Iconic department stores risk being lost forever, report warns | Architecture

According to a new report, at least 18 “high street titans” – architecturally significant department stores that have fallen victim to sweeping changes in shopping habits – are at risk of being lost forever.

But these ‘cathedrals of commerce’, as Émile Zola describes them in his 1883 novel The Ladies’ Paradise, should be given new life – as art galleries, residential accommodation, community centers and social spaces, says Save Britain’s Heritage .

“In a new era where mass distribution is no longer sustainable, these beautiful structures are in danger of being dilapidated or even demolished… Protecting and reviving these buildings is not only a matter of preserving precious and distinctive architecture; it’s an opportunity to restore a sense of belonging,” says Harriet Lloyd, author of Departing Stores: Emporia at Risk.

The report details 46 iconic department stores in city centers. Some have been restored or refurbished while retaining their architectural heritage, but others are vacant and threatened with decay or demolition.

“The same loss of relevance previously experienced by stately homes, warehouses and many churches now threatens for the first time a new type of building: the department store,” the report says.

There were 237 vacant department stores in the UK in mid-2021, according to the British Retail Consortium and Local Data Company. Nine of the 10 former Debenhams stores were still empty a year after the chain collapsed, and a fifth of the former BHS outlets were vacant five years after the business disappeared.

The slow decline of the department store began with the establishment of shopping malls and outlying retail parks in the second half of the last century. It accelerated sharply with the growth of online purchases, helped by the rise in rents and business rates.

Between 2006 and 2020, online sales reached almost 20% of UK retail, and increased further to 30% in the last two years of Covid lockdown and closure. In the first quarter of 2021, overall retail vacancy was at 14.1%, its highest level in five years.

The report states: “Department stores make up some of the most beautiful and socially significant buildings on Britain’s high streets. Designed to impress and inspire, they are undoubtedly of great architectural value and a monument to the historic prosperity of the city.

Bobby’s in Bournemouth has been successfully redeveloped with retail space and an art gallery. Photography: James Bridle/James Bridle Photography

Marcus Binney, executive chairman of Save Britain’s Heritage, said: “There can’t be a major city in Britain that hasn’t suffered the closure of a department store and sometimes several. The race is on to identify and evaluate these buildings.

Developers were also rushing to convert these buildings for new uses. More alarming was “the number of cases where landlords are seeking to raze their department stores in a bid to secure lucrative planning permission for larger new developments”.

Many buildings presented significant challenges for conversion, the report said. “Decades of extensions, mergers and ad hoc fixes have resulted in labyrinthine interiors of varying levels and ceiling heights, disused staircases and forgotten storerooms.

“Natural light – the enemy of the shopkeeper – is a necessity for homes, hotels and offices, and cannot reach anything in the center of deep floor plates. This can make demolition the more attractive option.

The Debenhams store in Nottingham city centre, closed since May 2021.
The Debenhams store in Nottingham city centre, closed since May 2021.
Photography: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

According to the report, among those at risk is TJ Hughes in Eastbourne, which was completed in 1926 but has been vacant since May 2019. The building features elegant rusticated pilasters, molded cartouches and bull’s-eye dormers.

Plans have now been submitted to demolish the waterfront building and replace it with ‘a bland apartment building… The irrevocable loss of this detailed and distinctive building would be a real tragedy’.

In Nottingham, a former Griffin & Spalding store is “an iconic feature of the historic center of the city”. Its stone facade, built in 1924, is “decorated with carved urns, an elaborate cartouche supported by carved cherubs and a gallery of coupled columns”.

The store was purchased by Debenhams in 1944 and closed in May 2021. “There are no future plans for this magnificent building,” the report said.

But Bobby’s in Bournemouth has been successfully converted since closing as a department store last year. In addition to the retail space, there is an art gallery, with a planned rooftop food hall and bar. The premises include community spaces and architectural elements are being restored.

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