The Free Trade Hall was built as a public hall between 1853 and 1856 by Edward Walters on land given by Richard Cobden in St Peter's Fields, the site of the Peterloo Massacre. Two earlier halls had been constructed on the site, the first, a large timber pavilion was built in 1840, and its brick replacement built in 1842. The halls were "vital to Manchester's considerable role in the long campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws. The hall was funded by public subscription and became a concert hall and home of the Hallé Orchestra in 1858. A red plaque records that it was built on the site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
The Free Trade Hall was bought by Manchester Corporation in 1920; but was bombed and left an empty shell in the Manchester Blitz of December 1940. A new hall was constructed behind two walls of the original facade in 1950–51 by Manchester City Council's architect, L. C. Howitt. opening as a concert hall in 1951. As well as housing the Hallé Orchestra, it was used for pop and rock concerts. A Wurlitzer organ from the Paramount Cinema in Manchester was installed over four years and first used in public in a BBC programme broadcast in September 1977. When the hall closed, the organ, which was on loan, was moved to the great hall in Stockport Town Hall. The Hallé Orchestra moved to the Bridgewater Hall in 1996 and the Free Trade Hall was closed by Manchester City Council.
In 1997 the building was sold to private developers despite resistance from groups such as the Manchester Civic Society, who viewed the sale as inappropriate given the historical significance of the building and its site. After the initial planning application was refused by the Secretary of State, a second modified planning application was submitted and approved. Walters' original facade was retained, behind which architects Stephenson Bell designed a 263-bedroom hotel, demolishing Howitt's post-war hall but preserving the main staircase and the 1950s statues that were formerly attached to its rear wall. The hotel opened in 2004, having cost £45 million.
The Italian palazzo-style hall was built on a trapeziform site in ashlar sandstone. It has a two-storey, nine-bay facade and concealed roof. On Peter Street, its ground floor arcade has rectangular piers with round-headed arches and spandrels bearing the coats of arms of Lancashire towns that took part in the Anti-Corn Law movement. The upper floor has a colonnaded arcade, its tympana frieze is richly decorated with carved figures representing free trade, the arts, commerce, manufacture and the continents. Above the tympanum is a prominent cornice with balustraded parapet. The upper floor has paired Ionic columns to each bay and a tall window with a pedimented architrave behind a balustraded balcony. The return sides have three bays in a matching but simpler style of blank arches. The rear wall was rebuilt in 1950–51 with pilasters surmounted by relief figures representing the entertainment which took place in the old hall. The Large Hall was in a classical style with a coffered ceiling, the walls had wood panelling in oak, walnut and sycamore. Pevsner described it as "the noblest monument in the Cinquecento style in England", whilst Hartwell considered it "a classic which belongs in the canon of historic English architecture."
After its closure, the hall was sold and after a protracted planning process and consultations with English Heritage, its conversion to a hotel was agreed. During the hotel's construction, the Windmill Street and Southmill Street facades were demolished and the north block retained and connected by a triangular glazed atrium to a 15-storey block clad in stone and glass. Artifacts salvaged from the old hall, including 1950s statues by Arthur Sherwood Edwards and framed wall plaster autographed by past performers, decorate the atrium light well.