London Road Fire Station, Manchester
|London Road Fire Station|
View from junction of London Road and Whitworth Street
|Architectural style||Edwardian baroque architecture|
|Town or city||Manchester|
|Completed||27 September 1906|
|Client||Manchester City Council|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Messrs. Woodhouse, Willoughby & Langham (Manchester)|
|Other designers||J J Millson, G W Parker|
London Road Fire Station is a former fire station in Manchester, England. It was opened in 1906, on a site bounded by London Road, Whitworth Street, Minshull Street South and Fairfield Street. Designed in the Edwardian Baroque style by Woodhouse, Willoughby and Langham in red brick and terracotta, it cost £142,000 to build. It was given a Grade II* listed building rating in 1974.
In addition to a fire station, the building housed a police station, an ambulance station, a bank, a Coroner's Court, and a gas-meter testing station. The fire station operated for 80 years, housing the firemen, their families, and the horse drawn appliances that were replaced by motorised vehicles a few years after its opening. It was visited by royalty in 1942, in recognition of the brigade's wartime efforts. After the war it became a training centre and in 1952 became the first centre equipped to record emergency calls. However the fire station became expensive to maintain and after council reorganisation decline set in.
The building was the headquarters of the Manchester Fire Brigade until the brigade was replaced by the Greater Manchester Fire Service in 1974. The fire station closed in 1986, since when it has been largely unused despite several redevelopment proposals. It was placed on English Heritage's Buildings at Risk Register in 2001 and in 2010 Manchester City Council served a compulsory purchase order on the fire station's owner, Britannia Hotels.
In 1897, the Manchester Watch Committee was considering a replacement for its fire station on Jackson's Row. A five-man sub-committee was set up and recommended a site on Newton Street. In 1899, George William Parker who had designed fire stations in Bootle and Belfast, and been referred to as the "architect of the world's fire service" was appointed Chief of the Manchester Fire Brigade and asked his opinion on the proposal. Parker reported that the site on Newton Street was unsuitable and submitted plans for a fire station on a site bounded by London Road, Whitworth Street, Minshull Street South and Fairfield Street.
Parker's proposal was for a 7-bay fire station on a site more than double the size of the one proposed on Newton Street. The choice of London Road was influenced by its proximity to a development of warehouses on Whitworth Street and Princess Street. Parker convinced the city council to choose his proposals rather than those on Newton Street.
A competition, with prizes of £300, £200 and £100 (equivalent to £27,000, £18,000 and £9,000 as of 2014) was organised to design the new fire station. The competition drew interest from across the country, attracting 25 entries. The winning entry was by John Henry Woodhouse, George Harry Willoughby and John Langham, a team of local architects. Their design was based closely on Parker's initial plans. The fire station was described by Fire Call magazine as "the finest fire station in this round world" before construction started.
The fire station was built between 1904 and 1906 at a cost of £142,000 (equivalent to £12.9 million as of 2014). The building's substructure and foundations were built by C. H. Normanton of Manchester. The superstructure was built by Gerrard's of Swinton at a cost of £75,360. It was faced with red brick and terracotta by Burmantofts, a common choice for early 20th-century buildings in Manchester as it was cleanable and resisted the pollution and acid rain caused by local industry. Other notable Manchester buildings from this era making use of terracotta include the Midland Hotel, the Refuge Assurance Building, the University's The Sackville Street Building (formerly known as UMIST main building) and the Victoria Baths. The building's exterior featured sculptural models by John Jarvis Millson representing the functions of the building such as justice, fire and water.
The building had stained glass windows and the interior was decorated with glazed bricks, similar to other public buildings of this era in the city, such as the Victoria Baths. The similarities suggest the influence and adoption of a standard design by Henry Price's newly created City Architect's Department.
The building was opened on 27 September 1906 by the Lord Mayor of Manchester James Herbert Thewlis. In addition to the fire station, the building housed a police station on Whitworth Street, an ambulance station on Minshull Street South, a branch of William Deacon's bank at the corner of London Road and Fairfield Street,< a Coroner's Court, and a gas-meter testing station on London Road. The coroner's court and gas-meter testing station replaced the proposed public library and gym.
The fire station contained flats for 32 firemen and their families and 6 single firemen. Facilities included a laundry, gym, billiards room and children's play-areas. The complex contained stables for the horses that pulled the fire appliances, and a blacksmith's workshop. There were electric bells and lights to alert firemen to an alarm, poles to expedite the firemen's response, suspended harnesses to allow the horses to be harnessed quickly, and electric doors. The fire station was also designed with foresight; the appliance bays were made wide enough to take motorised fire appliances. The station's first motorised fire appliance arrived in 1911, five years after it opened.
