Category Archives: Twentieth-century architecture

This brave o’erhanging firmament

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: auditorium ceiling (2013)

The legal stalemate over the leaking roof of the Abbeydale Picture House threatens to bring down the ornate plaster ceiling of the auditorium.

A recent press-release from the lessee of the cinema, CADS [Creative Arts Development Space], stated that the building must be made weatherproof without delay, and the financial loss from the closure of the auditorium is becoming unsustainable:  The uncertain future of a century-old Sheffield landmark (sheffieldtribune.co.uk) [scroll to ‘The Big Story’].

Subsequently, the Theatres Trust has added the Abbeydale to its register of theatres at risk:  Theatre at Risk Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield (theatrestrust.org.uk).

An alarming incident at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End in 2013 [‘Apollo theatre collapse injures more than 80 people in London’s West End | London | The Guardian] injured over eighty theatregoers and raised concerns about health-and-safety issues with plaster ceilings in historic theatres across Britain.  The Society of London Theatres quickly established that at the time of the incident all the West End theatres were up to date with their safety inspection routines.  Further precautions led to a tightened, systematic routine of inspections:  No prosecutions over theatre roof collapse | Theatre | The Guardian.

A detailed examination of the damage showed that the Apollo ceiling was weakened by the deterioration of hessian ties, called ‘wads’, that anchored the plasterwork to the roof structure:  Apollo theatre ceiling collapse blamed on failure of old cloth ties | London | The Guardian.  Water ingress was apparently the basic problem, weakening the hessian and adding to the weight of the plasterwork.  There’s a partly redacted technical report on the Apollo collapse at Apollo-Theatre..pdf (abtt.org.uk).

There’s been no public statement to indicate exactly what is wrong with the Abbeydale Picture House roof, but it’s clear that if the ceiling collapsed its reinstatement would be costly and would delay plans for a full restoration.

In a recent blog-article I highlighted the successful restoration of Wingfield Station in Derbyshire after years of neglect.  This came about because of a combination of forces.  Local residents and the Amber Valley District Council worked with English Heritage and the not-for-profit Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust to put the station back in excellent order which will enable it to earn its keep in future.

Sheffield City Council has already played that card by channelling Levelling Up funds from central government to make the Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe suitable for a lessee’s occupation, but the Abbeydale Picture House is a different proposition.

Firstly, it’s much bigger than Wingfield Station and though it’s structurally complete its integrity is seriously threatened by the ceiling vulnerability.

Secondly, it’s not the only landmark building in the city that presents a major conservation challenge.  The Old Town Hall is older, more central, more complex, in far worse physical condition and extremely difficult to adapt to a practical future use.

Sheffield City Council is desperately short of money after years of budget cuts, and to finance non-essential services it’s forced to scavenge for ringfenced grants that can’t be spent on other priorities.

I spoke to someone who knows about such matters, and he said that the only solution was money – more money than ordinary individuals might raise in a hurry.

But the support of ordinary members of the public will help CADS, a not-for-profit organisation with a strong track record in repurposing redundant buildings for use in a variety of art forms.

And reminding local politicians that people care about landmark buildings like the Abbeydale wouldn’t go amiss.  The Council’s heritage champion, Councillor Janet Ridler, is at Councillor details – Councillor Janet Ridler | Sheffield City Council.

Update: Within days of this article going online, on February 22nd 2024 CADS announced the immediate closure of the Abbeydale Picture House for lack of resources to make the auditorium safe, though they retain the tenancy agreement and hope to restore the building in the future: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-68371502.

Trijunct Station

Derby Midland Station (1978)
Derby Station (2016)

Derby railway station’s three-way junction forms a hinge in the national railway network, not as extensive or complex as Crewe or York, but pivotal on the north-east/south-west axis and the route from South Yorkshire to London.

The railway came to Derby because the town was chosen as the meeting point of three independent railways, the Midland Counties Railway between Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Rugby (opened June 4th 1839), the Birmingham & Derby Junction Railway (opened August 12th 1839) and the North Midland Railway between Derby, Chesterfield, Rotherham and Normanton (opened May 11th 1840).

