Category Archives: Liverpool’s Heritage

Glen’s finest

Forum Cinema, Lime Street, Liverpool

Forum Cinema, Lime Street, Liverpool

At the north end of Lime Street, on the opposite side to the Futurist Cinema, is the much more imposing former Forum Cinema, designed for the ABC circuit by William R Glen and Ernest A Shennan and opened in 1931, “one of W R Glen’s finest”, according to the Theatres Trust website:  http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/2102-forum-liverpool.

This splendid Portland stone building occupies a corner site corresponding to Lewis’s department store at the other end of Lime Street.

Its fine interior, described by some writers as “semi-Atmospheric”, was a celebration of the possibilities of indirect lighting using Holophane reflectors with a sunburst light-feature in the ceiling.  On each side of the proscenium are curious relief panels, supposedly Venetian though both include recognisable representations of the Chrysler Building.

The architects contrived to squeeze a big auditorium, originally 1,835 seats, into a constricted space 150 feet × 75 feet, by creating a huge balcony seating 750 and placing the projection ports high above the rear circle with a throw of 146 feet.

Such a narrow auditorium was less than ideal for wide-screen films, and when the Forum was tripled in 1982 a false ceiling was inserted from the balcony front so that the proportions of the proscenium were lost.

It finally closed in January 1998 with a showing of Casablanca at 50p per seat and has remained unused.  Although (or perhaps because) it’s listed Grade II, the various proposals for the building have so far come to nothing.

A recent urban explorer report shows that the division between stalls and circle has been removed, recovering the original auditorium space:  http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/leisure-sites/32830-abc-cinema-liverpool-march-2016-a.html#.V0O15Y-cGUk.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

Questionable future for another Futurist

Futurist Cinema, Lime Street, Liverpool

Futurist Cinema, Lime Street, Liverpool

As Liverpool city-centre regenerates, the remaining patches of neglect stand out more clearly.

The east side of Lime Street has been neglected for years, and yet the stretch between the Crown and the Vines pubs includes a spectacular landmark building that still, somehow, remains in one piece.

The Futurist Cinema, originally the Lime Street Picture House, was the first purpose-built cinema in Liverpool, opened in 1912.  It was the first to show sound movies, in 1926, three years before The Jazz Singer at the Olympia, West Derby Road.  It converted to Cinemascope in 1954 without interrupting performances, and at the end of its long history it was the only place in Liverpool fitted with Sensurround for the film Earthquake (1975):  [http://www.in70mm.com/newsletter/2004/69/sensurround/about.htm].

It closed in July 1982 and has remained empty and untended ever since.  Kim Ryan’s film of the Merseyside film-maker Alex Cox revisiting the Futurist shows the interior in 2008:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2_JRTwP4J0.  An April 2013 news article raises the question of whether the building is beyond saving:  http://www.clickliverpool.com/business/business-news/1218614-back-to-the-future-futurist-building-set-for-revamp.html.

The campaign to save at least the façade of the Futurist is at http://thefuturistcinema.wordpress.com.

A more recent Victorian Society alert to threats to the Lime Street streetscape is at http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/damaging-lime-street-plans-could-further-endanger-liverpools-world-heritage.  This is supplemented by the SAVE Britain’s Heritage objection to demolition:  http://us8.campaign-archive2.com/?u=9ea03bb11e3ccc82634488e2b&id=63d3031744&e=68a86e2740.

Update:  After a protracted legal process, the campaign to save the Futurist failed, and demolition followed almost immediately:  http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/demolition-historic-futurist-cinema-begins-11697085.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

Mr Vines’ hotel

Vines Hotel, Lime Street, Liverpool

Vines Hotel, Lime Street, Liverpool

The Vines Hotel, next door to the Adelphi, is a sister pub to the splendid Philharmonic Hotel on Hope Street, designed by the architect Walter Thomas.  It’s a little later than the Phil, opened in 1907, so its mahogany, copper, glass and plaster interior has a distinctly Art Nouveau feel.

