85 Digbeth High Street

25 10 2007

85 DigbethDigbeth is full of wonderful buildings, but there is a common idea that you have to go into the backstreets and hidden alleyways to really discover them. The truth is, you’ve just got to look hard. There are relatively few buildings on Digbeth High Street that really stand out as you drive past them; the Custard Factory is the main one. However, look closely at the roof line of the street and this building stands out. It’s only a small building. In fact, it’s tiny. Only two floors in height and probably only 12 feet wide. This could not have been an operational building.

The site had changed a lot before this was built. It was home to a William Lomax who was an inventor of farming equipment. It was also the site of a coach building company. 85 Digbeth High Street was built around 1860 and no one knows who designed it. However, whoever did design it, was quite clever. This tower broke the monotony of the facades using the least valuable space possible. This was an entrance tower, as seen by the large entrance arch at the base. It was built by Bonser & Co, a firm of iron merchants. This firm obviously wanted to stand out on the street.

The tower comprises of a variety of interesting curved elements. On the ground floor is a semi-circular arch above the entrance. One the first floor is a segmental arch above a split window area, although it is unknown whether glass was ever used here. There is also a slight upward curve on the steeply pitched roof which terminates in a set of short iron railings. The tower has a Gothic appeal mixed with a Classical touch which is seen in the pillar in the window space and the detailing in the ground floor arch. Set between the window pillar and the segmental arch on the top floor is an engraving of a crown. The writing in the bands across the tower has slowly been eroded away through human intervention and the weather. Above the segmental arch it did originally say ‘IRON & STEEL’ although this has been completely lost.

All in all, this building is special in it’s own small form. It needs a clean and I would like to see the lettering added back onto it. The panels that are blocking the window area on the first floor should also be removed. However, this building would not have any real use in the modern society. It is just a monument. It is too small to be an office or residential properties. I understand that recently, this and the building next door were turned into a vintage clothing store. I also understand that some of the details on the ground floor were painted bright yellow. This might now fit into the area but it reflect’s the architects idea of making the tower stand out when it was built and as Digbeth and the Irish Quarter witness their greatest construction renaissance for over 100 years, this tower should keep on making itself known.

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The George & Dragon

24 10 2007

George & DragonFor the first time, I’ll venture into one of most historic areas of Birmingham; the Jewellery Quarter. The Jewellery Quarter is undoubtedly one of the greatest assets to the city with enormous tourism potential. Despite being so close to the city centre, it feels very detached and takes walking down into some sort of a valley and past old empty warehouses to really get there. But when you are there, you find some true gems. Of course, many of you may have noticed that we are not the only ones to recognise the potential of the area. Look around now, and you’ll notice the large number of ‘For sale’, ‘To let’ and ‘SOLD’ signs on the old buildings. Enormous redevelopment schemes have been proposed to provide vast numbers of residential properties and commercial units. The Jewellery Quarter is undergoing a vast regeneration. But despite this, many people in Birmingham fail to know the Jewellery Quarter exits. This is a place that claims to have the highest concentration of professional jewellers in Europe. And in my eyes, this is the place with some of the most spectacular jewels in Birmingham’s crown.

One of these jewels is the George & Dragon public house. Now, it’s setting is hardly the most vibrant of places. I discovered it by walking along Legge Lane, which is a sight for sore eyes. The roads are quiet, there are no people about, and the only noise is that of the city centre or of the wind rustling through the vegetation growing of the roofs of derelict workshops. So, when I set eyes upon this pub, I realised it was succumbing to the fate of so many pubs in city. The ground floor windows and doors are boarded up and the windows on the upper floors have been smashed or partially boarded up – although I was surprised to find some of the larger windows intact. It was a terrible site when considering the history of the building.

A close look at the building shows that this edifice had undergone many extensions in it’s time. The corner of the building at Pope Street/ Albion Street lacks detail. The sash windows are set in rather plain brick work. This led me to believe that it was pre-Victorian, and my research agrees with me. This corner was built around 1820, though the detail is not known for certain. The corner here is chamfered at the ground floor and an overhang above it. The alignment of the windows gives the impression that there are three floors.

