Archive for April, 2010

First Base Day Centre

Chloe Hobden from Camillin Denny Architects couldn’t have made my job any easier when I came to research Brighton Housing Trust’s First Base Day Centre on Montpelier Place recently.

Montpelier Place, between Lansdowne Road and Montpelier Terrace, is not a long stretch of road but it is a pretty one. One building of particular interest is the angular Montpelier Place Baptist Church which dates from 1967. Another is the Grade II* Listed St. Stephen’s Church which is home to First Base and soon to be subjected to major works.

Architects tend not to have time to act as architectural historians but it is best to approach sensitive restoration projects with a certain level of knowledge and, indeed, respect. It’s fair to point out that I rarely come across Chloe’s level of mastery and her careful research could only have improved the scheme.

St. Stephen’s Church actually began as a ballroom – but was located on an entirely different site! It was built by John Crunden in 1766 as the ballroom of the Castle Inn at the foot of North Street. It became King George IV’s private chapel in 1822 but was sold by Queen Victoria to the people of Brighton along with the rest of the Pavilion Estate in 1850. It faced demolition though when North Street was to be widened so was dismantled and rebuilt in its present location in 1852. It closed as a church in 1939.

The initial disappointment upon my arrival was not being able to use the grand front door. The cavernous space within easily made up for this despite acres of green, orange and blue paint which has been stained a variety of new shades by years of cigarette smoke. Although great work for the community goes on within (80-110 people use the resource daily), the interior is in urgent need of repair. Ivy growing through a number of window panes says it all really.

Chloe has essentially designed two fairly harmless structures which are to sit within the expanse of the main hall. The space currently feels overwhelmingly large whilst the facilities at the south end of the building appear cramped. The plan will solve both problems. A great deal of internal restoration work will be taking place and that means attending to cornicing repairs and a new paint scheme – celestial blue. Thankfully, the original front door is to be brought back into use.


69 Ship Street

Timothy Carder, author of the immensely popular Encyclopaedia of Brighton, wrote in 1990 that “Ship Street remains probably the most elegant street in Brighton”. I can see why.

Ship Street’s importance is reflected by the fact that it contains around 25 listed buildings including the Old Ship Assembly Rooms which has the coveted Grade II* status. No. 69 is a fine Grade II Listed building which I’ve often wondered about; not least because the date ‘1685’ has been detailed above its front door. Like many buildings on the road, it has been home to a number of solicitors, accountants and banks over the years but is today home to an advisory service for young people known as the YPC (Young People’s Centre).

At two storeys, No. 69 is lower than its neighbours but it does have rooms within the roof-space along with a large basement. Brick quoins which have been painted white act as bookends tightly holding together row upon row of knapped and squared flints. The authors of the recent Pevsner guide to Brighton & Hove suggest that the date above the entrance “may be accurate” whereas Carder points out that the building “has a façade more appropriate to the following century”. As the date has been painted – not engraved – onto the building, we will perhaps never know for sure.

The symmetry of the delightful façade suggests a simple interior but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Little remains in the way of historic features within though the authors of the recent Pevsner guide to Brighton & Hove note that the staircase is of “Late Georgian character”. The main building itself consists of a warren of rooms and there’s even more behind – a courtyard and large out-building at the rear. The courtyard provides views towards the huge Old Ship Assembly Rooms and also, intriguingly, across the deep foundations of a building site from which, I understand, a large extension to the Old Ship Hotel is due to rise shortly.

The YPC is just one of a number of services provided by the Brighton-based charity Impact Initiatives. Other key services include specialist vocational support and housing provision. See www.impact-initiatives.org.uk for details.

Before this piece gets published, Impact’s new offices at 19 Queen’s Road will have been opened by the Mayor of Brighton & Hove, Cllr Ann Norman. I wish the hard-working team the best of luck with the move.


