Cardiff’s lost buildings 1

Starting an occasional strand examining some of the most noteworthy Cardiff buildings that no longer exist.

Central Fire Station
Westgate Street
Back in the 18th century Cardiff’s first fire service was a rudimentary hand-pump on wheels kept in the porch of St John’s Church, and in the event of a fire the Church bell was tolled to summon volunteers to assist. After Cardiff police force was set up in 1836 firefighting was made a police responsibility and two engines, still manually operated and dependent on drawing water from wells, were provided by the Council in the undercroft of the 1747 Town Hall in the middle of High Street. When a new Town Hall was built nearby on the west side of St Mary Street in 1854, a purpose-built fire station was included at the rear. Soon fire hydrants were installed around the town as a water supply began to be available and by the 1860s the station was equipped with a steam fire engine and fire ladders. The service kept improving and expanding with the explosive population growth – motorised engines and telephone links arrived in the 1890s – until the Town Hall was abandoned in 1906 for the new City Hall in Cathays Park. This necessitated a brand new fire station, completed in 1913, which was built on the site of the old quay in Westgate Street, just yards away from the fire brigade’s previous HQ behind the Town Hall (demolished in 1912 and replaced by the Co-operative Wholesale Building in 1915, renamed Hodge House in the 1960s). The new station was brilliantly executed by distinguished English architect E Vincent Harris (1876-1971), a solid, six-storey neo-Georgian beauty with lofty engine bays and a marvellous steeply-pitched tile roof crowned by a precipitous look-out post. In 1973, the Central Fire Station was shifted to a dull shed in Adam Street (itself demolished in 2012 for student flats, after which Cardiff’s equally dull 4th different Central Fire Station was squeezed onto the leftover ground). The Westgate Street landmark, along with the adjoining complex of firemen’s flats, was smashed to smithereens and replaced by a nasty multi-storey carpark without a single redeeming feature. Cardiff’s carbon-drunk leaders were enthusiastically embracing the unsustainable ‘great car economy’ – and, as ever, they were wrong.

Central Fire Station

Merchants’ Exchange
Bute Crescent
Cardiff’s treatment of the magnificent architectural inheritance of its Docklands has been shockingly negligent, philistine and short-sighted, exemplified perfectly by the demolition in 1972 of the Merchants’ Exchange. Built as a speculative venture by a consortium aiming to establish a hub for lucrative docks’ trade, the imposing edifice opened in 1885 in a prime site adjacent to the Pier Head where Bute Street reached the sea. It was a fabulous exercise in Flemish-style grandiosity, a red-brick stunner of straining gables, stentorian chimney-stacks, dizzy balustrades and elegant decorative embellishments, forming a stunning entrance portal to Cardiff alongside the Pierhead Building, its fiery red partner erected in 1897 on the other side of the Oval Basin. There are a number of interesting aspects to the story of the Merchants’ Exchange: the architect, to my knowledge, is unknown; it was completely gutted by a mysterious fire in 1892 before the insurance pay-out of £40,000 (£3.5million at today’s values) allowed reconstruction of an enlarged replica of the original; it was upstaged as the docks’ main trading centre by the 1888 Coal Exchange, meaning the magnificent central hall in the heart of the building was never used but the warren of offices around it were packed with an eclectic, ever-shifting range of tenants for over half a century; it had a cavernous basement which included a restaurant and café and habitually flooded out during high spring tides; it fell on hard times in the 1930s as Cardiff’s coal-exporting economy collapsed and, largely vacant, was snapped up by the expansionist Powell Duffryn Company to become the new HQ of the coal-mining giant instead of the (still standing) 1875 Pascoe House on West Bute Street; and, amazingly, it was the National Museum of Wales that was responsible for its eventual destruction. By the 1970s the coal era was well and truly over and Powell Duffryn was diversifying into port operations and engineering far from Wales, so the Merchants’ Exchange was offloaded cheaply in 1972 to the National Museum, which was seeking a site for an industrial museum – and promptly demolished. The custodians of Wales’ past justified the staggering vandalism, the equivalent of pulling down the Pier Head building or the Coal Exchange, by declaring “Unfortunately, it was not possible to use it for museum purposes without considerable expenditure.” In its place the Welsh Industrial & Maritime Museum was eventually erected, a big, bold, flat-roofed, modernist red box opened in 1977. It was no substitute, and featured few of the extravagant exhibitions promised, but at least it was a much-needed educational treasure trove, packed with fascinating stuff from heavy-duty machinery to forgotten artefacts. But this popular and enlightening Cardiff asset lasted a mere 11 years – fleeting, even by the standards of a city where a building older than 30 years counts as an antiquity – before it too was torn down to make way for, of all things, a shopping centre. Widespread outrage and opposition cut no ice and Cardiff was saddled with the fatuous, junk consumerism of Mermaid Quay. Meanwhile the National Museum made a huge profit selling the site to the developers for £7.5 million, stuck a few of the exhibits in their rather infantile National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, opened in 2005, and put the rest into deep storage with little prospect of any of it seeing the light of day for the foreseeable future (what happened to the corporation trolley bus?!?). As the contemptuously mediocre Mermaid Quay gets yet another of its regular ineffectual cosmetic makeovers, Cardiff has ended up with the worst of all worlds: merchants galore, but with nothing of value to exchange.

