The Old Fire Station, Manchester
Have you ever admired a building? One you’ve never been inside? One that could be considered past its usefulness but has the power to intrigue?
There’s a beautiful building near my place of work, an old fire station I had noticed for a long time, but until recently had not considered in terms of its history or use today. I simply accepted it for what it was on a superficial level and moved on. Each time I passed, I would notice more and more details – the coroner’s sign over the door, the emblems in tile set into the walls, the glazed wooden gates, the multiple towers – and at some point recently, I fell in love.
It never ceases to amaze me how much information you can find online – a Google search on this building brings back so many links, each offering more insight into this building: its history, its uses, its owners. Wikipedia gives a good all round history of the place, and a conservation management plan produced by architectural firm Purcell Miller Tritton details the interior of the building, something I was unable to do due to access difficulties. The report gives a more detailed background to the building’s design and build, alongside the issues the current owners face today to simply keep the building standing. (Unfortunately, the links are not available in one file, but are in several smaller pdfs: 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6)
For me, this piece is about the images, the shape and materials used, rather than just the history, but researching its history has helped to put the rest into context. That beautiful row of double doors, in various stages of decay and with patched glazing, are the doors for the horse drawn fire pumps: you can imagine them being opened quickly to release the appliances to fight a fire somewhere in the city. The wooden door with the fading paint once served as the entrance to the coroner’s court, not a place of happy memories but necessary all the same.
The Fire Station, on London Road near Piccadilly in Manchester was opened in 1906 on an unusually shaped piece of land, giving it boundaries on 4 roads.
The building was designed by Woodhouse, Willoughby and Langham, who won the competition to design it in 1902. In addition to the fire station itself, the building housed a police station, an ambulance station, a bank, coroner’s court and, oddly, a gas meter testing station – the court and meter station replacing the proposed public library and gym. The fire station operated from this building for 80 years and housed not only the firemen but their families in the on-site flats, alongside the horses and the appliances, which were replaced a few years after the site opened with new motorised fire engines. In a display of forethought, the designers had allowed enough room for the replacement motorised vehicles to be housed in the same stalls with no additional work.
It was in constant use, either as an operating fire station or a training centre, until its closure in 1986, as it became more and more expensive to operate and maintain. The building is seen as being of historical significance, and is Grade II listed by English Heritage.
An Uncertain Future
The fire station was bought in 1993 by Britannia Hotels with plans to use the exterior and build on it to create a 4 star hotel, although the coroner’s court, the last remaining original function of the building, stayed open until it left the complex in 1998.
Even after the Britannia group applied for and won planning permission for a 227 bed, 4 star hotel in June 2010, Manchester City Council issued a Compulsory Purchase Order in August of the same year. Britannia objected to this, even after the City council started to ask for bids for a development partner, and won the right to a public hearing in April 2011. On 29th November 2011, the Department for Communities and Local Government rejected the CPO, and allowed Britannia to continue with its development plans - although to date, looking down on the site, little has been done.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Do we get yet another hotel in an already overcrowded marketplace? Will the plans Britannia have for the site mean a longer life for the old fire station, or simply alter and degrade an otherwise stately building?
Watch this space…
All images are courtesy of Chris Jones