John Rylands (1801-1888) was a Manchester textile manufacturer whose name lives on in the John Rylands Library, founded as a memorial by his widow Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908) and opened in 1900.
From 1822 his company, Rylands & Sons Ltd, occupied a site in the city’s High Street in what is now called the Northern Quarter, and replaced these premises with the Rylands Building (1929-32), a bulky modern textile warehouse on Market Street faced in Portland stone with distinctive corner turrets, in a sober version of Art Deco.
The architects were Harry Smith Fairhurst (1868-1945) and his son Philip Garland Fairhurst (1900-1987). The elder Fairhurst had already built Lancaster House (1905-1910), India House (1906) and Bridgewater House (1912), all on Whitworth Street, and York House (1910-11, demolished 1974) on Major Street – all of them to the Manchester pattern of a packing house and wholesale showroom.
The Rylands Building is prominently visible at the corner of Piccadilly Gardens, an ornamental space opened up on the site of the demolished Manchester Royal Infirmary.
In 1957 it was bought by the owners of Paulden’s department store after a fire destroyed their All Saints premises south of the city centre. The splendid architectural treatment, inside and out, and the vast amount of floor space made the former warehouse an admirable retail store, which was rebranded by its ultimate owners, Debenhams, in 1973.
The debacle that led to the complete closure of the Debenhams chain in 2021 meant that the Rylands Building suddenly became a huge void in the heart of Manchester’s retail quarter – half a million square feet of retail floor-space over ten floors encased in a magnificent and prominent building within sight of the city’s tourist hub, Piccadilly Gardens, and within reach of the nearby Northern Quarter.
The way forward is Rylands Manchester. The developer AM Alpha gained permission for a scheme by Jeffrey Bell Architects adding four storeys on top of the present roof to compensate for carving an open atrium out of the centre to bring natural light within the building from the second to the seventh floor.
The project respects the appearance of the 1929 design while observing the Manchester Zero-Carbon Action Plan which aims to make Greater Manchester carbon-neutral by 2038 [Zero Carbon Manchester | Zero Carbon Manchester | Manchester City Council]. Insulation, glazing and energy provision will conform to expected future needs, and the respect for original architectural detail includes installing up-to-date Crittall Windows units corresponding with the appearance of the original fenestration.
The finished scheme will offer 70,000 square feet of retail space at ground level, 258,000 square feet of office space above and a winter garden on the sixth floor. The atrium storeys each include open space, terraced to provide sight of the sky and sheltered by a glazed roof: https://www.maxfordham.com/projects/the-rylands-building.
Work is expected to be completed by 2025, a tribute to Manchester’s efficacy in grabbing opportunities to improve the urban environment, as it did after the IRA bomb-attack in 1996.
An urban-explorer report uploaded in April 2023 reveals surviving architectural details in the less-frequented areas of the Rylands Building: Exploring Manchester’s Abandoned Debenhams: Found 1930s Secrets – YouTube.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.
The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Manchester’s Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.