Baskerville House is overlooked by many because it holds no real wow factor to the general public. However, it’s history is long and winding and if the public knew the intentions for the area, including this building, then I can guarantee that 99% will be fascinated.
The area of land Baskerville House is perched was originally a little higher than it is now and was known as Easy Hill. Back in the1700s, Broad Street was nothing more than a country track and there area was nowhere near as built up as it is now. On this hill was a house owned by John Baskerville, one of the most important men in printing. It was described as an ugly edifice and when the Priestly Riots took held of Birmingham, the house was the scene of looting and mayhem.
When Baskerville passed away, he was buried near his home on Easy Hill. However, several decades later, the tomb had to be moved for the construction of a canal that still runs behind the building today. It is said that when workers were preparing to move a section of the tomb, it cracked open revealing the corpse of Baskerville. This is possible, but it most likely situation was that they opened it up. Nevertheless, they found the body to be in almost immaculate condition considering the time he had been buried. So fascinated were scientists and the public, that the body was even put on display for several weeks, attracting large crowds.
The church began to object to the exhibition of the body and it was decided to remove the body from public view. It was stored in a warehouse and then secretly buried in a crypt in Christ Church next to the Council House with several other bodies. It was again moved to Warstone Lane Cemetery where it remains today.
As Birmingham developed in the 1800s into an industrial town, Easy Hill quickly became an industrial centre due to the vast array of canals that passed near the area. Broad Street developed into an established street with various other streets branching off it. Baskerville’s house was demolished and a factory built on top. Here it remained until the turning of the 20th century when industry began to decline.
The area became the focus of the a book by William Haywood, an architect, called “The Development of Birmingham” which was published in 1918. Plans presented in the book were New Street station development plans and plans for a People’s Hall. His most ambitious plans were for this site in particular which included the complete demolition and clearance of the area to make way for the construction of large municipal buildings.
The plans looked at filling in or realigning the canal to the rear and constructing 6 buildings around a square courtyard (two per side with one side completely free). Baskerville House was one of the buildings that formed this conglomerate. It was to be joined at the rear via a link bridge to another building of similar design. The original plans for the centre of the courtyard were a large column with a statue on top surrounding by a giant park or car park. This was modified in the 1930s and a giant monolithical highrise building of 30 storeys was proposed. This was not taken to well and it was soon dropped, reverting back to the column. To the south, a large park or square was proposed with a meeting venue at one end and a memorial at the other to the soldiers of World War I. This memorial came to be the Hall of Memory and the overall park became Centenary Square.
Baskerville House was completed in 1938 and the entire development was expected to take another 10-20 years to complete as building it in one giant phase would be a massive undertaking and possibly too expensive. The rear of Baskerville House was constructed of brick with the intention of being temporary so that it could be demolished when the next building will be constructed.
World War II delayed the project severely and it was agreed that construction should recommence after the war. However, when the war ended, municipal buildings had fallen out of favour and the plans were dropped. The park was still built, as was the memorial however nothing else came to fruition. Over the next 30 years, the area developed with the construction of a multistorey car park, student flats, four highrise tower blocks, Civic gardens, The Rep theatre and more recently, the International Convention Centre with Symphony Hall. If the plans are to be resuscitated, then all the buildings outlined would need to be demolished – obviously meaning that it will never happen.
Baskerville House therefore remains as the only standing structure in a visionary jigsaw puzzle thought up by an architect who should have had more international respect. The actual architect of Baskerville House was T. Cecil Howitt of Nottingham.
Over the years the building has had hard times. It has fallen into decay many times, it has been emptied and it has rarely had a good clean. More recently, it was surveyed in an investigation to see if it would make a suitable venue for the new Central Library when it moves from the current site. Despite it’s sturdy looking structure (enhanced by the stone facing), it was discovered that it would not be able to withstand the weight of all the books.
It was sold by the council to developers in the 2000s who promptly drew up plans to extensively refurbish the building into Grade A offices. This meant the complete demolition of the interior (including floors) leaving just a shell, and then the complete reconstruction with the addition of a modern roof feature. The plans were approved and work began quickly. The exciting development was completed in 2006 when the sheets came down revealing a newly cleaned, modern looking structure, reworked back to its former glory.
The building is quite beautiful and it will still be overlooked by many as it does not contain any public attraction. It is imposing though and makes an impact. The mixture of architecture on Broad Street add to the need to keep the building and the Grade II listed status further enforces this. The modern addition works well as it is not so imposing that it completely detracts from the classical image of the building with it’s stone façade, large entrance columns, entrance arch and string coursing.
It is a great testament to two men, John Baskerville and William Haywood, of which we should all be proud.