Alcohol has been served here since 1823, and the present building takes its name from its late-Victorian licensee, Albert B Vines, who came to the site in 1867.

Because of its location at the end of Lime Street the Vines has traditionally been noisier than the Phil.  Indeed, one reviewer [http://www.yelp.co.uk/biz/the-vines-liverpool] comments,–

The Vines will usually give you a fairly rockin’ Friday, Saturday and indeed Sunday evening provided what rocks you are karaoke and somebody’s grandmother pinching your arse.

Architectural-history enthusiasts may choose to visit for breakfast.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

The finest gents in the North West

Philharmonic Hotel, Liverpool:  gentlemen's lavatory

Philharmonic Hotel, Liverpool: gentlemen’s lavatory

One of the great Liverpool experiences is having a drink – or perhaps more than one drink – in the Philharmonic Hotel (1898-1900) on the opposite corner of Hope Street to the Philharmonic Hall from which it takes its name.

This palace of a pub is the result of a partnership of the architect Walter W Thomas and Robert Cain’s Brewery during the great boom in public-house building at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Thomas was well-funded and fortunately placed to call on the formidable design-skills of the Liverpool University School of Architecture and Applied Art and of the Liverpool craftsmen who executed the decorative schemes of the interiors of the great ocean-liners built by Cammell Laird across the Mersey in Birkenhead.

The exterior of the Philharmonic Hotel is an odd combination of Scottish Baronial and Art Nouveau, with elaborate iron gates by the German-American artist H Blomfield Bare, who also designed the repoussé copper panels inside.

The interior scheme was co-ordinated by George Hall Neale and Arthur Stratten, who employed Charles J Allen to produce the distinctive plaster caryatids and atlantes in the billiard room (the former modelled by his friend Mrs Ryan), the Irish plasterer Pat Honan and the stone-carver Frank Norbury.

The gentlemen’s lavatories at the Philharmonic Hotel are not to be missed.  Indeed, the protocol is that any respectable lady customer can ask any respectable gentleman customer to check the coast is clear so she can admire the marble, the mosaic and the brass-work of this palatial pissoir.

John Lennon declared that one of the disadvantages of fame was “not going to The Phil any more”.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Devoted to music – and film

Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

I once booked a Cinema Theatre Association Liverpool tour primarily on the strength of seeing On Golden Pond on the big screen at the Philharmonic Hall.

The Philharmonic Hall is a 1937-9 rebuild, replacing a predecessor of 1846-9 which had been burnt down in 1933.

It’s a very fine Art Deco auditorium, designed by Herbert J Rowse whose other distinguished Liverpool designs include India Buildings, Martin’s Bank and the ventilation shafts [see https://www.flickr.com/photos/liverpoolpictorial/7710001254/in/photostream]  and other structures for the Mersey Tunnel.

The 1,700-seat auditorium has a continuous rake of stalls seats with horseshoe boxes and a balcony:  the suspended ceiling has troughs containing indirect lighting fittings.

It’s the home of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Choir and Youth Orchestra, which together have an outstanding history of performance dating back to the foundation of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society in 1840:  http://www.liverpoolphil.com.

The CTA was attracted to this temple of serious music to hear the three-manual Rushworth & Dreaper concert organ, which is fitted with tremulants, a feature commonly found in theatre-organ specifications.

Though lacking the drums, chimes and whistles of a conventional cinema-organ it was clearly intended for use in film presentations as well as for performances across the classical repertoire.  Its console is mounted on a revolving lift, and can be played from below stage or in full view of the audience.

Even more unusual, and unmissable if you’re a serious cinema buff, is the seven-ton rising proscenium, now apparently the only example in working order anywhere in the world:  http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Liverpool/PhilharmonicHallLivepool.htm#screen.

This cinema screen, complete with footlights and curtains and fitted with integral sound speakers, rises from the stage-floor in three minutes, uniquely transforming the concert hall into a movie palace before the eyes of the audience.

