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Historical building started in 1897: Bielsko-Biała, Poland.
Functional, modern structure: Hong Kong
Leased building with solar power: London, England
Executive Building (Old City Hall) in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines
Stockholm City Hall, Sweden, where the Nobel Banquet takes place.
Town hall, police, and fire station: South Palm Beach, FL, United States

A city hall or town hall is the chief administrative building of a city[1] or town's administration and usually houses the city or town council, its associated departments and their employees. It is also usually the base of the city, town, borough, or county mayor.

Traditionally, until the mid 19th-century, a single large open chamber (or "hall") has been integral to the building housing the council. The hall may be used for council meetings and other significant events. This large chamber, the "town hall", (and its later variant "city hall") has become synonymous with the whole building, and with the administrative body housed in it. The terms "council chambers", "municipal building" or variants may be used locally in preference to "town hall" if no such large hall is present within the building. Sometimes, as in Birmingham in the UK, the Town Hall as a public social venue is a building completely separate from the administrative centre, in this case called the Council House.

The local government may endeavour to use the town hall building to promote and enhance the quality of life of the community. In many cases, "town halls" serve not only as buildings for government functions, but also have facilities for various civic and cultural activities. These may include art shows, stage performances, exhibits and festivals. Modern town halls or "civic centres" are often designed with a great variety and flexibility of purpose in mind.

As symbols of local government, city and town halls have distinctive architecture and may be buildings of great historical significance - such as the Guildhall, London. City hall buildings may also serve as cultural icons that symbolize their cities as is the case with Brussels Town Hall, Philadelphia City Hall and Los Angeles City Hall, which has been featured in many Hollywood films.



The term "town hall" is a general one, often applied without regard to whether the building is located in a town or a city. This is generally the case in the United Kingdom (with examples such as Manchester Town Hall in the city of Manchester) and in Australia (with Sydney Town Hall in the city of Sydney). This is the case in New Zealand, Hong Kong, and many Commonwealth countries.

The term "city hall" is also used in some regions to designate the council offices of a municipality of city status. This is the case in North America, where a distinction is made between city halls and town halls. It is also the case with Brisbane City Hall in Australia and Sheffield City Hall in England, which houses a concert hall and ballroom.

The Oxford English Dictionary sums up the generic terms:

  • town hall: "A large hall used for the transaction of the public business of a town, the holding of a court of justice, assemblies, entertainments, etc.; the great hall of the town-house or municipal building; now very commonly applied to the whole building"[2]
  • city hall: "chiefly N. Amer., the chief municipal offices of a city; hence, the municipal officers collectively"[3]

County Council administrations in parts of England and Wales are generally based in a building called, by analogy, "County Hall". In Scotland local government in larger cities is based at the "City Chambers".

Elsewhere, in English-speaking countries, other names are occasionally used. In London, the official headquarters of administration of the City of London retains its Anglo-Saxon name, the Guildhall, signifying a place where taxes were paid. In Liverpool, England, Liverpool Town Hall is the name given to the official residence of the City's Lord Mayor.


In Ancient Rome large halls called basilicas were used for the administration of justice, as meeting places and for trade.

In the Early Medieval period, the hall, a single large open chamber, was the main, and sometimes only room of the home of a feudal lord. There the lord lived with his family and retinue, ate, slept and administered rule and justice. The hall was essential to the functioning of the feudal manor, the administrative unit of society. As manorial dwellings developed into manor houses, castles and palaces, the hall, or "great hall" as it was often termed, remained an essential unit within the architectural complex.

The modern concept of the town hall developed with the development of local government. Cities administered by a group of elected or chosen representatives, rather than by a lord or princely ruler, required a place for their council to meet. the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena and the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence are town halls dating from 1297 and 1299 respectively. In each case the large, fortified building comprises a large meeting hall and numerous administrative chambers. Both buildings are topped by very tall towers. Both buildings have ancient timepieces by which the people of the town can regulate their lives. Both buildings have facilities for the storage of documents and references that pertain to the city's administration. These features: a hall, a tower and a clock, as well as administrative chambers and an archive or muniment room became the standard features of town halls across Europe. Brussels Town Hall of the 15th century, with its 96-metre tower, is one of the grandest examples of the medieval era, serving as a model for 19th-century town halls such as the Rathaus, Vienna.

During the 19th century town hall buildings were often provided with "reading rooms" to provide free education to the public, and it eventually became customary for the town or city council to establish and maintain a library as part of its service to the community. The grand chamber or meeting place, the "town hall" itself became a place for receptions, banquets, balls and public entertainment. Town halls, particularly during the 19th century, were often equipped with large pipe organs to facilitate public recitals.

In the 20th century town halls, as venues, have served the public as places for voting, examinations, vaccinations, relief in times of disaster and posting lists of war casualties, as well as for the more usual civil functions, festivities and entertainments. Local councils have tended increasingly to remove administrative functions into modern offices. Where new premises are designed and constructed to house local governments, the concepts and functions administrative council offices and civic town hall are separated.


"City hall" can be used by metonymy for "municipal government" or for government in general, as in the axiom "You can't fight city hall".[1] "Town hall" tends to have less formal connotations (cf. Town meeting).

See also


  1. ^ a b Definition of city hall. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved on 2008-07-13.
  2. ^ Simpson, John; Weiner, Edmund, eds. (1989), "town hall", Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-861186-2, OCLC 17648714 
  3. ^ Simpson, John; Weiner, Edmund, eds. (1989), "city", Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-861186-2, OCLC 17648714 

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