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.





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.





Sutton Coldfield Town Hall: A relic of municipality in a royal borough

9 05 2007

Sutton town hall facadeSutton Coldfield is probably one of the most unique of Birmingham’s suburbs in that it seems so much like a separate entity to Birmingham. Well, up until 1974, it was. Sutton Town Hall is a beautiful structure standing as a reminder to all lifelong residents of Sutton Coldfield that they once governed themselves.

Sutton Coldfield is known still, despite being incorporated into the City of Birmingham, as the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield. It’s history is certainly connected to the monarchy through land purchases. Wooded areas in Sutton have fluctuated between Chase and Forest with the name Forest being given to those owned by the Royal Family. This is largely forgotten now and most of the wooded areas have either been destroyed through the ever expanding area or protected in the vast expanses of the time capsule that is Sutton Park, the largest urban nature reserve in Europe.

Sutton Clock towerSutton Coldfield really grew in the 19th Century. The advent of the railways played such a major role in the prosperity of the town (though Bishop Vesey’s activities as Bishop of Exeter were also a key factor in the prosperity of the town) permitting industries to establish in the area. Sutton Coldfield followed the example of Birmingham in industry, undertaking various manufacturing processes – however, it was not rewarded with that of Birmingham which expanded absorbing various other boroughs and towns within it’s vicinity.

Sutton Hall facadeThe town was obviously proud to be part of the railway culture. It constructed a major railway station with ornate decorations. To make sure all visitors felt welcomed in the town, a grand hotel was constructed on a small right of land rising above the train station. The Royal Hotel, again reflecting the royal history of the town, opened in 1865 and immediately finances became a major problem. This is understandable when you look at the architecture. The railway station in Sutton was small compared to many others and the hotel was huge – obviously expecting a huge flow of visitors. They splashed out on the architectural features and internal decor, ignoring the fact that this was a make or break situation. As times passed, it became clear it was going to break and in 1895, it closed. For a short time the building was occupied by the Sutton Coldfield Sanatorium but in December 1901 was sold for £9,000 to the Sutton Corporation to serve as Council Offices.

The Sutton Corporation took the opportunity to refurbish the building and extend it. The fire headquarters opened first and a few months later in 1906, the main offices opened to a major ceremony consisting of performances for various local artists. It was undoubtedly a major highlight in the Sutton Corporation’s history.

1974 spelled an end of an era for Sutton Coldfield as it was moved into the newly created West Midlands Metropolitan County and became a part of the City of Birmingham. Many residents opposed this in the worry that they would lose their identity. This they may have lost and Sutton did lose a lot of light as a result of Birmingham’s focus of investment on the city centre and not on the suburbs – Sutton is still feeling the effects and is only just starting to pick up in the last few years.

The Sutton Corporation disappeared and the hall lost all use as offices. A section was used for neighbourhood offices, and still does today, but there was still a huge portion of the building requiring maintenance and general TLC. Well, it was reverted back to an old usage that it had been once before; a theatre. Between World War I and World War II, it was used as a theatre for the decommissioned soldiers and proved successful until its later years.

The town hall now serves as a theatre, social function venue, wedding venue and as neighbourhood offices for the Sutton Coldfield parliamentary constituency and for the four wards which it is associated with. Productions hosted by the town hall include those by the two local selective grammar schools; Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School and Sutton Coldfield Girls’ Grammar School.

Architecturally, this building does appear a bit of a mess from the front. It is clear to distinguish the 1906 from the original hotel. But upon close analysis, a certain beauty can be taken from the building. The windows are large and mismatched creating an interesting pattern on the façade. The clock tower is beautiful and to think that it was once used as a fire tower for the fire headquarters sounds like a crime! The building does not appear as a council building at all, but it does appear to be of a municipal nature.

Features which may interest the least-interested of visitors include the retention of the Sutton Coldfield Coat of Arms above the entrance. The arms have been absorbed into the Birmingham Coat of Arms but they were not removed from the building. They are engraved into stone and are losing the defined edges after years of wear.

The building should remain to make a positive impact on the landscape and now stands as one of three points on the skyline of Sutton Coldfield – Holy Trinity Church, Sutton Town Hall and Sutton Coldfield television mast. I recommend you take a visit to this building, especially if a production is to be unveiled there. The interior décor is intricate to say the least – yet another indication of Sutton’s royal heritage?





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.





Birmingham town hall

5 05 2007

Birmingham Town Hall detailBirmingham Town Hall is one of Birmingham’s first real buildings. It is listed and is now an icon of Birmingham’s destroyed Victorian heritage.

Despite it’s name, it is in fact not a council meeting facility. In fact, it’s a concert venue. Well, it was and will be one again soon. The town hall has been around since the mid-1830s and was the work of none-other than the inventor of the Hansom Cab. It’s design is based upon that of a Greek temple and the sheer presence of the edifice impresses all. In the late 1900s, the building was closed following lack of maintenance and for a while it remained empty and unused. A multi-million pound restoration project commenced and through painstaking work, it was revitalised and given a new lease of life. Life it needed and Birmingham needed.

It now stands dominating the southwest of Victoria Square and the south of Chamberlain Square giving an iconic neighbour to the majestic council house. Hardcore sand blasting done in the most careful of conditions has revealed the very fabric of the building – Anglesey marble – in it’s greatest light. Before it was dirty. During it was covered in a large advertisement hoarding. After it was a spotless structure. It was even subject to the Complaints Choir as a result of the advertisements detracting from the architectural magnificence of the building.

Set to be opened formally in a two week long party in September, it is now symbolic of a history that Birmingham was all too ready to throw away in the 1960s. In many instances, it did.

And now for future generations, we can see the splendour of the building in a way that has not been achieved since 1836 following the work of another great architect who created England’s most iconic and administratively-prominent buildings – The Houses of Parliament.

It Brummies cannot be proud of this building, then they should be ashamed. If Brummies can’t even name the building, then they should not be classed as Brummies. That is a fact!