History in Structure

Council House and former Civic Centre

A Grade II Listed Building in Plymouth, City of Plymouth

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Latitude: 50.3695 / 50°22'10"N

Longitude: -4.1432 / 4°8'35"W

OS Eastings: 247682

OS Northings: 54371

OS Grid: SX476543

Mapcode National: GBR RB5.TH

Mapcode Global: FRA 2862.3PV

Plus Code: 9C2Q9V94+QP

Entry Name: Council House and former Civic Centre

Listing Date: 21 June 2007

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1392038

English Heritage Legacy ID: 495906

Also known as: Plymouth Civic Centre

ID on this website: 101392038

Location: Plymouth, Devon, PL1

County: City of Plymouth

Electoral Ward/Division: St Peter and the Waterfront

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Plymouth

Traditional County: Devon

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Devon

Tagged with: Building Civic centre

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This list entry was subject to a Minor Amendment on 08/03/2018


Council House and former Civic Centre

(Formerly listed as Former Civic Centre, previously listed as Civic Centre)


Former Civic Centre (1958-62) by Jellicoe, Ballantyne and Coleridge. In-situ concrete structure with pre-cast aggregate panels. It comprises a fourteen storey slab block on a raised raft foundation which straddles a two storey block to the north and a bridge link to the two storey Council House to the south. The bridge link is elevated on pilotis to create an open courtyard with a reflecting pond, part of the designed landscape of the civic square.

Exterior: The ground floor of the Council House and the Town Clerk's offices, located on the link bridge, are clad in riven-faced slabs of Delabole slate with rubbed bands at floor level and over the lower windows. The link bridge is supported on pilotis faced in red glass mosaic from Murano, Italy. At first floor level, external precast columns of Portland stone support steel windows over stove-enamelled coloured panels. Blank walls are faced with pre-cast storey height cladding panels with exposed aggregate of pinkish-grey Plymouth limestone. The windows are hardwood to the ground floor with metal frames elsewhere. South facing windows throughout the building were originally glazed with anti-sun glass to eliminate glare and were double glazed. The first floor of the Council House is double height and breaks forward on pilotis with a balcony with glazed balustrade overlooking the designed landscape of the civic square.

The tower block uses similar materials to the Council House. The north and south end elevations are divided by vertical strips of windows which are referenced in the butterfly roof. The east and west facades have strong horizontal bands of 432 windows set over granite panels. The windows themselves are modelled, with recessed upper windows glazed in prismatic glass which were intended to give interest and break the uniformity of the building in strong sunlight. Glazing is in 1/4in glass in order to withstand recorded windspeed of up to 100mph. The green granite panels below the windows are also modulated with a slight variation of colour and arranged in a series in a Fibonacci system of harmonic proportions which was intended to symbolise the diversity of activities within the building and alleviate the monotony of what otherwise is a uniform facade. The building is capped by a `butterfly' roof canopy which appears unsupported when viewed from the ground.

Interior: Council House: Over the main entrance doors facing the square is a Sicilian marble tablet commemorating the official opening of the building by HRH Elizabeth II on 26 July 1962. The entrance hall is separated from the lobby beyond by a glazed aluminium screen. The entrance hall and the lobby have horizontally banded ash panelling, a chequered black and white marble mosaic floor, and embossed ceiling tiles with Orrefors glass pendant lights, giving a sense of unity to the two areas despite the screen. Internal rectangular columns, clad in Ashburton marble on the long faces and white Sicilian marble on the others, support the upper floor. A series of rooms open off the lobby including a Members' room and five committee rooms named after warships built at the Devonport Dockyard. The largest committee room, the Warspite Room, has a ceiling of waxed Columbian pine slats fixed to plywood panels. One wall of each of the committee rooms was treated and lit for the display of maps and plans. The Members' entrance is approached from the courtyard below the Town Clerk's office and leads to a central lobby. A mural painting by Mary Adshead on the east wall depicts incidents in Plymouth's history. Elsewhere walls are panelled in courbaril, a South American wood. A lift provides access to the basement car park and first floor. The principal staircase rises opposite the main entrance doors. It is cantilevered from a central beam of reinforced concrete. The treads, risers and moulded handrail are of afrormosia, a West African wood, and it has a metal balustrade of bronze and stainless steel with panels of toughened plate glass. Below the stairwell there is a polished aluminium screen on three sides with panels of glass engraved by John Hutton with abstract and figurative designs reflecting Plymouth's links with the sea.

The first floor acts as a hub with the Council Chamber, Reception Room, Lord Mayor's suite and a door through to the Town Clerk's offices all opening off it. It has a geometrical ceiling with tulip-shaped vinyl panels which diffuse natural light set between ribs. At night they are lit by concealed fluorescent tubes. The walls are panelled in daniellia, a West African wood. The doors are faced in raised pyramids in courbaril veneer edged with silver bronze. A plaster representation of the city arms by David Weeks is hung above a built-in display cabinet for the city plate which is in turn flanked on either side by doors to the Council Chamber. The Council Chamber is designed to seat 90 members on five sides of an octagon so that all members are within a set minimum distance from the Lord Mayor. The seating for the Officers of the Council is in recesses below the public gallery. Tables and fixed seating is of Burma teak with lacquered brass metalwork. The acoustics have been carefully designed by Hope Bagenal and wall surfaces are kept to a minimum with reflectors provided by the canopy over the Lord Mayor and by the stepped shaping of the fibrous plaster ceiling over the gallery. Absorbant surfaces are provided by fabric covered frames set over an air space behind with inset oil paintings by Hans Tisdall on an abstract heraldic theme reflecting Plymouth's history. Elsewhere at low level acoustic frames are masked by slender vertical ribs of afrormosia which act to further diffuse sound.

