Archive for March, 2005

King Alfred Leisure Centre

Three consortiums responded to a brief set by Brighton and Hove City Council to design a sports centre and flat development on the King Alfred site on the Hove seafront. The Karis/ING partnership with architect Frank Gehry saw off designs from Wilkininson Eyre and Richard Rogers to win the contract. Gehry’s early designs included towers up to 38 storeys in height which has since been reduced to a still totally unacceptable 19 storeys. Recent photographs of Brad Pitt gluing together the latest model of what could be built show how desperate the Council must be to force through their plans for six hundred flats on this postage stamp-sized piece of land.

In 1939, a swimming centre was built to replace the nearby Medina Baths. It was built as Hove Marina but was immediately requisitioned at the outbreak of war by the RNVR as a training facility. It was commissioned as HMS King Alfred and during the war, 22,500 officers from all over the empire were trained in the building. I recently discovered that my great-uncle, Robert Millar, is one of those officers. The name stuck and it was re-opened as a sports centre in August 1946 by Admiral Layton.

The layout of the sports centre has changed over the years. Even the main pool has been moved from its original position. Tunnels were constructed to link the underground car park to the leisure complex. With few cars around at the time, it seems remarkable that there had been the foresight to build so many spaces. My earliest memory of the King Alfred is getting thrown out after going down the waterslides with my brother and friends at the same time (very much against the rules!). The waterslides are no longer in operation and the building is looking tired. It is without doubt deserved of replacement. But with what though?

Josh Arghiros, boss of Karis, and Piers Gough, the Brighton-based architect advising Gehry, certainly do have vision. I also have every faith that internationally acclaimed Gehry will produce a unique and beautiful design by the time a planning application is submitted. Fault lies with the Council in ignoring the local community’s cries of, “All we wanted was a new sports centre”. Using Brad Pitt as a publicity tool won’t convince anybody to change their minds, including me. Now, if only they had used Kelly Brook…that would be a different story!

Portslade Manor

I must apologise to the residents of ‘the old village’ area of Portslade for I am about to spoil your secret. Easthill House, Loxdale, Portslade Lodge, Portslade Manor and Whychcote seem to be forgotten amongst the bustle of Brighton yet these magnificent mansions relax behind their flint walls, happy that they’re now free to age gracefully with threats of redevelopment now focused on other areas of the city.

The old Portslade Manor was demolished some time before 1840 and was a Norman house dating back to the 12th century. The oldest recorded owner is the Earl of Surrey who gave it to his illegitimate son, Rainald de Warenne. Such manors are extremely rare in this country so the ruins are of national importance. They are a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Grade II* Listed Building. The ‘new’ manor on Drove Road, built in 1807, is a bow fronted Georgian property with an unpainted stuccoed façade and is situated next to St. Nicolas’s Church and the old ruins.

The building was privately owned until 1904 when the nuns of the Order of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, whose benefactor was a Miss Kathleen Nelson, took up residence and the house became known as St. Marye’s Convent. It became a home for women with learning difficulties during the 1960s and there were over one hundred women in residence in 1972. The number of nuns gradually fell and the building was sold to Sussex Emmaus in 1996 for around £500,000. The grounds are surprisingly extensive for a town centre site and the nuns’ graveyard and wildlife sanctuary, reached by an under-road tunnel, are particularly fascinating.

Emmaus (named after the town where two disciples met the resurrected Christ and received hope and purpose) is a charity that provides work and a home for the long-term homeless and unemployed. There are currently around forty residents of the centre and jolly nice they are too. The café and giant second-hand furniture warehouse are definitely well worth a visit. I love the place, but then again how can I resist a decent fry-up and furniture bargain? Sorry again Portslade, for spoiling your well-kept secrets.

Call Emmaus on 426470.

Kemp Town Station

A long thin park running behind the gardens on the west side of Bonchurch Road and a giant gated hole in the chalk face at the back of Keepsafe Storage’s car park behind the bingo hall on Eastern Road were the clues that led me to the old Kemp Town railway line. The two independent clues turned out to be connected (literally) being the two entry points for a rather fascinating disused nearly 1km long rail tunnel running from Kemp Town to Elm Grove.

