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Architect rethinks plans for threatened East End oddity


Buckley Gray Yeoman has revised plans to demolish a ‘tatty shop front’, described by Ian Nairn as ‘one of the best visual jokes in London, after criticism from objectors and English Heritage

The architect’s original proposals for the former Wickham’s department store in Mile End Road included removing the last remains of the former Spiegelhalter’s jewellers - a ‘holdout unit’ whose owners had refused to move out to make way for the store which splits its two Neoclassical wings.

The practice’s initial office led-scheme, which would also see a 1,500m² extension built on top of the existing 9,300m² block, was attacked by both the Victorian Society and the Twentieth Century Society while more than 2,700 people also signed a petition urging Tower Hamlets Council to locally list the building.

The plans also prompted English Heritage to write to the council saying: ‘In our view, the total loss of the former Spiegelhalter’s shop, as well as some of the proposed design elements to the former Wickham’s Department Store, would neither preserve nor enhance the character of Stepney Green Conservation Area.

‘We also do not consider that clear and convincing justification has been provided for the demolition work.’

However Buckley Gray Yeoman has now changed its proposals, dropping a large sculptural element earmarked for the scheme’s new entrance where the Spiegelhalter shopfront currently stands.

Instead, the architect plans to paritally retain the shopfront - keeping the second-floor facade of the jeweller’s while removing the lower level to allow access.

Matt Yeoman of Buckley Gray Yeoman said: ‘We have listened to the concerns. We’ve always embraced the Spiegelhalter’s story - we love it. All that has been in debate is the way that story is told.

‘It is a compromise’

‘Yes, it is a compromise. But we are not arrogant enough to believe we are right and everyone else is wrong. We still feel it is a slightly missed opportunity to create something more interesting - however the scheme still does 90 per cent of what we wanted to do. And overall [the proposed development] is better than it was.’

The Wickhams built the shop in the 1920s in the hope the Spiegelhalter family business of clockmakers would eventually sell up. But the Spiegelhalters refused, leaving the ‘plucky little structure’ as a ‘powerful and evocative symbol of East End indomitability’ for almost a century.

Revisions to the planning application are due to be submitted ‘within the next week’.

Responding to the latest plans, Victorian Society conservation adviser Sarah Caradec, said: ‘The retention of the upper half of the Spiegelhalter’s facade is good news for both Whitechapel and London.  This compromise allows the visual joke, so much admired by Iain Nairn, to continue to be enjoyed.

She added: ‘The proposal does not appear to cause any further harm given that the original ground floor shop front has already been removed.  It is encouraging that the views of the Amenity Societies, Historic England and the thousands of people who signed the Save Speigelhalters petition seem to have been taken on board.’


Spiegelhalter, East End - January 2015

Ian Nairn on Spiegelhalter’s in Nairn’s London (1966)

‘Messrs Wickham, circa 1920, wanted an emporium. Messrs Spiegelhalter, one infers, wouldn’t sell out. Messrs Wickham, one infers further, pressed on regardless, thereby putting their Baroque tower badly out of centre. Messrs Spiegelhalter (‘The East End Jewellers’) remain; two stucco’d storeys, surrounded on both sides by giant columns à la Selfridges.

‘The result is one of the best visual jokes in London, a perennial triumph for the little man, the bloke who won’t conform. May he stay there till the Bomb falls.’


Readers' comments (6)

  • Thank goodness it hasn't suffered the fate of the soon-to-have-been-listed Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, suddenly and illegally demolished the day after Easter Monday in a manner reminiscent of the outrageous destruction of the Firestone Building in Brentford in 1980.

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  • Given that over the years the owners have ripped off the roof, removed al internal walls and floors, and the shop-front element, the architects have little left to play with.
    The value of the building is its expression of the power of the small business against the large.
    A power perhaps gone, now that local and national government can side with the developers to purchase property compulsorily.

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  • Why was the sculpture the first to be removed, an easier target for the architect to placate dissenters?

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  • How very sad that BGY has seen fit to hide a bland glass box behind an interesting Neo-Classical shop front. The central issue is not the demolition of Speigelhalter's jewelry but the dull design set to take its place.

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  • The shop had value as a symbol of the indomitable east end spirit and a triumph of the little man. But now the big man has won and the shop will be absorbed by the monster behind. The only architecturally honest thing to do would be to complete the original Wickhams design, as a symbol of the triumph of the big man over the little man in the end.

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  • J C Muirhead

    Congratulations to David Collard for running a very successful grass roots campaign to save 'one of the best visual jokes in London'. Again proving the power of change.org to help move opinion, such as pushing the Corporation of London towards preserving of the wonderful General Markets at Smithfield.

    I find it interesting that the remnants of historic, domestic architecture, sandwiched between Somerset House and Kings College have not raise the same feelings of passion, nor mustered a concerted effort to save them from demolition. Yet it is exactly this background architectural landscape, taken for granted and often not protected, that gives London a strong sense of place. By securing the past helps provide a future urban environment that avoids it becoming yet another homogeneous city in the international mold.

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