Landmark UK department stores at risk as Covid changes city centres

Locally beloved buildings, from 1930s classics to brutalist edifices, are facing developers’ wrecking balls

Campaigners are organising themselves to prevent the destruction of historic department store buildings around the country, from fantastical brutalist structures to sleek 1930s edifices.

The Twentieth Century Society is taking action against the destruction or redesign of seven sites, and has concerns about the future of another 23 threatened by the reinvention of town centres following the pandemic and the shift to online shopping.

It is asking the public to flag other at-risk buildings as the collapse of the Debenhams and Beales chains, and decisions by House of Fraser and John Lewis to close a number of stores, leaves numerous large outlets vacant.

Gems facing the wrecking ball include Birmingham’s mid-century Rackhams, which is currently home to House of Fraser, Debenhams in Taunton, which was built in 1938 and extended in the 1960s, and Marks & Spencer’s store near Marble Arch in London, which was completed in 1930. There are also concerns about the future of Aberdeen’s brutalist John Lewis, and Browns of Chester – most recently part of Debenhams – parts of which date back to the 12th century.

A large white modernist building draped with large House of Fraser banners
Rackhams in Birmingham, which subsequenly became home to a branch of House of Fraser. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

With few major retail tenants willing to take such large spaces, given the rise in online shopping, landlords, local councils and developers are already considering plans for conversion. Proposals vary from hotels and offices to lecture halls and even a primary school. Some are sensitive to the original architecture, but others involve the total or partial destruction of some well-loved local edifices.

Historic England, which has the power to list buildings and protect them from redevelopment, said it was “constantly assessing new applications for listing, including for department stores”.

Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, says that many of the buildings may struggle to get listed status as they do not necessarily use innovative techniques, or were not designed by famous architects. But, she says, they can be of tremendous local importance.

“People like to have a sense of continuity from the past. We are not saying we have to keep them as they are – housing Are You Being Served? department stores – but to keep the building and think imaginatively,” she says.

“They are extraordinarily varied, from streamlined Taunton to the brutalism of Aberdeen and neo-Gothic and neo-Regency, demonstrating a diversity of concerns and interests. A lot are beautifully constructed and have quality materials, and are integrated with streets around them.

“People have enormous fondness for them as places tied up with memories of growing up. They are where you had your first shoes fitted and where you had your wedding list when you got married. They have romance in terms of people’s personal history and different patterns of social life through the 20th century.”

In Taunton, Somerset, where there are plans to demolish the Debenhams, Donald Rice, a trustee of ArtsTaunton, say the building is “a really handsome and subtle addition to the streetscape.”

Debenhams on North Street, Taunton.
Debenhams on North Street, Taunton. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

“It has a bit of metropolitan art deco glamour which is something unusual in Taunton. Taunton is cursed with a huge number of really bad 20th-century buildings, but this is a really good one.”

In Birmingham, an application has been made for immunity against listing of the Rackhams store, and there are fears this will lead to an unsympathetic rejig of the building, which was inspired by the Festival of Britain. Campaigners are concerned that its dramatic concertina windows and sweeping inner staircases will now be lost.

“It is a really high quality building that is not appreciated now, apart from locally, but will be in 10 years’ time,” says Matthew Vaughan, a trustee of Birmingham Civic Society. “If it can’t be listed then it is lost. If immunity is granted it gives carte blanche to do something extensive.”


Sarah Butler

The GuardianTramp

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