A Modernist Mooch Around Oldham Town Centre

Modernist architecture within Oldham Town Centre

For me, Oldham town centre has a lot to answer for in fostering my love of post-1945 architecture. The much derided St. Peter’s Precinct and its Civic Centre were my catalyst and the start of a love affair with the sculptural properties of reinforced concrete. Today, I know I’m in Oldham if I see the latter building. Most of this is thanks to the County Borough of Oldham’s one time architect Tom Cartlidge.

If you wish to go a little further from 1945, we could consider the works of P.S. Stott’s and F.W. Dixon’s cotton mills as early forms of modernist architecture, though with classical stylings (early Postmodernism then?).  The style of construction and flooring systems would later be employed in skyscrapers. What P.S. Stott and his contemporaries did in Oldham was possibly picked up by Mies Van Der Rohr, Owen Williams, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. In the last 1930s to the early 1950s, the architectural works of G. Noel Hill had a clear influence in the design of municipal buildings throughout Greater Manchester.

For the purpose of this post, I shall concentrate on post-1945 buildings within Oldham town centre.

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Modernist Architecture Within Oldham Town Centre:

  • Queen Elizabeth Hall;
  • Oldham Civic Centre;
  • Home Bargains store;
  • Combined Heat and Power Unit;
  • St. Mary’s Estate houses;
  • Oldham Sports Centre;
  • Oldham Magistrates Court and Police Station;
  • Mecca Bingo Hall (former Co-op Superstore);
  • Oldham Way.

1. Queen Elizabeth Hall: as we leave our 409 bus or National Express coach at Oldham Central Bus Station, the first building which comes into view is the Integrated Care Centre, which has the colour scheme of a deckchair. To our left hand side is the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Part of the Civic Hall, it opened in 1977 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth the Second’s Silver Jubilee. Inside the main hall itself, concrete balconies along with the dance floor and plush carpets make for an unusual yet exciting aspect. The sculptural nature of the concrete balconies demand closer inspection.

2. The Civic Centre: also opening in 1977 was the Civic Centre. Its tower block dominates the Oldham skyline and can be seen for miles around – even from South Manchester as well as Tameside and Stockport. Part of the building joins onto an older office block which dates from the mid-1960s. That was originally headquarters for Oldham’s Regional Health Authority before their move to St. Peter’s Precinct.

3. Home Bargains Store: on first impressions, this may seen like a nondescript department store building that has fallen on hard times with offices above. Many Oldhamers of a certain age (and myself too) remember when Home Bargains’ store was C&A’s. It was a popular meeting point owing to its proximity to bus stands on George Street and the subway leading to St. Peter’s Precinct. That too was a product of the mid-1960s.

4. Combined Heat and Power Unit: as we turn left onto Henshaw Street, we continue by crossing St. Mary’s Way and walk up Henshaw Street till we see the long closed The Museum pub in our distance. On our right hand side is another relic from the mid-1960s, incidental to a revolutionary housing scheme. The chimney forms part of a combined heat and power system which supplied underfloor heating to the residents of St. Mary’s Estate. It was originally coal powered before being converted to gas in 1997. Today, it remains in use for Oldham Sports Centre’s heating system, though its days are now numbered.

5. St. Mary’s Estate Houses: we now turn right onto Lord Street. On our left hand side as we head south are surviving examples of the County Borough of Oldham’s 1965 housing scheme for the St. Mary’s Ward. Till 2007, they were flanked with deck access flats with up to five storeys. They, along with the houses, were constructed using Laing Construction’s proprietary Jespersen 12M building system and built to Parker Morris standards (allowing decent space which, ashamedly is more generous than today’s housing developments). Modernisation saw the addition of pitched roofs and the closure of some walkways.

