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Prince of Wales and World Monuments Fund step in to save Liverpool's St George's Hall

City officials are debating what to do with the Neo-Classical civic monument, which experts consider to be one of Europe's finest buildings

Emerge from Liverpool’s Lime Street railway station, and St George’s Hall stops you in your tracks. Its massive bulk, its commanding site on a mount overlooking the town, its pedimented portico and colonnade of giant columns remind you of the Parthenon in Athens.

It is the latest architectural cause to be taken up by the Prince of Wales and has been described by him as “one of the greatest public buildings of the last 200 years sitting in the centre of one of Europe’s finest cities”. St George’s Hall was Liverpool’s first major civic monument. It was built in the 1840s to house assize courts and a concert hall and to give some cultural grace to a city which was then the trading centre of the British Empire. This was the port’s golden age with 5,000 ships sailing up the Mersey every year and St George’s Hall was the symbol of its wealth and prosperity. A 1843 composite drawing of similar sized buildings in London and Birmingham shows that Liverpool was determined to outdo its rivals. St George’s was to be the largest and the grandest. It became an outstanding example of Victorian craftsmanship and ultimately set the classical tone for a gracious arc of public buildings and municipal sculptures erected around it later in the century.

Hailed by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as “the freest Neo-Classical building in England” and by Lutyens and Norman Shaw as “one of the finest buildings in the world”, the three-storey monument comprises two concert halls together seating 3 to 4,000, two law courts and a range of ancillary rooms and lobbies. At its centre is the enormous and magnificent vaulted Great Hall, 24 metres high and 51 metres long, floored in rich patterned Minton tiles, lined with polished porphyry pillars, statues of local worthies, and elaborate cast bronze doors set in granite architraves. It is one of the most striking early Victorian interiors in existence. The smaller hall, an elegant elliptical chamber ringed with graceful caryatids supporting a cast-iron trellis ballustrade, is where Charles Dickens gave readings on his frequent trips to Liverpool. Adjacent are two handsome courtrooms, so well preserved they are often used as film sets for Victorian melodramas. Below are subsidiary courts and offices. And below them gloomy basement cells where prisoners were held prior to trial.

Such an inspired concept was this remarkable Victorian monument, it is a shock to find the Hall now empty, its future in doubt. The building has been closed and sealed off to the public for the past two years. Though in sound structural condition, bar the roof which is under repair, it has failed to meet 20th-century fire and safety regulations and is regarded as unsuitable for large numbers of visitors. A sum of £20m to 25m ($38m-$47.5m) is needed for the provision of new services, fire safety measures, and conservation work on external stonework and decorative glass, plaster and metalwork. The problems have arisen because, during the 130 years St George’s housed law courts, it was a Crown building and thus exempt from fire and safety regulations. Over this time the early electrical, mechanical and ventilation systems became outdated, if not dangerous. The Crown handed the Hall back to the city council in 1984 when Liverpool’s law courts were relocated to a modern block. Neither the Crown nor the council had made any provision for its continuing upkeep. Prince Charles has recommended that the US-based World Monuments Fund adopt the building as its first British project and the Fund has agreed to launch an appeal.

But although the organisation has been successful at galvanising private funds on an international scale for other schemes it is unlikely to raise anything like the sum required. The building of St George’s came about as a result of Liverpool’s commercial prowess during the Industrial Revolution. In the late 1830s when Liverpool’s prosperous bourgeoisie decided they needed Athenaeum-style cultural buildings to civilise their town they launched two design competitions, for assize courts and for a concert hall. Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, a 25-year-old architect from Sussex, won both. His final plans combined both functions in one heroic moment which took from 1841 to 1856 to build. Elmes died of tuberculosis halfway through its construction. The monument was fully booked during the Victorian era for concerts, plays, rallies and fairs, and was regularly used this century, up until two years ago.

Now, however, the council is in a quandary as to what to do with St George’s and how to raise the funds to do it. One problem is that the Great Hall’s acoustics and entrance lobbies were never satisfactorily resolved by the architect. Another is that there has been little point in installing fire escapes or services as any system put in now may not suit the Hall’s final use. Meanwhile, as the council continues to debate the issue, the cost of conversion continues to rise. Liverpool’s council has spent considerable time and energy on the dilemma. Each year brings a new report or survey. Developers have suggested turning it into a hotel and casino, or a film-making centre, but commercial ventures like these have invariably required financial backing which Liverpool cannot afford. The council suspects that St George’s cannot be commercially viable and believes it can best survive if taken over by a “public sector user” which can tap public or international funding. One person to whom it may turn for help is the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, who helped revive the city after the Toxteth riots of the early 1980s.

One proposal which has found favour with the council is to convert the building into a tourist centre and art gallery. It has been suggested that the northern end of St Georges could become a tourist/heritage centre complete with video displays and electric cars gliding past tableaux, similar to the Jorvik centre in York. The suggested name for this “Liverpool experience” is “Ticket to Ride”, the title of the Beatles song. The remainder of the building could be handed over to a body like the local National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (NMGM) which is funded directly by the government. The NMGM leased St George’s Hall for the summer seasons of 1988 and 1989 and attracted tens of thousands who wanted to see the interior and view an exhibition on the building. Members like the Walker Art Gallery which abuts St Georges are in need of space to display and store art works, particularly antiquities and ethnographica. The NMGM is keen to convert the Hall’s basement into a gallery and envisages other areas being used for concerts, drama, conferences and exhibitions.

In November Liverpool’s council held a series of seminars on the future of the monument. Directors of leading museums and galleries around the world were invited to give their advice, which is now being assessed. An initial step towards the Hall’s restoration has been taken by the Paul Getty Trust of Los Angeles which has helped finance a preliminary study on the conservation of its stained glass, Minton tiles, gilded doors and external sculptures. Behind each successive initiative lies the question of whether the building has outlived its original purpose. Restoration and conversion is now vital to return to the building what Prince Charles described as the Hall’s lost spirit, and to recapture a bit of Liverpool’s golden age.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Proud Parthenon of the North stranded in the 1990s"