Saturday, July 7, 2007

Spa Buildings, Tenbury Wells

You’d have to go a long way to find anything like this, the Spa Buildings in the middle of the small Worcestershire town of Tenbury Wells, which became a spa when saline springs were discovered in 1839. The 1862 design, by James Cranston of Birmingham, isn’t much like any other building – it’s a mixture of false-half-timber and greenhouse, with a bit of Victorian brickwork thrown in, all making a bizarre cocktail that contemporaries called ‘Chinese Gothic’.

The big clue is in the word ‘greenhouse’. Cranston had been working on some glasshouses and got the idea of adapting greenhouse structure to a building for people. Out went the glass panes and in came steel roofing sheets and wall panels, to make one of the world’s first prefabricated buildings. The system was flexible enough to produce a pair of halls, a bath complex, and an octagonal tower to house the well with its pumps, which dispensed 20 gallons of mineral water per hour.

Like later prefabs, the Tenbury Spa Buildings were probably not intended to last that long. And they certainly never caught the admiration of the architectural powers-that-be. Nikolaus Pevser, in the Worcestershire volume of his Buildings of England series, described them as ‘much like Gothicky or Chinesey fair stuff, i.e. without seriousness or taste’. The people of Tenbury thought better of their unusual spa, though, and restored it at the end of the 20th century. With galvanized roof panels and a strengthened structure, the building is now better than ever.

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