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Council backs controversial plans for East End oddity

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Buckley Gray Yeoman (BGY) has been granted planning permission for an office scheme incorporating a ‘tatty shop front’, described by Ian Nairn as ‘one of the best visual jokes in London‘

In a decision delayed from November, Tower Hamlets councillors have approved the conversion of the former Wickham’s department store on Mile End Road to commercial space.

The revised proposals include the partial retention of the former Spiegelhalter’s jewellers – a ‘holdout unit’ whose owners had refused to move out to make way for the 1927 store which was designed by T Jay Evans & Son.

In April, BGY redesigned its proposals following protests against its original plans to demolish Spiegehlater’s and replace it with a sculpture.

The approved scheme retains part of the shopfront, retaining the second-floor facade of the jeweller’s while removing the lower level to allow access.

A planning report to councillors this week said: ’The façade of the Spiegelhalter’s is integral to the development of Wickham’s and the appearance of the department store today cannot be understood without it. Without the interruption of the Spiegelhalter’s façade, the break in the monumental parade of columns adorning the front elevation becomes unintelligible.’

The Wickham family built the shop in the 1920s in the vain hope the Spiegelhalter family business of clockmakers would sell up.

Published in 1966, Nairn’s London described the building as ‘one of the best visual jokes in London, a perennial triumph for the little man, the bloke who won’t conform.’

The new scheme will also see a 1,500m² extension built on top of the existing 9,300m² block.

Previous story (AJ 28.04.15)

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.’

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