Preston's Harris Museum to stay shut until 2025 because of refurbishment delay
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The landmark city attraction closed exactly two years ago and had initially been due to reopen sometime in 2024, with the most recent indications suggesting that it would be towards the end of that year. However, the Grade I-listed building will not now welcome visitors again until spring 2025.
The hold-up is the result of several unexpected hurdles that have come to light only as work on the £16.2m “Harris Your Place” project has progressed.
The Post understands that these have included the discovery of more asbestos than had been anticipated - including within the venue’s lantern glass panes - and the need for new boilers and replacement boiler flues. Additional fire safety work has also had to be carried out, with new risers being required to house utility supplies.
However, the delay will not add to the overall bill for the project, with the budget for the revamp containing a contingency fund to cover any additional costs.
Michael Conlon, chair of Conlon Construction, the lead contractor on the project, told the Post that it was not not unusual for “things to come up that you don't expect” when working on a building as long-established as the 130-year-old Harris.
He said that no single issue had caused the timetable to slip, but rather “continual little things which have mounted and mounted”.
“As a team - ourselves, Preston City Council and the designers - we’ve been trying to make allowances for those and find savings in time on other aspects,” Michael explained.
“However, there’s only so much you can do…and we’ve come to the point where you have to take the decision to just say, ‘No, it's not going to hit that date, it's going to [take] longer.
“We and our supply chain are all very aware that the eyes of Preston are upon us. It’s a rare privilege to act as custodians during the restoration of such an important building…and that's why we want to make sure we do it properly.”
Michael added that the historic significance of the building meant that problems had to be dealt with in a more considered way than might have been the case with a more modern structure.
“When you're working on a Grade I-listed building, everything that we're doing and putting back [in place] has to be approved or meet with the regulations that are imposed upon us by Heritage England - and there are very good reasons for that. Otherwise, the built heritage of the country would go down the drain.
"So it’s right that a [historic] building has more regulations attached to it than others,” he said.
The discovery of asbestos in parts of the building that have previously been refurbished down the decades has been a particular source of delay, because of the demands that come with dealing with the potentially deadly material when it is disturbed.
“The other problem is that it’s hidden,” Michael said. “We encountered some of it in the boiler rooms and even when they took the glazing to the roof out, there were asbestos beads.
“So our glaziers removed the glass, then they had to go away [while] the asbestos specialists came in and removed the asbestos. And then our guys could go back and [complete the job].”
The project team has also dropped plans for an additional lift, because of the challenge of accommodating it within the building’s existing foundations. The present lift remains its previous position.
A separate set of comprehensive access improvements is now being drawn up and the city council says that a new public stairwell and circulation point “remain integral” to the design, along with a changing place facility and accessible toilets.
The aim of the refurb is to create the country’s first “blended” museum, art gallery and library.
Peter Kelly, cabinet member for arts and culture at the city authority, said that the council “fully supports The Harris’s decision to extend the reopening date”.
He added: “ We recognise the importance of preserving our cultural heritage and this extension ensures that the necessary work can be completed to the highest standards.
“We appreciate the public’s continued support and patience as we work diligently ensure a long and ambitious future, accessible for all,” Cllr Kelly said.
Meanwhile, Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for community and cultural services, Peter Buckley, stressed that the Preston Harris Library service and IT Centre will remain open to the public at their temporary home in the Guild Hall for the full duration of the museum’s closure.
County Hall leases 40 percent of The Harris from the city council to house what is the largest of Lancashire’s libraries.
“The library…has already issued in excess of 43,000 library items and seen 51,000 visitors…since January this year,” he said.
The Post understands that the mian renovation work to the building is expected to be completed by autumn 2024, with fitters then moving in before the museum's collection is finally returned to its home.