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 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.





Baskerville House: Testament to one man’s great ambitions

12 05 2007

Baskerville HouseBaskerville 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.





Belmont Row Blues

7 05 2007

Belmont BeforeBelmont Row was and is not the most popular of streets in Birmingham. It holds very little importance to its name. But it does have history – a history rarely told and little known.

Belmont Row is in the industrial backwaters of city centre Birmingham. Warehouses and workshops are dotted around the place offering little value socially, morally, economically and architecturally. But there is one building that always makes its presence known whether you are travelling to or from Birmingham New Street station towards Curzon Junction on the railway. Just look north and you’ll see an unusual tower poking above the conglomerate of corrugated metal roofed warehouses. Red brick with a strange dark top. That tower is the candle of the building which this posts directs its subject.

The usage of this tower is unknown but it most likely was a ventilation shaft or chimney stack for the building it is attached to. The Belmont Row warehouse is a locally listed council owned building that contrasts itself to the other buildings on the street. With arched windows and detailed arched entrance, it does hold some form of architectural beauty though it just looks out of place.

I, myself, know very little of the building. But I do know that it was built with the sole purpose of being the furniture factory for the Co-op (more recently renamed in a modernising scheme to The Co-operative). It was obviously a factory building, though the Victorian elaboracy does not indicate such, as a result of the engravings and extrusions decorating the entrance archway “Work people and Goods Entrance”.

I can’t find any information on the architect or the year/ date it was built but I suppose it doesn’t matter when you just admire the grandeur of the gables and arched windows.

Belmont AfterWell, maybe I should have changed everything I have just written to present tense because disaster has struck – not once, but twice. The first blow came on January 11th, 2007 when, in a suspected arson attack, 75% of the building was damaged or destroyed by fire. The loss resulted in seven arched windows and one of the two precious gables. The roof collapsed beginning in the area where the workers and goods entrance is. The weather did no favours too and it struck with another blow. Just one week later on January 18th, 2007, high winds which had battered the country for a short while caused the front façade to collapse in on itself due to the lack of structural support the building received soon after the fire was extinguished.

And now, as the building’s site is being cleared to prevent any more damage, it seems it’s life is over. It may seem all too convenient that the building has been destroyed when a major regeneration scheme dubbed as the next Brindleyplace is set to begin this year. Clearance of many buildings has begun and we will see the entire road layout changed. So, we won’t just witness the loss of one building, but an entire roadmap.