Thursday, September 21, 2023


Turning a corner, 2

Few buildings turn a corner with such grandeur as this one in Birmingham’s Constitution Hill. It dates from the 1890s and was designed architects William Doubleday* and James R. Shaw for H. B. Sale, a firm of die-sinkers. The plan was to have offices and shops on the ground floor with each upper floor taken up by one large workshop, plus an office in the corner tower. Five floors were planned, but the fifth was not added until the mid-20th century, hence the difference in style.

The exterior is built of red brick with a rich array of terracotta dressings – foliage, flowers, and medieval-style heads all feature and the top of the building as originally constructed was given some distinction with the row of small curved gables still present in front of the 20th-century top storey. The stylistic label given by English Heritage’s short ‘Informed Conservation’ book about the district is Spanish Romanesque-style. The stand-out feature is the tower, which is still a landmark on the junction of Constitution Hill and Hampton Street. Each storey of the tower has a different kind of opening, from the first floor† upwards: trefoil, slightly wasp-waisted arches; flat-topped openings; windows topped with ogees; semicircular openings; and quatrefoils in the tiny gables around the dome. The tower also displays the owner’s name,¶ standing proud from the band of foliate decoration – a popular late-19th century effect that I always admire. Finally, the ogee dome at the top, with its fish-scale surface, provides a pleasing climax, although it’s slightly hidden by the gables and finials that surround it. What a glorious building. I hope its owners are soon able to remove the plants that are taking root towards the top of the tower, so that it can continue to provide the area with a landmark and an admirable collection of exuberant architectural decoration.

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* William Doubleday was based in Wolverhampton when this building was designed; he later moved to Birmingham.

† American second floor.

¶ You can enlarge the picture by clicking on it, which might make this a little easier to see.


George said...

Such buildings are called "flatiron" buildings in the US. Is the term current in England?

By the way, the difference in American and English floor numbering is touched on in "London Homesick Blues", which you can easily find on YouTube.

Philip Wilkinson said...

George: In England, 'flatiron' isn't generally used for buildings like this, although any British enthusiast for US architecture will know the most famous example, the Flatiron Building in New York City on Broadway and Fifth Avenue.