Passenger services for these three companies were provided at the Trijunct Station (1839-41), owned by the North Midland, at Litchurch, just outside the Derby boundary, because the only available nearer site for a single station, at the Holmes, was prone to flooding and would have required a more complicated track layout.

In 1844 the three companies amalgamated to form the Midland Railway, which grew to become an important main-line railway with services to London, Manchester and Carlisle.

The original joint station had a single platform, 1,050 feet long, with terminal bays for trains to Birmingham southwards and for the Midland Counties trains that departed northwards and headed east towards Spondon. 

The equally long Italianate station building was designed by the North Midland Railway architect, Francis Thompson (1808-1895), behind which was a cast-iron train shed by Robert Stephenson (1803-1859). 

Both of these structures are long gone.  An island platform was installed in 1858, along with further offices and a porte-cochère on the street frontage, designed by the Midland Railway architect, John Holloway Sanders (1825-1884).  A second island platform, with a footbridge, followed in 1881.  The front buildings were largely replaced by Sanders’ successor, Charles Trubshaw (1840-1917) c1892.

Following extensive bomb damage in January 1941 which destroyed the train shed and the buildings on Platform 6, all three sets of platform buildings, together with the footbridge and main signal box, were replaced in 1952-54.

The signal box was decommissioned in 1969 when a modern power box was constructed south of the station, and the Victorian front buildings were demolished, despite objections from conservationists, in 1985. 

All that remains of these buildings is the clock and the carved coat of arms of the borough of Derby from the porte-cochère, incongruously located in the station car park.

The replacement building in red brick is uninspiring.  Behind it, the 1950s concrete was found to be weakening.  The concrete footbridge was replaced in 2005, and new platform buildings followed in 2007-2009.  An additional platform was added during 2018 along with comprehensive remodelling of track and signalling to improve freight and passenger flows and to future-proof the station for decades to come.

Peter Stanton, describing the complex construction and engineering that took place over seventy-nine days of service disruption in Rail Engineer (November 15th 2018), remarked that there was “very little heritage to concern designers who could have a free reign to produce the most modern facilities”. 

The original Trijunct Station has been remodelled so frequently – 1858, 1881, 1892, 1952-54, 2005, 2007-09, apart from being bombed in 1941 – that it’s now a 21st-century passenger station. 

But the modern trains gliding in and out of Derby follow the same tracks and routes as the early steam locos that trundled into the Trijunct Station in 1839-40.

The new Adelphi

Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe, Sheffield: balcony plasterwork (1982)
Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe: balcony (2023) [© Dan Bultin]

Sheffield has only two listed cinema buildings, both coincidentally opened in 1920 – the Abbeydale Picture House, designed as a multi-purpose entertainment venue with a full theatre stage, a ballroom, a billiard saloon and a café, and the Adelphi, Attercliffe, a straightforward silent-movie house which at the time of listing in 1996 was largely intact inside and out.

At present the Abbeydale is in a state of limbo.  Problems with the auditorium ceiling have led to a legal stand-off between the landlord and the lessee which needs to be resolved to safeguard the integrity of the building and enable a full restoration to take place.

There has been a flurry of media attention about the Adelphi, which was purchased by Sheffield City Council in March 2023 for refurbishment as a mixed-use cultural space, much needed for the revival and transformation of the local community. The Adelphi is on the market, with a promise of Levelling Up funding to make it once again “occupiable”:  Levelling Up: Adelphi Cinema in Attercliffe out to market (sheffnews.com).

A very attractive CGI image shows what the interior might look like after refurbishment, yet nowhere in the media coverage is there any indication that the original 1920 decoration has completely disappeared.

The auditorium in its current state is a bleak contrast to how it looked at the time it was surveyed for listing, with “pilasters, segment-arched panelled ceiling and [a] moulded proscenium arch with [a] central crest flanked by torches [and a] U-shaped gallery with [a] latticework plaster front”.  The original scheme was delicate and light:  Searching Picture SheffieldSearching Picture Sheffield.

