No longer unloved but often still without a purpose

We have stopped pulling sound old buildings down but we have not found a way to bring them back into use, says Rhys David

The Old Library in The Hayes is now recognized as one of Cardiff’s (relatively few) architectural gems so it is hard to believe there have been times in the not too distant past when its demolition has been suggested. This makes it an appropriate location for an exhibition (until October 29th) celebrating the Victorian Society’s 50 years of fighting successfully and, sadly, often unsuccessfully to secure recognition and preservation of the monuments of that golden age of British industrial and imperial growth.

The exhibition contains only one example from Wales of threatened buildings – the villas opposite the New Theatre in Park Place which thankfully were refurbished rather than pulled down as originally proposed. Most of the photos in the exhibition are of buildings in the great towns and cities of the industrial north and of London – a sorry catalogue of mills, churches, schools, mechanics institutes, town and country houses of the newly wealthy, theatres and public baths, together with that icon of 1950-60s vandalism, the Euston Arch. Many fine buildings, too, were saved as a result of the society’s efforts, most notably Euston’s near neighbour, St. Pancras station, now reborn as the terminus for Eurostar services to the Continent.

But while Wales does not figure prominently in the list, largely because Victorian wealth produced fewer monuments than in other parts of the country, it is worth recalling some of the fine buildings that have been lost in Cardiff alone since World War Two. The old fire station in Westgate Street had a fine classical frontage but when the service moved to a modern industrial shed opposite the prison in Adamsdown, its old headquarters was replaced by a car park in  the signature design of the 1960s, rough concrete panels hung from a steel frame. Its frightful pair is at the opposite end of Quay Street where it helps to ruin the largely Victorian character of newly pedestrianised High Street.

Capel Ebenezer, the mother church of Welsh Independents in Cardiff rarely finds a place these days even in volumes about the Welsh chapel but this white stuccoed, classically proportioned building with its fine wooden interior was  as good an example as could be found of its genre. Marks & Spender swallowed it whole fifty years ago.

The enormous Wood Street Congregational church was another fine building which if it had survived  might well have become a concert hall for a Welsh orchestra  – a Welsh equivalent of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Is anyone likely to shed a tear for its successor, Southgate House, if a latter day Fred Dibnah had to be called in a few decades from now?

Like Wood Street chapel, the Cory Hall in Station Terrace appeared to have outlived its usefulness but it had historic associations, providing the platform from which many of Britain’s political leaders of the 19th and early 20th century, including Lloyd George, addressed great political rallies. Its demolition was only one element in the bland reshaping of an important corner of Cardiff. The imposing Queen Street station, the terminus of the famous Taff Vale Railway, was demolished about the same time as Euston and at the entrance to Queen Street itself buildings of character, such as the Dutch Café with its Dutch style beams and plaster sculpted heads, were pulled down to make way for the Anytown architecture of the Capitol Centre.

Schools, too, have disappeared. The original redbrick Cardiff High School for Boys building in Newport Road included a fine wooden galleried hall around which classrooms were clustered on two floors. At its heart was a pillared quadrangle. This fine example of municipal educational provision has been  replaced by what can only be described as utilitarian primary school buildings. Canton High School, it is worth noting, was saved, to become Chapter Arts Centre and has continued to receive investment to give it a continuing role within the community.

Yet, if we have lost some fine buildings it is equally sad to see how difficult Cardiff finds it to bring back into use some of those that have managed to last into the 21st century. It is hard to keep track of the number of schemes proposed for the Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square, which we are repeatedly told was the site of the world’s first million pound deal. Perhaps the latest will finally bring the building back into vibrant use.  Many of the other old commercial buildings in the dock remain in a derelict state as a constant contrast – and rebuke – to the flashy modernity of the flats, shops, and public buildings that surround them.

It is puzzling, to the layman at least, that no hotel group – a niche operator such as Malmaison perhaps – has moved in to reclaim the now very sad Cory’s Building and adjoining Docks Post Office, directly in line of sight of the Wales Millennium Centre. Also visible through the Stones windows in the Centre is a building reputedly designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the old Bute Street station. Despite its relatively small scale this fine building has languished in a sad state of disrepair for years, its roof now a haven for buddleia.

Even in Cardiff’s thriving city centre there are buildings that are crying out for attention. High Street and its surrounding arcades (the remnants of a medieval street pattern) have been paved and given new street furniture as well as gaining a new marketing name – the Castle Quarter. In nearby Duke Street the fine brass frontage and curved glass of the old Spiridion opticians has languished semi-derelict since Jessops, the photographic specialist, moved out.

Close to the station one of the first buildings the visitor by train will see is the derelict Duke of York hotel and the adjoining still apparently sound but vacant Custom House. Heading from the station into Westgate Street, the old county court adjoining the old Post Office also remains unused.

Others will be able to think of different buildings that gave a strong sense of place but have now gone, not just in Cardiff but elsewhere in Wales, though it has to be said it is now much less likely than 30 or 40 years ago that important buildings will disappear in future. Perhaps, however, the Victorian Society could be persuaded to put on another exhibition devoted exclusively to Wales that would reflect on some of the mistakes of the past and highlight some of the challenges for the future. Maybe, too, our planners and architects could give some thought, too, to the steps we need to take to ensure that new uses can be found for some of our sadly neglected historic town centre buildings.

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA. A former journalist with the Financial Times, he writes on business and economic issues.

One thought on “No longer unloved but often still without a purpose

  1. There is a danger that the current recession will put paid to imaginative thinking. On the other hand, we may gain from having to turn away from grandiose modern developments towards sensitive, small scale improvements to our towns and cities. That way we might bring some of these old buildings back into use and rekindle that regard for the the public realm that is characteristic of the best European cities.

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