We continue along Lord Street which is broken by a pedestrian path. Again, we cross St. Mary’s Way and see on our left hand side…

6. Oldham Sports Centre: opening shortly before the Civic Centre, its facilities were a genuine improvement on the Central Baths. As well as offering gymnasia, saunas and a diving pool, it also included a learners’ pool and a café. Along with the District Heating Scheme on the corner of Henshaw Street and Lord Street, this too is due for demolition after the opening of new facilities on the corner of King Street and Manchester Street.

From Lord Street, we turn right onto High Street and cut through the Spindles Shopping Centre. After that, we walk past Manchester Chambers and see ahead of us…

7. Oldham Magistrates Court and Police Station: both buildings were designed by Leach Rhodes Walker architects, replacing facilities near the old Town Hall. A short walk away down Manchester Street is…

8. The Mecca Bingo Hall/Taj Palace Restaurant: before assuming its current use, it was purpose built for the United Norwest Cooperative Society as a new department store. Opening in 1977, it had under one roof a food hall, soft furnishings section, electrical goods and an instore bakery. There was separate units for the Co-op’s Handybank, chemist, ice cream, and a burger bar (Big Bite). Outside, there was ground level and roof level car parking, a newsagents’ kiosk and a Shell Petrol Station. Trolleys could be conveyed from the roof level car park to the store via escalators. It was rebranded as a Shopping Giant in 1980 and ceased to be a Co-op store in 1999, after abandoning non-food and partitioning most of it off for Mecca Bingo Hall.

As we walk down Manchester Street, we see Mario’s Hairdressers, which occupies the basement level unit. In our immediate distance is…

9. Oldham Way: as mentioned on East of the M60‘s earlier posting on the 1948 Oldham Plan, Oldham’s southern bypass was one of two projects to have gone ahead as close as to the plan as possible. The Oldham Way was completed in the early 1970s, starting from Mumps Bridge and finishing at Chadderton Way. It has the look of ‘urban motorway’, and probably engineered to allow this in future years. Today, the roundabout at Mumps Bridge has been eliminated to allow for the Metrolink trams with the Manchester Street junction realigned for similar reasons.

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Gone But Not Forgotten:

Crete Street Flats: a short distance away in Hathershaw, the Crete Street area saw Alison and Peter Smithson’s ‘streets in the sky’ taken to – literally – great heights. Local builders Partington designed a red brick tower block with deck access walkways leading to flats and maisonettes. The tower block was on the south side of Crete Street, facing Belgrave Mills and Honeywell Lane. A similar block was built on Primrose Bank, and both were demolished by the early 1990s.

St. Peter’s Precinct: the idea of building an open air style precinct in a place as windy as Oldham was ill thought out. Even so, it was contemporaneous with architectural thinking in 1965 (ergo, Birmingham’s 1960s Bull Ring Centre and Stockport’s Merseyway centre). It opened in 1967 with the town’s Post Office and NORWEB showrooms moving there. There was originally going to be a second phase, though common sense prevailed when the covered Town Square Shopping Centre opened in November 1981.

The Belgrade Hotel: north of Oldham Way was Dragan Lukic’s Belgrade Hotel. Mr Lukic had had links with Stockport County and made his fortune in catering. A tour de force in corduroy style concrete, it was one of three Belgrade Hotels (the other two were in Offerton and Bollington). It was reputed that friendly Oldhamers influenced his decision to open a hotel north of the Oldham Way, and he named his hotels ‘Belgrade’ after the Yugoslavian city of his birth.

Lake View Care Home: opened in 1970 as a local authority care home for young adults with physical disabilities, Lake View Care Home would be deemed in today’s eyes as ‘inhumane’. As well as communal facilities, disabled persons would stay in studio-type flats which were more akin to cells. It closed in 1993, much to the ire of residents rehoused on Royle Close and Boston House in Hathershaw.

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Before I Go…

Feel free to elaborate on the buildings, past and present. Or add a few more suggestions. If you have any comments on the buildings, feel free to opine.

S.V., 15 May 2013.

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