The listing inspector observed that “cinemas dating from this period, between 1918 and the introduction of sound in the early 1930s, are comparatively rare”.

What happened? 

I e-mailed a city councillor who will be in a position to know (or find out) but I’ve so far received no response.

I photographed the interior in 1982 when it was a bingo club and again in 1990 when it was unoccupied.  At the time the entire auditorium was bristling with classical plaster decoration designed by the architect William Carter Fenton (1861-1950;  Lord Mayor 1922).

A cluster of urban-explorer reports in 2011 suggests that conversion to a night-club was largely respectful of the building’s listed status, despite the need for structural alterations.

The building was sold for storage use in 2013 and at some point the plasterwork was stripped out.

Recent images show a bleak space that looks nothing like a 1920s cinema.  The CGI image represents an admirable exercise in making the best of a bad job, apart from the puny chandeliers.

Maybe there was a legitimate reason to take down the plasterwork:  perhaps it was unstable and might have injured someone.  Maybe the owner at the time discussed the matter with the Council planning authority, but I’ve never heard any public mention of alterations in the years after the listing.

Though the Adelphi deserves to retain its Grade II listing because its fine exterior survives intact, it now bears no comparison with the Abbeydale, and there are other Sheffield cinemas with surviving interior features which haven’t been considered for protection:

And if the stripping of the auditorium plasterwork was unauthorised, should there not be consequences for a flagrant disregard of the laws about listed buildings?

Rylands Building

Rylands Building, Market Street, Manchester (2023)

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.

New city with a long history

Danum Gallery, Library and Museum, Doncaster

As its name suggests, Doncaster dates back to Roman times, yet despite centuries of importance as an administrative, social and industrial centre, it is one of the newest British cities, awarded Letters Patent confirming its city status in 2022 on the occasion of the Platinum Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Coincidentally, it has gained a superb new museum, art gallery and central library, named after the original Roman fort, Danum, that probably existed where the parish church of St George, now Doncaster Minster was later built.

The Danum Gallery, Library and Museum stands on the site of the Doncaster Girls’ High School, which dates from 1910-11 and was designed by J M Bottomley, Son & Wilburn in bright red brick, contrasting starkly with elegant white Burmantofts ‘Marmo’ faience.

Latterly it amalgamated with the corresponding boys’ Doncaster Grammar School, renamed Hall Cross Comprehensive School, part of which still occupies its 1869 George Gilbert Scott building on Thorne Road.

When the Girls’ High School building became redundant there was a popular demand to retain at least its distinctive butterfly-plan facade.  The extent and physical decay of the rear buildings are admirably illustrated at Doncaster High School for Girls, Doncaster. (urbanography.org.uk), Report – – Doncaster High School For Girls – October 2009 | Other Sites | 28DaysLater.co.uk and Esoteric Eric: In Accordance with Ordinance : Doncaster High School for Girls, Doncaster (3soteric3ric.blogspot.com).

The initial proposal to bring together the then borough’s library, gallery and museum facilities behind the school frontage looked quite different from the final design:  Old Doncaster Girls’ High School frontage plans for new library – BBC News.  The new building opened on May 29th 2021, designed by Willmott Dixon [Danum Gallery, Library and Museum | Willmott Dixon] as part of the new city’s Civic and Cultural Quarter.

The entrance leads into an entirely conventional modern lending library, brightened by full height windows.  Following the line of the windows leads to a surprising space dominated by the spruced-up brick and faience façade of the old school.  Here is Café 1910, where welcoming, homely Yorkshire ladies provide satisfying hot drinks, healthy snacks and irresistible cakes and pastries.  Their warm, well-mannered Facebook stream reflects their style and their service.

Behind the school frontage, the Museum and Art Gallery explores the rich variety of Doncaster’s history in a sequence of displays that leads the visitor from the local ichthyosaurus and the Norman Conisbrough Castle to living legends such as Doncaster’s Diva, Lesley Garrett, in a 2022 portrait by Michael Christopher Jackson, and One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson.  The Museum also tells the story of the local regiment, The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

Uniting four previously cultural facilities – library, archives, art gallery and museum – in one location with a café makes it possible to look at art and artefacts, read and research, and eat and drink in comfort.

