The Business District/ The Business Quarter

B2/ B3 - Grid reference SP066871


This is the name generally given to the area around Colmore Row, though the city businesses are spread throughout the City Centre and beyond, especially along the Hagley Road. Birmingham's prominence as a major industrial centre declined progressively after the 1960s to be replaced by increasing involvement in the service sector which accounts for some 80% of Birmingham's economic output. As a major European financial and administrative centre, the City Centre now has the greatest concentration of administrative and private sector office-based employment in England outside Central London. Over 100 000 people are employed by the banking, finance and insurance sector, again exceeded in the UK only by central London. There is also a strong concentration of accountancy and legal firms in the City Centre.


The concentration of business premises was perhaps the result of the move of the civic administration away from its traditional centre near the Bull Ring. When the building of a town hall was agreed, it was to be built at the other end of the town where building land was cheaper and more readily available. The Town Hall opened in 1834 and provided a focus for other civic buildings: the Birmingham & Midland Institute in 1857 the Central Library in 1865, the Council House 1879, Mason Science College 1880 and the Museum & Art Gallery 1885. It was at this time that the leases of the Colmore family's New Hall estate began to expire. Many of the plots had become industrialised and there were blocks of slums here too. When the estate was redeveloped, it was to be filled with quality prestige buildings, too expensive for the small jewellery businesses and aimed at providing imposing office blocks for major businesses.


Some of the Business Quarter lies within Colmore Conservation Area which has large number of Listed buildings within it.


Colmore Row runs from Victoria Square across the north side of the town. Some of it was built on with high- status housing from the early 1700s, but it was not fully developed until 1746 when the Colmore estate was let for building. Much of that estate was redeveloped as commercial properties when the leases expired some hundred years later was rebuilt in a grand style befitting a prosperous Victorian town and mostly in neo-classical styles. The Inge estate was developed around Bennetts Hill from 1823, initially for housing, but by the end of that century many of the buildings were business premises.


Much of the eastern end of Colmore Row was rebuilt in the 1960s as part of the Inner Ring Road project and there have been extensive commercial, business and retail developments around Snow Hill and Colmore Circus in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. However, the western end largely retains its Victorian character. There is a large number of Listed buildings on the north side of Colmore Row between Newhall Street and Snow Hill Station, and on the south side between Bennetts Hill and Victoria Square within Colmore Row Conservation Area.


A number of the buildings along Colmore Row were designed by Yeoville Thomason, the architect of the Council House. No.63 Barclays Bank, originally the Dudley & District Bank is by Thomason and was built in 1867. Although remodelled in 1937, the original grand banking hall remains. Interestingly Thomason's grandfather, Sir Edward Thomason, a pupil of Matthew Boulton, had lived at No.63 on this site. Nos.75-77 are by Yeoville Thomason, as is No.81 now the Royal Bank of Scotland. The roundels are from designs of J A Chatwin and contain the busts of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Benvenuto Cellini, a medieval Italian goldsmith and sculptor respectively. The building was designed in 1871 as showrooms for W Spurrier, the Birmingham silversmith and cutler.


Nos.85-89 The Union Club 1869 on the corner of Newhall Street is held to be Thomason's best work. It is a two-storeyed neo-classical building with a rusticated ground floor; two additional floors were added in 1988.


Other buildings of note include Nos.102-106 were designed by Charles Edge in 1827 and housed the offices of the noted Birmingham architects' practice of Martin & Chamberlain. No.110 by William Henman and Thomas Cooper was built 1902 for the Scottish Union and National Insurance Company and has two squat towers enclosing a bay, with banding of grey granite and shiny bright brick. Of especial note are Nos.122-124, the former Eagle Insurance building by W R Lethaby & Joseph L Ball of 1900. This Grade I Listed building was described by Nikolaus Pevsner as 'one of the most original buildings of its date in England' (Nikolaus Pevsner & Alexandra Wedgwood 1966 The Buildings of England: Warwickshire). It is something of an architectural landmark at the end of the Victorian era as Lethaby deliberately broke away from building in a true historical style by combining Tudor mullioned windows with Byzantine doorways, for instance. Furthermore the building was built using a post and beam construction, the forerunner of modern framed buildings. The large stone eagle in relief with outstretched wings is carved in great detail and derives from Syrian temples; the wavy lines represent clouds in Byzantine symbolism and the discs on the golden bronze doors represent the sun.


