchestras and choirs, the new venue has enabled the organisation to expand its education projects, while also opening up a new revenue stream in the form of rentals to other parties.

St Peter's prior to repurposing
St Peter’s prior to repurposing

Shortly after the official opening last year, Manchester International Festival dressed the venue as a Scottish glen for Kenneth Branagh’s hugely popular production of Macbeth, which was also broadcast around the world via National Theatre Live.

Some of the city’s most beloved musicians, including New Order’s Peter Hook, Joy Division and A Certain Ratio have all played intimate gigs in the space, and local community groups have used it as a venue for meetings.

Although St Peter’s is sometimes hired out for private functions such as wedding receptions, Glynn is keen to point out that the Hallé leans towards hosting creative and community-led projects. The Northern Chamber Orchestra, Manchester Histories Festival, and a design symposium are all set to use the building in the coming months.

It’s a steady stream of clients that’s undoubtedly supported both the Hallé and the local area. Shops are beginning to emerge around the venue (a direct result of the influx of people visiting St Peter’s), marking the beginning of an urban regeneration that many in the Ancoats area have long dreamed of.

Mark Elder conducting in St Peter's
Mark Elder conducting in St Peter’s

As I explore St Peter’s, Glynn points out a dark red patch on the brickwork close to the old altar – a stain left by Branagh as the murderous Macbeth. Once cemented in the past, it seems St Peter’s already has new stories to tell.

‘This whole idea of original and modern… there’s a nice synergy with what the Hallé is,’ says Glynn. ‘It’s got a long history, but we think of ourselves as a forward-looking organisation. The danger is to live in the past – and this is a very 21st century thing for us to have done. It’s increased orchestral morale, and it’s an asset to our education, development, and marketing teams.’