As someone who is prone to overstimulation and sore feet in museums and art galleries this is a welcome luxury.

Knightsbridge of the North

Victoria Quarter, Leeds, West Yorkshire

“In Briggate nothing of note,” is Pevsner’s comment on the ancient heart of Leeds, an oddly offhand remark which is immediately contradicted when he goes on briefly to mention two “examples of the characteristic Leeds Arcades”.

When the existing tiny settlement was developed as a new town in the early thirteenth century the landholdings were laid out as narrow burgage plots on Briggate, the approach to the bridge over the River Aire.

Many of these boundaries have survived to the present day, and in the nineteenth century they engendered the city’s distinctive arcades as places for shopping and entertainment.

Along with the surviving City Markets the arcades provide a wonderfully atmospheric experience of the best of Victorian retail enterprise, and are sufficiently well recognised to gain the attention and investment of present-day developers.

The earliest of these long corridor-thoroughfares, covering over the ancient yards and providing access to premises away from the main street, is Thornton’s Arcade (1877-8), built on the site of the Old Talbot Inn and Yard by Charles Thornton.

Several imitators followed – the Queen’s Arcade (1888-9), the Grand Arcade adjacent to the earlier Grand Theatre (1896-9 for the New Briggate Arcade Co), and the Victoria Arcade (1898). 

Most sumptuous and celebrated of all was the complex designed from 1898 onwards for the Leeds Estate Co by the great theatre-architect, Frank Matcham, consisting of County Arcade, Cross Arcade and the open Queen Victoria Street and King Edward Street, all designed in “freestyle” with mahogany shopfronts and elaborate façades in Burmantofts terracotta. 

Frank Matcham based the shopping arcades on the opulent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (1877) in Milan, and within the same block of buildings stood his Empire Theatre, built at the same time but demolished in 1961. 

The County and Cross Arcades came into their own as a result of Prudential Portfolio Managers’ commissioning of a high-quality redevelopment scheme by Derek Latham & Co, completed in 1990 and named the Victoria Quarter.

For this scheme Matcham’s arcades were lovingly restored, with new mosaics by Joanna Veevers and ironwork by Jim Horrobin.  In addition, Queen Victoria Street was roofed in a sympathetic modern style which features nine hundred square yards of stained glass by Brian Clarke with iron street-furniture by Alan Dawson. 

The spirit of the late-Victorian covered malls has been reaffirmed and updated by enclosing Matcham’s outside walls and encouraging passers-by to slow their walking pace and look upwards. 

And on the footprint of the Empire Theatre an unremarkable 1960s shopping mall has given way to the first branch of Harvey Nicholls outside London, opened in 1996. 

Since that time, Leeds has continued to develop as the “Knightsbridge of the North”.  The Light (2001) occupies a site south of the Headrow.  Trinity Leeds (2013) embraces the eighteenth-century Church of the Holy Trinity on Boar Lane, and Victoria Gate was opened alongside the Victoria Quarter in 2016 with a distinctive flagship John Lewis store.

And yet the burgage plots remain.

The intact and celebrated City Varieties music hall, dating from 1865 and originally Thornton’s Varieties, stands near Charles Thornton’s arcade, embedded within the block of buildings and completely devoid of any façade, and in a narrow alley off Briggate stands Whitelock’s, a three-hundred-year-old pub-restaurant that was originally the Turk’s Head, described by John Betjeman as “the very heart of Leeds”.

For all these reasons Leeds is a place to shop until you drop, and afterwards eat, drink and be merry.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge

‘I love you will U marry me’ graffito, Park Hill Flats, Sheffield (2014)

One of the many pleasures of seeing the revised Chris Bush/Richard Hawley drama, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre is that when you walk out at the interval into the bar there through the huge windows – particularly at matinée performances – you see Park Hill Flats, and the horizon behind is Sky Edge.