The reception room is directly opposite the Council Chamber and faces east with a full length external balcony. The east wall, leading out to the balcony, is fully glazed. The remainder of the room has panelling of quartered African elm on the walls and a strip floor of muhuhu, an East African wood. There is a musicians' gallery over the entrance doors to the landing. The room retains its original lighting of sixteen glassware shades and eight cylindrical metal fittings supported on a steel ring. Panelling in the Lord Mayor's suite is Burmese teak.

Tower: The principal public space is the entrance hall. Now carpeted, it originally had red and black chequerboard mosaic paving of alternating panels of red Verona and dark-coloured Levant marbles in a bed of terrazzo. This may survive beneath the carpeting. Four columns faced with polished Ashburton marble support a cantilevered mezzanine gallery although these have been refaced at gallery level. The gallery fascia is veneered in figured avodire, a West African wood. The wood and glass gallery balustrade has been replaced. The entrance hall underwent a major refurbishment in 1995. This included the insertion of a spiral stair on the north side of the hall to provide access between the ground and gallery floors and alterations to the entrance. The original freestanding information kiosk has been replaced by a continuous reception desk along the west side of the hall. Lift halls throughout the building are panelled with zebrano (a figured wood from the Cameroons) veneers. The lift doors have a distinctive stove-enamelled finish in a white and dark green geometric pattern which was designed to prevent people walking into the doors as they were closing. The stair and lift are located in concrete fireproof enclosures at either end of the building and formerly were separated from the central office with fusible link shutters. The office accommodation originally consisted of a large open plan central space subdivided by demountable partitions. The north and south bays provided permanent office accommodation for the chief officers and their deputies, in the south bays, and for specialist functions such as plan printing and dark rooms in the north bay. This plan has been largely altered throughout the building with the insertion of central corridors and the creation of fixed partitions within the central office space although the original layout can be discerned on the third, sixth, ninth and part of the fourth floor. The top floor of the tower, underneath the butterfly roof was originally designed as a public restaurant affording views over Plymouth from the open viewing platform. A separate room formerly served as the Lord Mayor's viewing and banqueting hall. This floor has now been partly converted for office accommodation Provision for plant and window cleaning cradles is made in a separate block below the canopy.

The north block, which formerly housed the Housing and Children's Departments has a separate, east entrance off the square which gave access to a payment and enquiry counter, now extended. A stair in the lobby of this block was removed for security reasons and the block has been considerably extended into a former courtyard area to the rear of the building. This has resulted in the loss of one of a pair of external spiral staircases which provide access from the raised deck to the car park below.
The building was originally heated by a Thermal Storage Plant and features such as heat convectors below windows, Venetian blinds and treated glazing to reduce sun were designed in to allow temperature control within the building.

The former Civic Centre lies at the southern end of the area which formed the focus of Patrick Abercrombie's `Plan for Plymouth', an ambitious plan for the re-building of Plymouth city centre following the devastating bombing of WWII to create a great Beaux-Arts city. The former Civic Centre lies within an area zoned for civic function, near the former Guildhall. The design of the new civic area was masterminded by HJW Stirling who was appointed city architect in 1951. Stirling's revised plans won the Grand Prix d'Honneur at the National Festival of Architecture and Monumental Art in Paris in 1956. In February 1957, Stirling's scheme was approved by the City Council but by May 1957 the architects Jellicoe, Ballantyne & Colleridge had been appointed to `complete' the detail of Stirling's design as his office had more work than it could cope with. Geoffrey Jellicoe is especially known for his garden design and landscaping work, but was recognised in the 1950s as an important architect with a specialism in housing and public offices. Records suggest that Jellicoe and his partner Alan Ballantyne were given a fairly free hand to redesign the buildings in detail, importantly whilst retaining and interpreting `the spirit' of Stirling's general layout and concept. The quality of their detailing in comparison with contemporary buildings in Plymouth shows the difference between local work and that of an internationally respected practice. The acoustician for the project was Hope Bagenal who designed the Festival Hall.

Construction was undertaken in three phases and commenced in 1958 with work on the foundations and substructure commencing in August 1958. On the 21st March, 1962, the 21st anniversary of the destruction of the old municipal offices, the fully furnished new Council House was formally handed over to the Corporation and the building was officially opened by the Queen in the same year.

As is to be expected in a building expressing civic function and celebrating local pride, the former Civic Centre brings together the work of several noteworthy artists, particularly in the Council House, including John Hutton (1906-1978), Mary Adshead (1904-1995), and Hans Tisdall (1910-1997) although here the commissioned artwork contributes to an unusually homogeneous composition.

Summary of Importance:
Plymouth former Civic Centre is a particularly complete and coherent civic centre which compares well with others of its date including Newcastle Civic Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (listed grade II*) and New County Hall, Truro (listed grade II). In its careful massing and position it stands as a landmark within the city centre and embodies the hope and aspirations of a newly confident City Council following the devastation of the Second World War serving as a striking testimony to the spirit which guided the rebuilding of the city. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the Council House with its collection of artworks of rare quality and cohesion themed around Plymouth's history.

The Architect & Building News, 6 May 1954. p.513
Architectural Review, Dec 1962. p.435-437
Plymouth Guide c1967
The Builder, 15 October 1954. p.612-613
AR May 1959. p.827
Bulletin 37, Dec 1964. pub (BICC)
English Heritage Post 1939 Listing Programme Stage 1 Report: Public Buildings (1940-1980)
The Council House and Municipal Offices. Undated leaflet published by Clarke, Doble & Brendon Ltd, Plymouth

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