That’s an experience you can only have at the Philharmonic.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Oasis of peace

St James's Cemetery, Liverpool (1979) – Huskisson Monument in the foreground

St James’s Cemetery, Liverpool (1979) – Huskisson Monument in the foreground

A page of Liverpool City Council’s website [http://liverpool.gov.uk/leisure-parks-and-events/parks-and-greenspaces/st-james-gardens] presents the former quarry below the Anglican Cathedral as an “oasis of peace”, a bland description that matches the 1970s landscaping of one of the city’s most dramatic corners.

The stone for much of eighteenth-century Liverpool was quarried here.  As Mount Zion it was a place of resort, especially after the discovery in 1773 of a chalybeate spring which was thought good for “loss of appetite, nervous disorders, lowness of spirit, headache…proceeding from crudities of the stomach, rickets and weak eyes”.

Renamed St James’s Mount, after the newly-built adjacent parish church, around 1775, it became more genteel.  John Bridge opened “a coffee house of considerable repute…frequented principally by persons of a superior class”.  Visitors relished the contrast between the vast quarry face and the “subterraneous [entrance], supported by arches, [which] has a pleasing and romantic effect”.

When the quarry was practically exhausted in 1825 it became St James’s Cemetery, so immediately profitable that as soon as it opened in 1829 its first year of trading paid an 8% dividend.

The Liverpool architect John Foster Jnr designed a funerary chapel, the Oratory, and built a series of retaining walls, ramps and catacombs into the quarry face.  Mike Faulkner’s informative website [http://www.stjamescemetery.co.uk] provides details of the tunnels that gave access for mourners and hearses.

By the time St James’ Cemetery closed in July 1936, 57,774 burials had taken place.  From that time onwards maintenance became an increasingly severe problem.

The floor of the cemetery was almost entirely cleared by the City Council between 1969 and 1972, isolating John Foster Jnr’s magnificent 1833 mausoleum of the Liverpool MP and President of the Board of Trade, William Huskisson (1770-1830).  Huskisson’s statue by John Gibson has been removed for safety.

Other celebrated Liverpudlians buried here include the architect, John Foster Junior (1786-1846), Sir William Brown (1784-1864), donor of the William Brown Library, and the much-loved Catherine “Kitty” Wilkinson (1786-1860), an Irish-born washerwoman of Denison Street.  She is famous for making her water-boiler available to maintain cleanliness during the 1832 Cholera Epidemic, “indefatigable and self-denying, she was the widow’s friend, the support of the orphan, the fearless and unwearied nurse of the sick, the originator of baths and wash-houses for the poor”.

St James’s Gardens, as it’s now known, provides a green amenity in the midst of the city.

But I miss the Gothick atmosphere of the accumulated gravestones and monuments that filled the quarry floor until 1972.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Right idea, wrong moment

Oriel Chambers, Water Street, Liverpool

Oriel Chambers, Water Street, Liverpool

When I take groups around Liverpool city-centre, I pause in front of Oriel Chambers on Water Street, and invite people to guess the date of the building.  Most people get it wildly wrong, as I originally did, unless they’re sharp-eyed enough to spot the date high in the central gable.

Oriel Chambers is a tall, elegant office-block, its framework picked out in nail-headed stone mullions which frame the delicate cast-iron windows which give it its name.

It would do credit to an architect of the present generation:  in fact it was completed in 1864 by a virtually unknown architect, Peter Ellis Jnr (1804-1884), who for his pains was virtually laughed out of the profession.

Its inner courtyard (inaccessible to the public), faced with cantilevered iron cladding, even more uncompromisingly anticipates the Modern Movement.   Except for one other framed building a couple of streets away, 16 Cook Street (1866), Ellis built hardly anywhere else.

Oriel Chambers is also significant in engineering history because Peter Ellis installed the first ever example of a paternoster lift:  https://madeupinbritain.uk/Paternoster.

The Builder pompously dismissed Oriel Chambers out of hand:

The plainest brick warehouse in town is infinitely superior as a building to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Water Street termed Oriel Chambers.   Did we not see this vast abortion – which would be depressing were it not ludicrous – with our own eyes, we should have doubted the possibility of its existence.  Where and in what are their beauties [sic] supposed to lie?