The play, written by Chris Bush around Richard Hawley’s evocative music, is a tribute to Sheffield – Dan Hayes’ review in The Tribune called it “a musical love letter” – using Park Hill, the landmark 1960s housing development, as a backcloth to the changing fortunes of the city and its people.

Its intricate plot interweaves the lives of three sets of occupants of the same Park Hill flat – a 1960s newly-wed couple, a 1980s family of Liberian refugees and a 2010s London woman seeking a new life up north.

Using the dramatic technique of simultaneous setting, the three narratives overlay in fascinating, pertinent ways.  At one point members of the three families sit at the same dining table, oblivious of any time but their own, and are served meals from the same oven – freshly cooked decades apart, plated up in the kitchen on stage and served with a bottle of Henderson’s Relish.

Newcomers to Park Hill arrive in hope yet don’t necessarily live entirely happily ever after.  The promises on which these streets in the sky were built in the 1960s die unfulfilled.  The bitterness of the 1980s hurts the entire community as the flats begin to decay.  The refurbishment of the largest Grade II* listed building in Europe from 2009 onwards removes the families who remain from the beginning and replaces them with newcomers who are also usurpers.

The script highlights aspects of local culture that resonate with the story of the flats and the city.  The original families moved in alongside their old neighbours to walkways named after the demolished streets of terraces.  A generation later, the working-class tenants who wanted to stay put were evicted.  The story behind the celebrated graffito “I Love You Will U Marry Me” does not end happily:  Sheffield: ‘I Love You Will U Marry Me’ graffiti reinstated – BBC News

I sense that Standing at the Sky’s Edge is becoming a classic which will celebrate Sheffield for future generations, resonating with the way the Park Hill Flats dominate the city’s skyline.  It could achieve national stature as a document of ways our society has changed since the 1960s.

The production transfers to the National Theatre, opening on February 9th 2023.  It will be interesting to see how well it travels.  In the Crucible there was a strong audience reaction to local allusions like Henderson’s Relish (don’t ever compare it to Worcestershire sauce), the rivalry between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United and the belief that Leeds people are not a patch on Sheffield folk.

Both Richard Hawley and Chris Bush are Sheffield-born, and Richard has customarily named his albums after Sheffield locations – Coles’ Corner (2005), Lady’s Bridge (2007), Truelove’s Gutter (2009).  The title Standing at the Sky’s Edge comes from his 2012 album and identifies the scene of illegal pitch-and-toss activities dominated by Sheffield’s notorious Mooney and Garvin gangs in the 1920s.

The physical locations – Sky Edge, Park Hill and the Crucible Theatre – and Richard Hawley’s outstanding music and lyrics combine to celebrate places and people in a city that doesn’t make a fuss and gets on with life.

Liverpool’s cultural learning zone

Liverpool Central Library: atrium

Photo: © Christopher Brook

When Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’ St George’s Hall was completed in 1854 it brought dignity to the untidy area known as Shaw’s Brow around St John’s Church and St John’s Market (both now demolished), and the building contractor Samuel Holme proposed that its setting should become a kind of forum “round which should be clustered our handsomest edifices, and within the area of which our public monuments ought to be placed”.

The steep gradient which falls away from the site of the Hall precluded any kind of enclosed space, so the donor of the Free Library and Museum, the merchant, banker and politician William Brown (1784-1864), gave the strip of land on which was laid the street that now bears his name.

Initially, the Free Library and Museum (1857-60) sat alone towards the bottom of the hill.  Its imposing Corinthian portico complements St George’s Hall opposite. The grand entrance steps came later, c1902.

The Library was extended by adding the Picton Reading Room (Cornelius Sherlock 1875-79), an impressive galleried rotunda, modelled on the British Museum reading room in Bloomsbury.  It’s an inspiring place to read or study, and it has an entertaining echo that transmits conversations from the opposite side of the great space.  Its column-free basement, originally a lecture theatre, is now a versatile and attractive children’s library.  The semi-circular external façade pivots a bend in the street-line and responds to the apsidal end of St George’s Hall. 

