“Loss of local identity is a powerful factor that can influence the social and economic wellbeing of a town. By preserving the fabric of distinctive historic buildings, particularly those as prominent as former department stores, residents can recover a sense of connection and continuity … The loss of these buildings concerns not just their inherent architectural and historic value, but the shape of daily life” (Departing Stores, 2022, p12-13)
Readers of this blog will be aware of the successful campaign to protect and save the Three Ships murals in Hull. These wonderful pieces are iconic components of a place and their loss would have been place vandalism at its worst. The murals were once part of a department store building. Not knowing the store, I can make little comment about its merits, but department stores were often very well designed and built stores, architecturally interesting and important and became a key feature of a street or a town.
This came to mind recently as a furore continued around the proposal to demolish the Marks and Spencer store in Oxford Street and replace it with a new build mixed use development (see my earlier brief piece). That Oxford Street store is iconic in its design and place and there was a (predictable) outcry. From a distance it was hard to work out the balance of concern; was it for the beauty and design of the original, or was it disgust at the perceived mundaneness of the replacement? Whichever, the destruction of a sense of place was apparent. The saga rumbles on.
The questions the proposed demolition and rebuild anew in this case raise are of course not new. How much of the past should we protect and preserve, and on what basis do we make that choice? What I think as grand, important design may not be to everyone’s taste and vice versa. Modern needs may not be suitable for older buildings (especially when we financially penalise developers for repair/renovation not demolition and new build) and we do need modern functioning activities. But it can be done (as this small example in Edinburgh suggests, and as the reuse of Frasers and Jenners on Princes Street shows on a larger scale)
There is something more significant about these grand department stores on our high streets. They are so much more than just a building in that they have become a statement about and of place. We have noted this before (in Hull and in the Co-operative Architecture across the country) but the Marks and Spencer Oxford Street debate re-emphasises this.
That is why the recent pamphlet by Harriet Lloyd from SAVE Britain’s Heritage on “Departing Stores: emporia at risk” is such an important and interesting read. It documents the importance and the risks to department stores across the country, focusing on their architecture, importance to place and the discussion of what has happened to them, town by town. This is so timely and significant. These stores are so much more than an old shop (to be bulldozed and forgotten) being signifiers and glue for a place. Destroying them, or not protecting and valuing them, is place vandalism. We lose more than a shop in these cases; we lose the sense of place. They are not the only component of a place, obviously, but they are an integral part. If we value our town centres we need to look up and see what we are doing. Our architectural and design history in our streets is so much more than mere buildings.
The pamphlet can be downloaded here or is available in hard copy. In just under a hundred pages it details some of the risks and the opportunities. Most of the pamphlet is given over to individual case studies, store by store and town by town (see contents list above). These examples are surrounded by discussions of the issues, the origins and role of the department store and the opportunities their preservation and re-use provides. There are a large number of excellent illustrations and photographs which illustrate the architectural, design and place significance of these buildings.