Moving along Albion Street, and the brick work changes to a lighter combination. Something else changes too – the alignment of the windows. There now appears to only be two floors. Another thing about the windows is the size and detail that they are set within. The three windows on the upper floor consist of two long windows, topped with arches. Set between these is an oriel window, decorated in a Gothic revival architecture. Although, this deteriorating, which is expected as the wood has not been replaced since construction. On the Carver Street/ Albion Street junction is a rounded corner with stucco panelling. This curvature is reflected in the roof line. The Carver Street elevation features yet another oriel window, albeit in better condition than the other. Also in the Gothic revival architecture, is the ground floor elevation. It is obvious from the exposed wood that around the doors were wooden columns holding up the rest of the door frame. These have since been removed. This section of the building was built between 1860-1870. The architect is unknown. It can be seen that during the construction of this part, the rest of the building was refurbished and altered. This is seen through the roofline which is supported by paired brackets.

Despite this, the pub was to undergo yet another extension, just on a smaller scale. It is this extension that really caught my eye, too. The extension is on the Carver Street side and is only one storey in height. To me, this doesn’t look useful at all and only appears to have been constructed using the profits of the pub owner. It is just a fancy entrance to the back of the pub. But despite this talk, I love it. In the centre of the extension is a deepset entrance under an arch. This is a diluted form of classical architecture, and in my previous blog post, I noted the revival of classical architecture in a certain time period – the 1920s and 1930s. Can you guess when this extension was built? Yes, the 1920s-30s period. It was designed by James and Lister Lea and completed in 1922.

So, here stands the pub looking pretty dreary. It is Grade II listed but I can see most of the building being demolished in the future, leaving the façades to be incorporated into a modern extension. This seems to be a common practice in these times. Facadism is actually frowned upon by many conservation groups but it really is necessary if the existing structure is economically unsustainable. But there must be a line drawn between making the façade a fundamental part of the building and just incorporating a façade into a building for the hell of it (ie. Orion Building). I just hope, that no one allows this pub to fall down or be demolished completely. With such architectural diversity and history, it is a gem and one that needs some polishing in the Jewellery Quarter crown.





Dale End: Architectural vandalism

22 05 2007

Dale EndMany will know Dale End, especially the younger generations of today as it is the home of the Carling Academy, a popular haunt for many teenagers hoping to see some of today’s most popular bands. Go back 800 years and this was a popular site for the town too, who hoped to be accepted into a monumental priory dedicated to St Thomas.

Dale End is deep rooted in religious history. A little known fact about the site is the St Thomas Priory that occupied it for several hundred years. It was dissolved under the Tudor reign in 1536 and the buildings were destroyed in 1547. Prosperity here rapidly declined. There was no businesses wishing to set up on site and for 150 years, the site was littered with debris from the demolished priory.  Nothing is known of the architecture of the priory but as priories from long ago appear, it must have  been on a grand and impressive scale with brilliant architecture which we would no longer be able to achieve often in today’s society. It takes the most ambitious and those who have a bit of money to splash to really undertake something like this – and sometimes it fails such as the Millennium Dome.

It took John Pemberton to finally do something about the site who bought it in 1700. John Pemberton developed the site around Old Square and created a residential district there. The affluence in the area took off. In the 1700s, the Barley Market moved from the Bullring area to the junction of Bull Street and Dale End. In 1763, Sampson Lloyd and John Taylor established a private banking business known as Taylors & Lloyds on the site which would develop into Lloyds Bank. Old Square quickly became the hottest place in town for the rich. The houses were villas with bay windows and were two stories in height. They sat in rows to the square

Old Square was severely affected by the construction of Corporation Street beginning in 1873. The layout was completely rearranged but with it came benefits. New, grand buildings were constructed such as the impressive Grand Theatre. The architecture of the facade of the theatre was reminiscent of the theatre buildings being constructed in Prague which have now become international icons.

