A monument to Wesleyan triumphalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Central Hall was built with money from the Twentieth Century Fund to house the connexional offices and provide a prestigious meeting place in central London. The site had been occupied by the Royal Westminster Aquarium and Winter Gardens, which closed in 1903 and was bought for over £300,000. A competition for the best design was won by A.B. Rickards, declared by John Betjeman to be 'the greatest exponent of the baroque style in Edwardian London'. The resulting 'Viennese baroque with Romanesque decoration', described by Pevsner as 'surprisingly worldly and surprisingly French' and sometimes, because of the role of Sir Robert Perks in its conception, as 'Perks' pagoda'. When its cost met with criticism he was known to reply, 'You do not want to build in a back street, do you?' It remains an imposing feature of the area, though the flanking towers of the original design and some exterior decoration were never carried out. The domed Great Hall has cantilevered galleries and originally seated 2,700. The Manning statue of John Wesley, originally at Richmond College, now stands in the main entrance.
The opening service was on 3 October 1912. The first ministers were John E. Wakerley (1912-14), Dinsdale T. Young (1914-38), F. Luke Wiseman (1938-39) and William E. Sangster (1939-55). The Hall survived the heavy bombing of World War II virtually unscathed, its basement serving as the largest air-raid shelter in England, holding up to 2,000 people.
The inaugural meeting of the United Nations General Assembly was held there in 1946. The Conference Office and other connexional offices moved to Marylebone in 1996, followed by other connexional offices between 1996 and 2000. The Central Hall then underwent a major refurbishment, completed in 2005, enabling it to continue to function as a venue for outside organisations and conferences, as well as a place of worship. Its centenary was celebrated in 2012.
The outstanding organ, dating in its original form from 1912, was last rebuilt in 2011. Its organists include Dr. George Brockless (1887-1957) and Dr. W.S. Lloyd Webber (1914-1982), father of Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber. The first version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat' was performed here.
The Central Hall also houses a collection of Methodist Publishing House titles.
'Certainly the Hall is a beautiful building, and a fine example of the best of Rickard's work. Since the old Westminster Hosital was pulled down and an open space left, it has been possible to appreciate it more adequately… The Hall is altogether a fine example of Rickard's use of Viennese baroque. He was the only architect in England who was ever able to do convincing Viennese baroque in England and to give it a flavour which was entirely his own.'
John Betjeman, quoted in Methodist Recorder, 20 November 1958
'A succession of gifted ministers struggled with the immensely difficult task of maintaining a meaningful ministry in that huge edifice… Much thought and effort in recent years has gone into the question of how this great building can continue to be a focus of Christian witness. It has maintained a fine musical tradition, but that in itself does not attract large numbers of people… In 1994 the Conference appointed a new Management Committee for the Central Hall. It will oversee further refurbishments costing many millions of pounds.'
Kenneth G. Greet, Fully Connected (1997), pp.79-80