'I'm not daunted' by Old Town Hall restoration says new owner
The new owner of Sheffield’s Old Town Hall has insisted he is not daunted by the scale of the restoration project or his lack of experience.
Developer Efe Omu admitted it would be his biggest and most high profile job but he was a “prolific risk taker” who understood pressure and would “work with it” to get it done.
Mr Omu is the new owner of the 212-year-old listed building on Waingate. He has permission to convert it into apartments, a hotel and a market.
In his first newspaper interview, he outlined plans for a phased restoration and reopening - and acknowledged the intense interest in it.
He said: “I know there are a lot of concerns. I understand I’m an unknown quantity. I don’t have experience but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it.
“I’m not daunted, I’m an engineer. This building was made in sections and I’ll restore it in sections.”
Mr Omu, aged 41, obtained a masters in engineering at Sheffield University before switching to commercial property. He was behind the conversion of the Barkers furniture store in Hillsborough and is converting the former Cannon pub on Castle Street into apartments. From there, he saw the Old Town Hall every day and it sparked something in him.
“I came here and fell in love with the building. I think it’s beautiful. I spent a few days walking through it and memorising the layout. I read up on the history and saw how it was bolted together.
“You can’t tackle a building like this head on. You have to do it in phases. It will have a phased opening too.”
Built in 1808, it has had five extensions and was also used as a court for years, before closing in 1996.
It is a warren of corridors and stairs and has several entrances - including one for judges and one for prisoners - on three streets, allowing it to be reopened in sections.
Plans show Court One converted into a large lounge in an apartment, one of 12, but Mr Omu said it might also be used for conferencing.
White brick cells - which have held everyone from Victorian murderers to striking miners - will be turned into a 12-room ‘pod hotel’. Two will be used to create one room with ensuite bathroom.
The pillared ground floor area is set to become a ‘souk’ style market open to the public.
But first, Mr Omu’s team must clear and clear out the building, which has stood empty for 24 years - with rot accelerating after the theft of lead roof flashing.
There are several gaping holes in floorboards, with the floor of one office having to be taken out altogether. Mountains of trash have been removed.
Everything of value was carried off years ago, but oak benches, mahogany panelling and parquet flooring remain and architectural features including classical ionic columns, ‘egg and dart’ coving, vaulted ceilings, light wells and lanterns, and ornate iron trusses.
Mr Omu said he planned to restore and retain as many features as possible.
He added: “I like the Victorian and Edwardian stuff and even the 1950s block that people have no love for.”
The pandemic has cast some uncertainty over the future. But it was always going to be a long job - and one to enjoy.
He added: “The joy is in the process. There are quite a few buildings in Sheffield but nothing of this scale or profile - there’s only one Old Town Hall.”
Mr Omu came to Sheffield to study in 1996 and would also run at Don Valley Stadium, passing through Castlegate regularly on his way there, or to shop at Castle Market.
He added: “I understand people’s connection to the building. This is where a lot of people have history, good and bad. But you can’t wear the pressure because you’d get nothing done. You have to work with it.
“I think you have to be an optimist otherwise you don’t take risks. I have always been a prolific risk taker.”
Mr Omu acquired the building from G1 London Properties in March last year.
Sheffield City Council approved his plans in December. Planners said the building can be developed while "preserving it as much as possible".
Mr Omu praised the help he had had from Sheffield City Council.
Coun Bob Johnson, cabinet member for transport, said: “Efe is clearly passionate and as difficult as it might be, I have no doubt he will do it.”
The Old Town Hall is in the heart of an area which is developing rapidly and attracting tech firms such as WANdisco.
It is based in Kollider, a five-storey hub and food hall in Castle House, the former Co-op department store on Angel Street.
The old Cannon pub next door will reopen as three upscale apartments this autumn and more flats are being created in the building adjacent.
A snooker hall is planned further up Haymarket and an extensive ‘Grey to Green’ planting and landscaping scheme, linking Castlegate with Victoria Quays, is set to open next week.
Coun Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for business, said: “Three years ago, who would have thought we would be here?”
He said he now wanted to see development of the extensive former Castle Market site, which is home to the foundations of Sheffield Castle, including a block for business which would complement a park and heritage activities.