Work commenced on the expensive but short Kemp Town line in 1866. Opened in 1869, it was built by the company behind the London-Brighton line to block rivals building a London-Kemp Town line. Trains ran from Kemp Town Station, through the tunnel, behind Bonchurch Road, on a viaduct over Lewes Road, and then along the Lewes-Brighton track to Brighton Station. The station building was a similar design to that of Hove Station. It closed to passengers in 1933 after trade had dwindled but handled goods such as coal until 1971. At this time, various proposals were put forward for alternative uses such as turning the station into a railway museum.

The decision to demolish the Victorian station and put the site to industrial use was an awful one and has even made 7th place on Dr Anthony Seldon’s top ten architectural mistakes of the city (Brighton Centre/Kingswest made 1st). An industrial estate is simply not good use of city centre land. The site is now part grotesque Freshfield Industrial Estate, part bingo hall car park, and vans are stored along the length of the passageway. The line was grassed over behind Bonchurch Road to make a public park and the viaduct over Lewes Road was dismantled in sections.

The photograph shows the opening in the storage centre car park to the tunnel. History is quickly forgotten and I would imagine that many of the residents living above the passageway are blissfully unaware of what lies below, which is just as well I suppose. A model train emerging from a mock tunnel on the nearby Gala bingo hall serves as a sad reminder of what once was.

Grand Hotel

Sorry to suddenly come over all serious, but Brighton & Hove is currently under attack from tall buildings. Planning applications are lurking in the gloom for projects at the King Alfred, Brighton Station and the Marina. Many people, including myself, are afraid, and rightly so. Architecturally, it’s the 1960s all over again. Don’t we ever learn?
It’s now hard to believe, but the Grand Hotel was once the tallest structure in Brighton but I can’t imagine that I would have complained back then. The London architect, John Whichcord, designed the hotel in the Italianate style and the foundation stone was laid in 1862. Three and a half million bricks later, the doors opened in 1864. Contemporary descriptions refer to it as a ‘cyclopean pile’ and its lifts as ‘ascending omnibuses’. The luxurious interior consisted of fifteen miles of wallpaper, six miles of gas pipes and twelve miles of bell wire at a final cost of £150,000.
The Grand is internationally renowned for its gleaming white façade. Sorry, the Grand WAS internationally renowned for its gleaming white facade. Quite why it has just been painted yellow is beyond me; possibly to help mask the ever pervasive rust from the iron balconies. The hotel was of course severely damaged by a terrorist bomb on 12th October 1984 and it was after the attack that the main extension to the west took place although it has been extended several times over the years. Symmetrical it may no longer be though the overall affect is still quite pleasing to the eye.
Living locally, it has never made sense for me to stay a night there even though it is the City’s only 5-star hotel. The Presidential Suite costs £1160 per night so any rich Regency-propertied ladies out there please call me…
Call the Grand on 224300.

157 Kingsway

You can always be sure that there will be something interesting behind a tall brick wall. However, these bricks aren’t your typical red house bricks. These silvery-brown specials were imported especially from Italy and came individually wrapped.

157 Kingsway on the Hove seafront, originally known as 1 Princes Crescent, was dreamt up in 1934 by Ian Stuart Miller, an eccentric iron millionaire from Newcastle. He came to Hove in 1923 and soon began investing in local businesses such as a cinema on Denmark Villas.

He loved the Art Deco style of the day which led to him employing the architect Robert F. Crombie. Born in 1887, Crombie had listed to his credit over fifty cinemas with names such as Plaza, Regent and Ritz. He also designed the beautiful Streatham Ice Rink where I used to skate as a child.

The villa was completed in 1935 and picking Hove as its location was seen as a particularly philanthropic gesture. It was the time of the depression and unemployment was high. The accommodation consisted of two master bedrooms, five guest rooms, three rooms for the servants and a flat above the garage for the chauffeur. The most advanced features of the day were installed such as electrically heated panels, concealed cove lighting and an illuminated fountain. The leftover bricks were buried in Denmark Villas.

The building is now owned by the Masonic Benevolent Institution, has been tastefully extended and is used as a care home. It is possible to see this building during Open House week. For those who can’t wait, I can confirm that it is possible to peer over the wall. However, I deny that I have ever tried doing so!