The actual site of Dale End was more of a backwater to the affluence and vibrancy being witnessed in Old Square. By the Victorian times, Birmingham’s centre was split into several parishes which later became wards for the council. Each of these had a church, of which many still remain such as St Martins, St Philips, St Pauls and St Thomas’ (though it is now no longer a church and more a monument). Dale End was the location of one of the churches – St Peters. It was described as a noble edifice and not much more. Connecting Dale End to Old Square was Lower Priory which was fronted by a chemical works and many public houses and hotels. Intermingled with all this was a conglomerate of residential properties which developed into slums.

Dale End needed a miracle if it were to rekindle the prosperity of before. That miracle (though it was a tragic one at that) in the form of World War II. Before the war, the site had become a commercial location with shops establishing themselves either side. However, it still retained an air of poverty and people still ignored the site in favour of Corporation Street and the Bullring. So, in came war and the Germans bombed Dale End to an oblivion. The entire street was cleared by the bombs and it experienced some of the worst damage in the city centre.

This heavy destruction set it up for post war development and it didn’t take long. First of all came the inner ring road. This bounded the site at the east and to the north through the construction of the Priory Queensway. One of the biggest acts of architectural vandalism was witnessed in the construction of the queensway – the demolition of the Grand Theatre. Of course it was met with tears and opposition but according to the ‘great’ Manzoni, it was had to go. Following this, in came the next blow – the expiration of leases for buildings on Corporation Street. This presented developers with an opportunity to grasp their own piece of business on the street.

So with these combined factors, Dale End was itself subject to postwar development and this came in the form of Sir Frederick Gibberd. He designed a brand new shopping precinct in the city which began construction in 1964. It was completed and opened in 1966. This Brutalist monster is there today. The concrete facade is featureless with the exception of natures additions of grime and stray vegetation growing in the cracks appearing in the surface. A smell lingers over the site – not helped by the shelter over some parts and lack of air conditioning.

On the opposite side of the road came the Dale House development consisting of a 1970s redbrick multi storey car park with a highrise office structure above it. The complex also presented ground floor retail units which were snapped up by Toys R Us in more recent years.

Today the two edifices remain, and they continue to draw in a trickle of crowds though not at the scale of the early days. Toys R Us have moved from their store in the centre. This is no surprise as anyone could tell you that it was always empty and that the site was enormous. Dale House is slowly being emptied. The markets in Priory Square are slowly shutting down, mainly because of lack of business. Argos is there but deteriorating. It is a sad story.

Luckily, wonder-developers, Birmingham Alliance, have purchased the site and aim to develop it into one of the biggest developments witnessed in Birmingham since the Bull Ring (also by the same developers). Martineau Galleries is to be the second phase to Martineau Place and will feature a major mixed use conglomerate of buildings. Offices will front Corporation Street whilst a pedestrianised piazza in the centre will be the centre of the retail units. The residential units will be located above these and in a 110 metre tower which will dominate the Priory Queensway. A cultural building will front onto Moor Street.

The development will breathe much-needed life into the area and hopefully should begin construction in 2008 when the leases expire. It should be completed around 2011. What is better is that the developers acknowledge the religious history on the site through the priory and St Peter’s Church. Archaeology will play a large role in the construction of the new buildings.

So when you walk down Dale End grumbling at the site of spotty teens raving over the next big band to grace the stage at the Carling Academy, remember that this has happened for centuries and that this place has been a vibrant centre for Birmingham for centuries. The priory is reflected through names of the buildings and roads in the area but little known about so I hope you know a bit more today!





The Ikon Gallery

18 05 2007

IKON GalleryFor some crazy reason, I only recently discovered the Ikon Gallery. I often go to Brindleyplace but I rarely stray off into that area where the gallery stands – therefore I found it quite a pleasant surprise and I am sure I will visit it again to check out the architecture and square fronting it.

