Following years of decay in the hands of various owners, a bright future now beckons for the iconic Assize Court building that is so familiar to visitors to Devizes.
Thanks to support from the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust and a generous local benefactor, ownership has been secured by the recently formed Devizes Assize Court Trust.
A major fund-raising campaign will be launched with the aim of restoring the building and fitting it out as the new home of the Wiltshire Museum, with purpose-build galleries, a café, a lecture theatre and other community spaces. The longer-term ambition is to link the Assize Court to the Wharf, the re-development of which forms an important part of Wiltshire Council’s Core Strategy.
The benefit to Devizes and to the county will be substantial. As high street shops struggle, it is hoped that this splendid building in its new incarnation will act as a catalyst for significantly increased tourism in Devizes. Boasting the decisive battle of the Civil War, the canal with its famous flight of locks, a historic castle site, two grade I churches and one of the finest market places in the south of England, no town has more to offer.
Originally funded by public subscription, the Assize Court building with its imposing Grecian style facade was built in 1836 by T.H. Wyatt, who also designed Roundway Hospital and many Wiltshire churches. Following closure of the courts in the 1980’s, planning applications for offices and residential use were approved, but none could be economically delivered and the condition of the building has deteriorated badly.
A professional survey of the building has been recently commissioned which advises that the Assize Court is capable of being saved, despite the past neglect. A programme of urgent works has been proposed to prevent further serious deterioration. The Devizes Assize Court Trust have secured funding for these immediate works, and will then lead the major fund-raising effort to deliver the whole project.
Lord Lansdowne, Chairman of the Trust said: “I am delighted that the Devizes Assize Court Trust has secured the purchase of this important building for Devizes and Wiltshire. Through the generosity of both the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust and a local benefactor, together with the support of Wiltshire Council, we look forward to starting urgent work on the building which has been redundant for more than 30 years. Bringing it back into use will be a milestone in local history. Whilst the restoration will be a challenge it is one that the Trust looks forward to; recognising the positive impact for the town, the local community and Wiltshire.”
Mr. John Bush, Chairman of the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust, said: “WHBT was established to promote the long term and sustainable future for the county’s historic buildings. The Trust has been aware of the appalling condition of this magnificent building for more than ten years. It has long been an ambition to purchase it, restore it and reuse it for the benefit of Wiltshire. (We are pleased to be able to support the work of the Devizes Assize Court Trust to enable this magnificent building to be restored for not only Devizes but also the wider community).”
Baroness Scott of Bybrook and leader of Wiltshire Council said: “We have supported the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust in its quest to achieve this extremely positive outcome for many years. The Assize Court is an iconic and prominent building. It is an important part of the history of Devizes. Other than countless hours of Senior Officers time dedicated to the project, there have been no other costs to the County. It is a prime example of the private sector doing the heavy lifting. Its preservation and restoration for future use will add so much value to Devizes and Wiltshire.
Mr. Martin Nye, Chairman of Wiltshire Museum, said: “We are excited to be working to secure the long-term future of this historic building, which will provide a great location to share our nationally important collections with the widest possible range of audiences. This is the beginning of a major project that will rely on enormous energy, enthusiasm and support from the community. Please do get involved – you can sign up at www.devizesassizecourt.org.uk to register your interest in learning more.”
Press release issued by Wiltshire Council, Devizes Assize Court Trust, Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust and the Wiltshire Museum : 26 November 2018.
Why does the museum want to move?
The Assize Court building offers a fantastic opportunity to relocate to a landmark building in the town.
The Assize Court building is part of the longer term Wharf development area and will support and benefit from the regeneration of this area. The plans include an 80-bed hotel. The building is located on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which is used by hundreds of thousands of people each year, and is near to the Wadworth Brewery Visitor Centre. It is close to the main car parks, including the Wharf, with a new footpath link alongside the canal is planned.
Current plans for the conservation and conversion of the Assize Court as a new home for the museum include a larger event space for meetings and lectures, café, dedicated education space for schools, adequate space for staff, volunteers and researchers and on-site collections storage. The new building will also be available for community use.
The Devizes Assize Court Trust will invite community views and input as it develops its plans.
The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society purchased the current building that houses the Wiltshire Museum in 1872. It has 25 floor levels and it is difficult to make the best use of the space and there are also many aspects of the building that are a challenge. The building is located in a residential area, away from the town centre and the main car parks. The museum building is not a landmark and does not do justice to exhibiting the national importance of the collections. This has a significant impact on visitor numbers and our ability to engage with a range of audiences.
Couldn’t the Assize Court be a night club / MacDonalds / arts centre. Why a museum?
The Assize Court needs a long-term use that can cover the costs of running and maintaining the building. Previous owners of the building have had the opportunity to develop commercial uses and have failed resulting in the building deteriorating.
Commercial development would not cover restoration costs.
The Wiltshire Museum has developed a business plan that shows that it can manage and run the building, based on existing revenues and supported by increased visitor numbers and visitor spending. The museum is run by the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society and was founded in 1853 and opened the Museum in Long Street in 1873. The museum collections have been Designated by the Government as being nationally important (one of only 70 museums in England to have this award) and the museum is a National Portfolio Organisation, funded by Arts Council England as part of the Wessex Museums Partnership.
The museum intends the building to be available for a range of community uses, and will seek to ensure that these complement, rather than compete with other facilities in the town. There will be a range of consultation events to help develop plans for the building with plenty of opportunities to discuss ideas and concerns.
What is the Wharf Development Plan?
Wiltshire Council has led the development of this area as part of its Core Strategy. Its aim is to maximise economic benefit for the town.
What happens now with the Assize Court building?
The next steps are to undertake urgent works to prevent further deterioration of the building. The Devizes Assize Court Trust, working with the museum, will be selecting architects to begin developing detailed plans for how the building can be used. There will be plenty of opportunities to find out more and to help with ideas as these plans develop.
How long will the project take?
A realistic estimate is that the project will take between 8 and 10 years. A significant proportion of this time will be focused on raising the funds necessary to undertake the conservation and conversion of the building before the installation of the displays can begin.
How much will the project cost?
The initial estimate is that it will cost about £10m to develop the project. This is based on an initial study of the state of the building and outline estimates of the cost of fitting the building out as a museum. Detailed plans have yet to be developed and this figure will be kept under review.
Where will the money come from?
There are plans to submit bids to a range of grant-funding bodies and trusts, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. A major fundraising campaign will be launched in 2019, once work has progressed on detailed plans for the building.
Grants will not cover the full cost of the project and help from the community will be needed. This will include commercial sponsorship, philanthropy and community fundraising initiatives such as ‘sponsor a brick’ and other fundraising events.
Grant funders look more favourably on projects that have the support of the local community.
You can help by signing a pledge card to show your support, or by offering to help with the fundraising campaign.
The Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust and a private benefactor have already provided initial support, and a grant from Historic England has funded the initial condition survey of the building.
Wiltshire Council has provided invaluable support for the project in officer and councillor time and advice. Given the pressures on Wiltshire Council’s budget it is not envisaged that funding will be allocated by the council.
What will happen to the current museum building on Long Street?
WANHS will need to retain the Long Street buildings for a period after the completion of the Assize Court building to allow relocation of over 500,000 items to take place. Once this has been completed, it is likely that the current building will be sold.
How can I get involved?
Go to www.devizesassizecourt.org.uk and register your support. You can follow the Trust on Facebook or Twitter - @devizesassizes.
Keep an eye out for information sessions and consultation events.
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