The building featured a 130-foot (40 m) hose tower and a ventilation system designed by Musgrave and Company to prevent the odour from the horses' stalls entering the firemens' living quarters. Fresh air was drawn in through the top of the fire station's tower, purified and circulated around the building. When the air reached the end of the circuit, in the stalls, it was extracted from the building. The system meant that the air in the building was replaced every 10 minutes.
During the Second World War the basement was converted into an air-raid shelter and an extension built in the yard to provide more space in the control room. The Fire Service was nationalised in 1941, and London Road became the headquarters of Division C. In recognition of the fire fighters' efforts King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the fire station in 1942.
After the war the Manchester Fire Brigade was privatised and reorganised. London Road Fire Station was restored as the headquarters of the brigade and became the only fire station serving the city centre. A fire service training centre was established in 1948. At about the same time, the ambulance station closed and was converted into the fire brigade's workshops. The control room was modernised in 1952, becoming the first in the country with equipment to record emergency calls.
The interior of the building was refurbished in 1955. The exterior had been cleaned every year since the fire station opened, and as a result was still in pristine condition when the building celebrated its Golden Jubilee on 6 October 1956.
By the end of the 1960s maintenance was becoming increasingly expensive, and the building's design ill-suited to modern fire appliances. Plans to replace the fire station were put on hold pending the formation of the Greater Manchester Fire Service.
The building was Grade II* listed in 1974, the same year that the replacement of the Manchester Fire Brigade by the Greater Manchester Fire Service precipitated the relocation of the brigade's headquarters to a new facility in Swinton. As part of the reorganisation, London Road became the headquarters of the brigade's "E Division", with the station's control room responsible for two divisions covering the City of Manchester, the Metropolitan Borough of Stockport and Tameside.
The reorganisation meant the number of appliances was reduced, until only three remained at the station. The control room at London Road closed in 1979, replaced by a single computerised control room at brigade headquarters in Swinton.
In the same year, following the establishment of Greater Manchester Police and a reorganisation of policing in the city, the police station in the building also closed. The closure left the ground floor on the Whitworth Street side empty. The last tenants of the bank, a firm of solicitors, and the fire brigade's workshops, also vacated the building at about the same time.
In 1984 construction work began on a £2.4 million, 4.5-acre (1.8 ha) replacement in Thompson Street and in 1985 the old London Road Fire Station was brought within the Whitworth Street Conservation Area. In 1986 the fire service left London Road for its new fire station, London Road Fire Station closed and the building was sold.
Dereliction and redevelopment
After the sale the building was mainly used for storage whilst planning applications to convert it into a hotel were made in 1986, 1993, and 2001, with varying degrees of success. The Coroner's Court was the last to vacate the premises, in 1998.
In 2001, the building was placed on English Heritage's Buildings at Risk Register. By 2004 it was in steep decline, and momentum was building for the fire station's owner, Britannia Hotels, to act.
In February 2006, Argent, developers of nearby Piccadilly, published a proposal to lease the building from Britannia Hotels and transform it into a music and arts venue. Under the proposals the building would have contained recording studios, a private club, a music academy, a 100-bed boutique hotel and an archive. Manchester City Council backed the plans and refused to rule out a compulsory purchase order (CPO) if the owner did not act to redevelop the building.
Britannia Hotels branded Argent's plans "unworkable" and made a counter-proposal to turn the building into a company headquarters, 200-bed hotel, and fire station museum. A planning application was promised by March 2006, but by May none had been made. After meetings between the city council and Britannia Hotels, work was carried out by February 2007 to make the building watertight, and in autumn 2007 a further general proposal was made by Britannia to convert the building into a hotel.
In July 2008, Britannia Hotels appointed Purcell Miller Tritton to draw up plans to convert the building into a hotel but none had been produced by May 2009. Although an application was promised by the end of October 2009, the city council had lost faith in Britannia Hotels' commitment to redevelopment of the site.
The city council was concerned that the state of the fire station was limiting further regeneration of the Piccadilly area, a problem magnified by a proposed government complex dubbed "Whitehall of the North" on the former Mayfield Railway Station site and a reconfiguration of Manchester Piccadilly railway station. The run-down fire station would be the first impression of Manchester for many visitors, therefore the city council set a deadline of July 2009 for further progress on redevelopment.
Britannia Hotels produced another proposal in July 2009 to convert the fire station into a hotel, featuring a 15-storey tower in the courtyard. Britannia promised a planning application by the end of October 2009, but when the October deadline passed with no application having been submitted the city council's Chief Executive recommended issuing a CPO to allow the building to be redeveloped by another developer. A subsequent meeting of the city council on 27 January 2010 approved a request by the council executive for up to £5.25 million to cover the costs associated with the fire station's acquisition. Britannia Hotels responded by pledging to make a new proposal by February 2010, rendering the CPO unnecessary.