Later still, behind the William Brown Street buildings, the Hornby Library (1906) was built to a dignified design by the City Architect, Thomas Shelmerdine. It now exhibits the Library’s rare books collection.  It’s noted for displaying the only copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-38) that is regularly turned from page to page.

These two extensions are named respectively after the pioneer of the city’s public libraries, Sir James Picton (1805-1889) and the merchant and bibliophile Hugh Frederick Hornby (1826 -1899) who bequeathed his book-collection and £10,000 for a building to house it.

The Library and Museum were badly damaged in the May 1941 Blitz though most of their collections had been removed, and reinstatement took until the end of the 1960s with a further extension in 1978.

The rebuilt facilities did not wear well, and the increasing demand for digital resources eventually required a radical refurbishment, safeguarding the Grade II*-listed Victorian structures.

The resulting design by the Austin-Smith:Lord practice is open plan, transforming the usefulness of the building with a dramatic atrium topped by a glass dome and above all a roof terrace.  It reopened to the public in 2013.

The potential uses of the Central Library complex are virtually limitless, from school homework to academic research, to online business support and keep-fit for over-sixties.

I called on the Archives service to provide the last visit on the last day of the last Interesting Times tour, Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022).

The Archivist, Jan Grace, and her colleague Carl gave a tour of the Victorian spaces and showed us the comprehensive collections in the third-floor Local Studies area, all of which are freely available on open shelves.

Because we’d spent the week touring odd corners of Liverpool’s history, I’d asked Jan to provide a display in the Search Room of archives relating directly to the buildings we’d visited, from the Atlantic Tower Hotel where we’d stayed to such places as the Florence Institute, the Park Palace Ponies, the Lister Drive Old Swimming Baths and more Gothic churches than you could shake a stick at.

I was particularly grateful to have this exceptional opportunity as a grand finale to my tour programme, which has always aimed for the “Heineken effect”, visiting places that other tours can’t reach.

Liverpool Central Library: Archives Search Room – Unexpected Liverpool tour, June 10th 2022

Photo: © Jan Grace

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

A dream for an architect

St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby: sanctuary
St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby: Celebration Window

I first met the architect Vincente Stienlet in Sheffield in 2015 when the Hand Of team who promoted the Abbeydale Picture House Revival invited him to watch a silent film in the cinema his grandfather, Pascal J Stienlet, had designed in 1920.

Together we watched The Call of the Road, the very first film shown in the building, accompanied by a live pianist, and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

Recently Vincente invited me to accompany the Northern Architectural History Society when they visited St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby, which he designed and which was dedicated in 1986.

The chance to explore a building with the person who designed it is unmissable, and I was doubly blessed because when I arrived early I met the parish priest, the Very Rev Canon John Nunan, who took me on a liturgical tour of Vincente’s distinctive church.

When the NAHS coach arrived I then experienced a parallel tour with Vincente explaining to the group the structure as well as the symbolism.  The two commentaries fitted hand in glove.

At the beginning of the 1980s the parish had reached the point where their modest Gothic 1882 church, designed by Edward Simpson of Bradford, could no longer serve the growing congregation:  it seated 150, and every Sunday four Masses in succession were celebrated for up to six hundred worshippers.

The old St Joseph’s stands on a cramped and oddly shaped patch of land, alongside a former Methodist manse which had become the presbytery in 1939.  The only available space for expansion was the modest gap between the two buildings and behind that the unused presbytery garden.

Vincente’s response was to design a polygonal tent that connects the two buildings and occupies very nearly every square foot of land the parish possessed.

The gap between the old building, which became the parish hall, and the presbytery is filled by an imposing narthex, leading beneath the gallery to the worship space that embraces the visitor and draws the eye to the Baptistery, the place of admission to the faith.

On the wall behind the baptistery hang the Stations of the Cross – bold, chunky, enigmatic elm, carved with a chainsaw, designed by the artist Fenwick Lawson as an uncompromising reminder of the sacrifice of the Crucifixion.