Ellis’ obituary in the Liverpool Daily Post (October 24th 1884) describes him as an architect and surveyor “held in high esteem by the members of his own profession” without mentioning a single building or design.

It’s possible, however, that Ellis’ genius had a distant flowering.

After the fall of Atlanta in 1864, an American planter with Liverpool business connections, Simon Root, sent his son to Liverpool for the duration of the American Civil War.  The son was John Wellborn Root (1850-1891), who returned to the USA and became one of the leaders of the Chicago School of architects, responsible for the development of iron- and steel-framed buildings and the birth of the skyscraper in New York and Chicago .

1860s Liverpool wasn’t a big place by modern expectations.  It’s unlikely that the young Root didn’t notice Ellis’ buildings and the fireproof warehouses that Jesse Hartley and George Fosbery Lyster had built along the river front.

There’s no proof, but there’s a strong likelihood that the magnificent achievement of the Chicago School of architects may have a root in the Liverpool buildings that contemporary architects didn’t give the time of day.

The first monograph on the life and work of Peter Ellis is Robert Ainsworth & Graham Jones, In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool History Society 2013).

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Flat-pack churches

St George's Church, Everton, Liverpool

St George’s Church, Everton, Liverpool

The idea of prefabricating architectural bits and pieces for export to the colonies predates the Victorian period.

There was a remarkable collaboration between Thomas Rickman (1776-1841), who became Professor of Architecture at the Liverpool Academy, and John Cragg (1767-1854), the owner of the Mersey Iron Foundry, who was described by a contemporary as “a remarkable man to whom I cannot find a single gracious allusion on anybody’s part”.

Rickman is the archaeological scholar who worked out the chronology of medieval churches, and gave us the expressions ‘Norman’, ‘Early English’ and ‘Decorated’:  [See ‘Buried Lives’ in Barton-on-Humber].

The pair collaborated on three pilot projects in Liverpool:  one, St Philip, Hardman Street, has long gone;  the other two survive as distinctive monuments to nineteenth-century innovation.

At St George’s Church, Everton (1812-14), though the external walls and the tower are stone, the whole of the interior structure – columns, roof-beams, braces and panels – and the window-tracery are of delicate, finely-detailed castings.

The same moulds were also used in Cragg’s own neighbourhood when they built St Michael-in-the-Hamlet, Toxteth (1814-15), where the walls are brick (at one time stuccoed), and all the external architectural detail, such as pinnacles and copings, is also of iron.

Thomas Rickman felt confident that churches could be constructed on these lines for no more than £6,000 each.  In fact, when John Cragg built St Michael-in-the-Hamlet at his own expense, the total outlay using the moulds from St George’s came to £7,865.

Though cast-iron tracery and other ecclesiastical decoration is not uncommon in early-nineteenth century churches and other Gothic Revival buildings, I’ve never come across any reference to recognisable examples of Rickman’s designs for the Mersey Iron Foundry turning up anywhere outside England.

Perhaps somewhere, in a distant land, there’s a church or chapel built from the same kit as the two Liverpool churches.

St George’s Church, Everton is a destination on the ‘Unexpected Liverpool’ tour, June 1st-5th 2020.  For further details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Overhead underground

Former Dingle station, Liverpool Overhead Railway

Former Dingle station, Liverpool Overhead Railway

The Liverpool Overhead Railway was the only example in the British Isles of the American elevated railway, which once filled the streets of New York City and elsewhere with girders and noise.  The most well-known surviving example is the Chicago Loop.

The Liverpool line followed the docks, all the way from Seaforth in the north to Herculaneum in the south, skirting behind the great Pier Head buildings and providing a grandstand view of the ships berthed beside the River Mersey.

My granddad used to take each of his six kids to Liverpool between the wars to ride on the Overhead and, if they were in luck, to tour a transatlantic liner lying up between voyages.