So, as usual, I have been doing some research into the building to try and understand what it’s about and why it’s there (it can’t have been built as a gallery so long ago – this was the centre of the industrial revolution in Birmingham).

After some extensive research, I discovered that this is yet another work of the great and prolific Martin & Chamberlain, who were commissioned by the Birmingham School Board to design a school building for Oozells Street. In 1877, the school opened and the Ikon Gallery is now set inside this building. I found it quite bewildering that a school was built in such an area. Oozells Street has since lost its vehicular access and is nothing more than a pedestrianised path passing in front of the gallery to Central Square from Broad Street. Maps of this area show that to the rear of the building was an iron works, to the right was an engine works and just next to the iron works was a pin factory. How on Earth did these children study?

It seems the reasoning behind the construction of the school was the density of the population of the area. This was not just crammed with factories and workshops but was also a dense housing area for the working class. The children had nowhere to be educated until this was constructed.

In 1889 Oozells Street Board School became the George Dixon Higher Grade School replacing a school in Bridge Street. The George Dixon School was partly an elementary and partly a Science School. It closed in 1906 when the George Dixon School moved to the site it presently occupies on City Road.

As industry in the area deteriorated due to the slowing pace of national manufacturing, the area fell into a state of neglect. The school building was boarded up and only a few unlucky families remained in the area with the factories.

Argent has breathed new life into the area with the Brindleyplace development and which has brought about the refurbishment of this building. The neo-gothic structure is now the focal point of this square and is a beautiful setting for the gallery which is now becoming an internationally renowned organisation. It is a miracle that this was saved from demolition, as many other Victorian schools have succumb to such a fate. I have a great respect for the building after reading the history.





Sutton Coldfield United Reformed Church

16 05 2007

Sutton URCSutton Coldfield URC is really a hidden gem. It is a small, quaint church situated in the centre of Sutton Coldfield – nestled between the popular shopping area of the Parade and Gracechurch and the historic and beautiful Sutton Coldfield Conservation area. The 1970s development of the Gracechurch Centre has done nothing to help it become more popular. It is now hidden behind a concrete monstrosity that consists of various shops, a multistorey car park and Knights House, a dull brick office block.

Construction was incredibly quick in those days, eventhough they did not have the same technology we have to do such as piledrivers and mechanical excavators. The foundation stone was laid in June 1879, and less than a year later, in April 1880, the building was completed. The building was different to what we see today. On the church tower next to the entrance, there was a spire which propelled the height. However, in 1960, the spire had become structurally unsafe and had to be removed. Additions to the church came in the form of a ladies parlour in 1902 (now church offices), a chancel and vestries in 1890, the removal of a parting wall between the nave and the transept which opened up the space in the church. In 1904, the church upgraded its lighting system from gas to electric. A new porch was built on the front of the church in 1911. In 1935, the church received a donation of oak panelling which were installed that year.

The church did have school buildings on Station Street, but the construction of the ring road, now Brassington Avenue, required the demolition of the buildings. The church took the opportunity to extend the building closer to the road to create a new area to worship. The church also took the opportunity to reclad the building, however, locals comically took to this and named it the ‘pink church’. Obviously unhappy with the image the church had, the committee removed the cladding and replaced it with the original brickwork in 1991.

Looking through the old photographs of Sutton Coldfield, it is impossible to make out this church in the early 1920s. The main feature on the church in the 1920s was the spire. It was so large and must have doubled the height of the church. It was only recently that I realised it had been removed, and what a terrible loss it was.

I often find myself making comparisons between the Gracechurch Centre with the Bull Ring. They both have a church near it’s centre that can easily become a focal point. The Bull Ring had the possibility of redeveloping, and that it did. Gracechurch is in a more problematic situation meaning that any redevelopment work would cause a lot of disruption to the town and cause alot of problems to businesses. So it remains that Sutton Coldfield URC has to remain hidden behind slabs of horrible concrete, away from the public view. And that, I find, is a real shame for a church that has so much potential.