The Stations of the Cross lead the eye rightwards to Fenwick Lawson’s Risen Christ, mounted on a beam above the High Altar.  Representing the triumph of the Resurrection it’s not a crucifix as such:  the crossbeam has been removed from the outstretched arms and the figure looks left extending an open hand towards the light gained by two south-facing gables, and beyond to the Celebration Window, by Fenwick Lawson’s son Gerard, gold and green, portraying a sunburst over the blue ribbon of the River Wharfe and the red of the roads crossing at Wetherby combining to make the PX symbol that the early church used for Christ’s name.

Canon Nunan described Vincente’s building to me as “a theological statement”.  It stands for the faith it belongs to, and it works as a practical structure.

You need an architect to tell you that the Gerard Lawson’s window is double-glazed, separated by a metre-wide space from the external glazing to suppress traffic noise, and that the beautiful polished teak that furnishes the Sanctuary was recycled from the handrails of the Byker Bridge near to his office in Newcastle.

There is more, much more to this superb church which, like a finely tuned instrument, calms the spirit and inspires reflection.

I was privileged to understand it – at least a little – with Canon Nunan, who this year celebrates his Golden Jubilee and is about to begin his well-earned retirement, and with Vincente Stienlet who describes it, in his book A Life in Architecture (Pascal Stienlet & Son Architects 2020), as “a dream for an architect”.

The Hole in the Road

Castle Square, Sheffield (1993)

Nineteenth-century Sheffield was a town that thought it was a village.

After Sheffield became a city in 1897 it was a city that thought it was a town.

Sheffield folk don’t take easily to the idea of grandeur.  They make things.  Predominantly Nonconformist, truculent and quietly proud of their skills and products, they look upon other Yorkshire cities as brash.

The Blitz of December 1940 flattened much of the city centre and the city planners took advice from (among others) Birmingham City Council’s City Engineer, Herbert Manzoni, himself notorious for rendering his own city unrecognisable.

Their plans saddled Sheffield with a plan for a “Civic Circle” road centred on the Town Hall, together with an Inner Ring Road and an Outer Ring Road.

One aspect of this scheme, to be picked up by Sheffield’s City Architect, Lewis Womersley, on his appointment in 1953, was that as far as possible pedestrians and motorists should move around the city centre at different levels.

Womersley’s Castle Market (1960-65) happily achieved this, taking advantage of its sloping site to provide access on three levels to shops, clear of motor vehicles at ground level.

At the traditional Market Place, however, the idea didn’t work out. 

A dual carriageway, Arundel Gate, swept across the Duke of Norfolk’s grid of Georgian streets, and came to an abrupt halt at the top of Angel Street, where a roundabout directed traffic downhill along Commercial Street towards the Parkway.

Against Womersley’s wishes, motor vehicles negotiated this tight turn at ground level, and pedestrians were pushed below ground into a dramatic space with a circular oculus open to the sky, opened in 1967.

Though the planners called this circle Castle Square, Sheffield folk obstinately labelled it the Hole in the Road

The only decorative feature was a 2,000-gallon fish-tank which became a popular meeting place, replacing Coles Corner which had lost its raison d’être after the Cole Brothers’ department store moved to Barker’s Pool in 1963.

Despite the subway-level entrances to adjacent shops and a couple of sad little stalls for buying newspapers and cigarettes, this memorable piece of townscape proved to be dead space and as the years passed it became more and more grubby and threatening.

Promotional literature for the proposed Sheffield Minitram, a driverless elevated people-mover, showed its track supported by a single pillar in the centre of the Hole in the Road as it climbed High Street.  The project was quietly dropped in 1975.

When the full-size, standard-gauge Supertram was planned, it was quickly obvious that the Hole in the Road would have to go. 

It was closed and filled in, possibly with rubble from the demolition of Hyde Park Flats, in 1994.

There’s a story that when the fish tank was emptied the only remaining fish was a piranha. I can’t vouch for it.

The generation of locals who met their date by the fish tank may regret its demise but even Lewis Womersley would probably agree that Castle Square was a dubious idea in the first place.

The story of Castle Square – the “Hole in the Road” – is featured in Demolished Sheffield, a 112-page full colour A4 publication by Mike Higginbottom. For details please click here.