Britannia eventually submitted a planning application to turn the fire station into a 227-bed 4-star hotel, in June 2010. In July 2010, Britannia's plan won the support of The Victorian Society, which praised the proposed conversion; Manchester City Council responded that its intention was to continue with the CPO. Reports suggested that the council was preparing to serve the order on 22 June 2010 if Britannia had not made significant progress in making the building watertight by 11 June 2010. The city council issued a CPO on 5 August 2010.
Despite Britannia's plans being approved by the Planning and Highways Committee on 16 September 2010, the council continued to pursue a CPO. The council started to solicit bids for a development partner for the building in January 2011. However, Britannia's objection to the CPO led to a public inquiry in April 2011. On 29 November 2011, the Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed that as a result of the public inquiry, the CPO had been rejected.
Despite a guarantee by Britannia at the inquiry to proceed with the development, by February 2012 Britannia had reconsidered its plans. In a letter to English Heritage, Britannia stated the proposed scheme was unsustainable for the foreseeable future. Britannia requested to return discussion to the rejected tower plan. Both English Heritage and the city council expressed their disappointment at the news. The city council made an offer to buy the building at market value.
Campaign to save the site
In late 2012, a local resident in the immediate neighbourhood around the fire station, singlehandedly launched an online petition to save London Road Fire Station. Adam Prince walked past the building every day and, frustrated and angered at the decaying state of the building, felt obliged to act. His online petition quickly gathered momentum through Twitter at @ManFireStation and as the number of signatories reached close to 2,000, Prince called a public meeting.
The public meeting took place in February 2013 at the Mechanics Institute. It was attended by around 150 local residents, who turned out to hear a number of expert speakers - a local architect, a representative of English Heritage, the curator of Greater Manchester Fire Museum Bob Bonner (himself a former firefighter and resident at London Road Fire Station), an expert on the legal issues around compulsory purchase orders for listed buildings and Councillor Kevin Peel (Lab. City Centre Ward). A number of those attending decided to form an action group called Friends of London Road Fire Station to draw attention to the urgency of saving the site. The Friends is a registered community trust (registered July 2013) and is busy with a range of activities aimed at raising public awareness and pushing for action. It organised a pop-up art exhibition in August 2013 at Piccadilly Place, adjacent to the fire station, which was well attended over the four days it was open. A number of prominent local artists, including Mancsy donated paintings and prints of the former fire station to sell to raise funds.
As soon as Britannia Hotels announced its intention in September 2013 to apply to Manchester City Council for extensions to the current planning permissions, the Friends prepared a lengthy formal submission to the Planning Committee to lodge their objections. By now, the Friends were garnering a lot of attention in the local media, with regular coverage in the Manchester Evening News, for example, and invitations to appear on BBC Radio Manchester. At the same time, they applied to see historic information at the council, under the Freedom of Information Act, that showed the council had failed to exercise its legal powers to stop the building decaying further, by not serving orders such as urgent repairs notices on Britannia. Nor had it undertaken a proper survey of the building since some years before the CPO attempt.
The Friends' rising public profile had by now put considerable pressure on Manchester City Council, which published their submission in full in the planning application documents and made reference to the objections in their own assessment. The hearing on 21 November 2013 was adjourned so that councillors could make a site visit to inspect the fire station, although it later transpired it would bean external inspection only. Britannia's application was heard in full at the Planning Committee's next meeting on 19 December 2013. In reference to Britannia's own admission that the hotel scheme was "financially unviable", in their oral objection the Friends said: “The planning report explains [its] historic and strategic significance. We are outraged that the applicant has never engaged in any meaningful public consultation. Although this proposal doesn’t represent our best aspirations for the fire station, in many ways it is the situation rather than the application that we oppose. We recognise that the planning system doesn’t allow for this but the situation is so dire that the status quo must be publicly challenged at every opportunity.”
The permissions were extended on technical grounds for a further three years, although four councillors absented themselves from the vote, citing conflicts of interests, and one abstained and one voted against, meaning exactly half the 12 councillors approved the applications. Afterwards, Friends' chair Emma Curtin said: "Nothing has changed – it’s Groundhog Day all over again as the cycle of Britannia applying for planning permission then doing nothing begins once again."
The Friends' current focus is on gathering ideas for sympathetic and imaginative redevelopment of the building, with an emphasis on community space, and lobbying the council to use its legal powers to prevent further decay and make a fresh CPO.
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