Metropole Hotel

When the Metropole opened in 1890, it was the largest hotel outside the capital and, due to its size and colour, it stood out from its neighbours like a sore thumb.

The architect was Alfred Waterhouse who was responsible for the old Hove Town Hall. He also designed the Natural History Museum in London and Manchester Town Hall. Just earlier today, I was kindly shown around the Metropole’s many hidden areas by its Director of Business Development, Martijn Dresen, so that I could gather material for at least two columns on the behind-the-scenes areas. He even patiently answered my obscure questions!

Hilton Hotels is particularly responsible when it comes to the building’s heritage and a huge refurbishment of the premises was completed in 2007. Unfortunately, other owners have not shown the same level of respect.

A firm called AVP Industries applied to turn the old Bedford Hotel into a 14 storey block of flats just before it was destroyed by fire in 1964. Even taller flats were eventually built. Soon afterwards, AVP tried to replace the Norfolk Hotel with flats. That great building still stands at least. And it was AVP that bought the West Pier in 1965 and sought permission to demolish its famous pavilion. The following, therefore, will not surprise.

AVP bought the Metropole in 1959 and made a huge number of changes, mainly for the worse. The removal of the various rooftop delicacies which characterised the building was simply inexcusable. Although the addition of the conference halls at the rear has benefitted the local economy immensely, the construction of Sussex Heights over St. Margaret’s Church has turned out to be one of the worst architectural crimes ever committed in Brighton.

I’ve often assumed, wrongly it turns out, that extra floors were added to the front of the building. Without the main spire, various gables and assorted chimneys, the building is actually lower at the front and it was further back that the residential flats were added. The Starlit Room restaurant in fact replaced the spire in the centre of the building but its glass and concrete walls are no match for Waterhouse’s brick and terracotta. It opened in 1961, closed in 1975, and is today a conference suite known as the Chartwell Room. The views which it provides really are something to behold but I would still swap it for that bronze spire in an instant.


Hove Town Hall

The destruction of Hove Town Hall on 9th January 1966 by fire was felt deeply by the people of Hove. Indeed, it is still mentioned today. But it wasn’t just a much-loved local building that was lost, it was a treasure of national importance.

The architect of the red-brick, terracotta and Portland stone structure was Sir Alfred Waterhouse, one of the great Victorian Gothic revivalists. Given that Waterhouse was also responsible for the Natural History Museum in London, Manchester Town Hall and the Metropole Hotel in Brighton, its importance cannot be emphasised enough.

Local architect John Wells-Thorpe was appointed to design a new building and carried out the imaginative task of flying a group of dignitaries from the specially-formed Civic Buildings Committee to Holland to see the best of what had been built there. Hilversum’s town hall of 1934, designed by Willem Marinus Dudok, was on the group’s list and its influence on the final result in Hove can clearly be seen.

The new building grew from the old site which had been enlarged by demolishing buildings on Tisbury and Norton Roads. The door numbers on what are now the first houses on those streets give some idea of what was removed. Concrete clad with Derbyshire spar and acres of bronzed Spectrafloat glass famously dominate Hove Town Hall today. It opened in 1974 when a very specific type of architecture was in vogue. That popularity reached an all-time low several years ago but a revival seems to be on the horizon. Art Deco architecture, now immensely popular, has just been through a similar process after all.

Much of the criticism levelled at Hove Town Hall today is a little unfair as a number of the building’s best features have actually been removed over the years. Concrete, whether its clad or not, isn’t the friendliest of materials yet the wondrous cascade of tropical plants which provided a pleasant welcome are no longer in place. Despite the size of the building compared to its predecessor, a large undercroft fronting Church Road and a courtyard with a Japanese garden were turned into offices. A tunnel even exists which provides access to the car park opposite – but it is no longer used.

John says that he “wasn’t seeking to be modern for superficially stylistic reasons.” Hopefully he’ll chuckle when I point out that every architect says something along those lines to explain something controversial.