The Grand Hotel was built in an opulent French Renaissance style by Thompson Plevins in 1875; it was completely remodelled by William Martin & John Henry Chamberlain in 1891 while retaining the French pavilion roofs and façade, and completely refurbished in 2008.


South of Colmore Row at the junction of Waterloo Street with Bennetts Hill is the Grade II Listed Britannia Building Society a late 19th-century stone-faced building on the site of the Birmingham News Room which had been built in 1825. Next door, in Waterloo Street, is the extension of the News Room which was built in 1830 to house copies of public records and reference books. The columns were copied from the Tower of the Winds in Athens and the anthemion, the stylised honeysuckle decoration was inspired by John Soane's Threadneedle Street colonnade of the Bank of England in London.


On Temple Row West is the former Birmingham Joint Stock Bank of 1862, a Grade II Listed building. Built in Italianate style, it was the first bank to be designed by the noted Birmingham church architect, J A Chatwin. The ground floor was designed larger than the upper floor to allow for an impressive banking hall inside. the keystones of the window arches are heads from classical mythology. This was later a Lloyds Bank, and is now a wine bar. No.44 on the corner of Waterloo Street was originally the Ocean Assurance building. It is a late-19th-century design by Mansell & Mansell, an office block in late flemish gothic style with detailed red brick and buff terracotta. This is a Grade II* Listed building.


North of Colmore Row at the corner of Newhall Street and Edmund Street is the Grade I Listed former Telephone Exchange, a red-brick building designed by Frederick Martin in 1896 for the Bell Edison Company. It has intricate terracotta detail much in the style of the Victoria Law Courts which were completed five years previously. This is a prime example of Birmingham terracotta work; arched bays with fabulous beasts above enclose three storeys of windows whose piers rise up to form chimneys made into gables. The intricate gate was by the Bromsgrove Guild. Among a large number of Grade II Listed buildings in Newhall Street are Nos.56-69, five-storeys high with flemish gables designed by Newton & Cheatle which was built in 1899. There are four buff terracotta panels the full height of the tall windows on the third storey by William Neatby representing St George & the Dragon but depicted as a classical figure grappling with a large serpent.


Nikolaus Pevsner (The Buildings of England: Warwickshire 1966) reckoned that Edmund Street 'forms the best and most complete example of the local school of architecture for commercial buildings at the very end of the 19th century'.


Most buildings are in late neo-gothic styles and a large number are Grade II Listed, including Nos.100-102 the Municipal Offices, No.103 a Grade I Listed building, Nos.105-107 the former Ear Nose & Throat Hospital of 1891 by Cossins & Peacock in red brick and terracotta in a neo-classical Queen Anne style, 106-110 Scottish Mutual Assurance. The Medical Institute/ Empire House designed by Osborne & Reading in 1875 a neo-classical style brick and stone building, the Board School Offices by Martin & Chamberlain 1875, the Parish Offices/ Municipal Offices by W H Ward 1875, a grand French renaissance-style stone building with a clock tower, cupola and lantern now gone, have been demolished to the rear and rebuilt, though the facades have been retained. The building is now known as Louisa Ryland House.


In Cornwall Street Nos.85-87 Cornwall Street were designed for Dr J E Parrott as his medical consulting rooms by W Henman and T Coope in 1899. Coope, a pupil of Alfred Waterhouse was his chief assistant during the construction of the Natural History Museum in Kensington and was also in charge of the construction of the General Hospital. This Grade II* Listed building is in red brick and stone in a Belgian Renaissance style with two bay windows and a Belgian gable with a pedimented window. Grade II* Listed Nos.89-91 were designed by the local architect, C E Bateman in 1904. This is an asymmetrical Arts & Crafts style building which was probably influenced by Lethaby's Eagle Insurance in Colmore Row.


At the bottom of New Market Street at the corner of Great Charles Street stands No.12, the former Birmingham Guild of Handicrafts building, now dwarfed by late 20th-century neighbours. It was designed by Arthur Stansfield Dixon in 1898, a designer of metalwork for the Guild as well as an architect. A rear courtyard is linked to New Market Street by a semi-circular arched gateway under the building. The large ground-floor windows of the metal workers' room are similarly arched. The top-floor studios have large square-headed windows beneath the eaves of the steeply pitched tile roof. This Grade II Listed building has now been refurbished as offices.

 

William Dargue 15.10.08/ 31.07.2010

 

  

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For 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of Birmingham go to British History Online.

See http://www.british-history.ac.uk/mapsheet.aspx?compid=55193&sheetid=10098&ox=942&oy=1066&zm=1&czm=1&x=580&y=256