Those dockers who didn’t ride on it to get to work would walk underneath the rail-deck at ground level, so it was known as the “Docker’s Umbrella”.

Hardly any vestige remains above ground of this distinctive piece of transport history, which was scrapped in 1956 simply because it was life-expired.  If it had survived, it would now be a magnet for tourists in a Liverpool very different from the one for which it was built.

One of the two surviving carriages forms a focal point in the display at the new Museum of Liverpool.  (The other is awaiting restoration at the Electric Railway Museum, Baginton, Warwickshire:  http://www.emus.co.uk/lor.htm.)

There is, however, an intriguing survival at the southern end of the line – an underground station.

In 1896, three years after the opening, the railway was extended through half a mile of tunnel to Park Road, Dingle where it linked with the south Liverpool tram services.

The tunnel mouth, above the site of Herculaneum Dock, is still prominently visible, and the station itself survives, much less obvious but structurally intact, in use as a car-body repair shop.

Visitors are made welcome, if you can find it.

Background information and excellent photographs of Dingle Station are at http://www.subbrit.org.uk/sb-sites/sites/l/liverpool_overhead_railway/index.shtml.

Movie footage of the LOR is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2913oZVvkL8&feature=related.

The King of Edge Hill

Edge Hill Cutting, Liverpool (1990)

Edge Hill Cutting, Liverpool (1990)

When trains approach Liverpool’s Lime Street Station from Edge Hill, it’s possible to discern oddities in the smooth sandstone surface of the dank, vertical-sided cutting.  The line, which was originally in tunnel, runs through a very strange part of the city, honeycombed with what are now called the Williamson Tunnels.

Joseph Williamson was born, possibly in Warrington, on March 10th 1769.  At the age of eleven he arrived in Liverpool looking for work, and made his fortune as a tobacco and snuff merchant and built speculative housing at the then picturesque settlement of Edge Hill.

Standing on the edge of a slope looking down on the River Mersey, these houses were built with arched cellars, which were extended above ground as the natural contour dropped some twenty feet towards Smithdown Lane.

Quite how this development led to the construction of the first man-made caves in the sandstone is unclear.  Possibly Williamson recruited workmen from the droves of unemployed that came seeking work, particularly after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.  Perhaps he wished to offer financial support without giving charity.

Legend has it that when in the 1830s Robert Stephenson engineered the first railway tunnel from Edge Hill to Lime Street, the navvies unexpectedly broke through the floor of their works and were confronted by Williamson’s men going about their own tunnelling business.  Stephenson’s men, convinced they had penetrated into Hell, apparently fled.  Eventually, Robert Stephenson and Joseph Williamson met, and the young engineer was sufficiently impressed by the scale and quality of the Edge Hill tunnels to pass on some of Williamson’s workforce to his railway contractors.

At Williamson’s death in 1840 all work on the tunnels stopped, and the owners of the surrounding property quickly took opportunities to break through to dump rubbish in the voids beneath their houses.  The opening out of the rail tunnel into Lime Street sliced through the entire network, including a triple-deck tunnel, evidence of which can still be discerned with difficulty in the walls of the cutting.  Over the following decades the accessible spaces were filled in, and to this day the foundations of new building operations on the former Williamson estate are customarily disrupted by unexpected voids.

By the late twentieth century Williamson’s works had been largely forgotten, except as apocryphal local stories.  In the mid-1990s a group of enthusiasts formed to rediscover and where possible preserve the Edge Hill caves, and to take practical steps to make them accessible to the public.

Three sites are currently under investigation, on Smithdown Lane, Mason Street and Paddington.  A previously unknown entrance to the system was discovered during the construction of the Williamson Student Village.  At Smithdown Lane the Williamson Tunnels visitor centre opened in September 2002, utilising the former Corporation stables that abut one part of the tunnel complex [http://www.williamsontunnels.com/visit.htm].

The Williamson Tunnels are a destination on the ‘Unexpected Liverpool’ tour, June 1st-5th 2020.  For further details please click here.