The Merchants’ Exchange and the Pierhead Building

Spillers Mill
Clipper Road
The Spillers flour business, founded by Joel Spiller (1790-1873) in Bridgwater, Somerset, expanded across the Severn to booming Cardiff in 1854 with the construction of a mill to produce ships’ biscuits at the top of the West Dock. The enticing stone building with its chunky saddleback tower was rebuilt in 1887 after being destroyed by fire in 1882 and eradicated in 1970 when the West Dock was infilled (Lloyd George Avenue now covers the site). It was one of several premises the company had in Cardiff as it grew into a milling giant following an 1889 merger with W Baker & Sons – the only survivor being the 1893 Spillers & Bakers biscuit factory at the top of the East Dock (now Atlantic Wharf), converted into ‘luxury’ apartments in 1988. The greatest loss without doubt was the superb, soaring grain mill Spillers erected at the head of the Roath Dock in 1933, a breathtaking seven-storey monolith in reinforced concrete by noted structural engineer Oscar Faber (1886-1956). This serious and important example of modernist architecture was a sleek, Bauhaus-influenced masterpiece, visible right across the city, and an engineering tour de force featuring hundreds of concrete piles driven through the docklands’ made-ground to the bedrock beneath and five vast silos with gaping steel jaws that swallowed the grain into tiers of concrete bins direct from the ships. After Spillers was absorbed by a hostile corporate takeover in 1979 the Mill was closed and left to rot. Nobody in Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, Associated British Ports or Cardiff Council had the imagination, awareness or sense of civic duty to consider an alternative future for the building – it would, for instance, have been the perfect space for the National Gallery of contemporary art that Wales still conspicuously lacks – and it was summarily eradicated in 2003 without a whimper of protest. All those technical innovations and hard-won material resources were profligately turned to rubble, leaving a bare wasteland currently occupied by road haulage and demolition firms.

Spillers Mill, from the ground (above), from the air (below)

Taff Vale Station and Offices
Station Terrace
Completed between Merthyr and Cardiff in 1841, the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) – engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) – was Wales’ first major public railway. Forced to skirt around the eastern edge of the town by the insistence of the 2nd Marquis of Bute (1793-1848) that his Cathays Park private gardens be untouched, the TVR terminated at the east end of the section of the main highway then called Crockherbtown. The original station of 1840, named Crockherbtown, was merely a ramshackle hut, likened by the local press to “a moderately glorified fowl-house”. But very quickly, thanks to the coal boom, the TVR became the world’s most profitable railway with branches into all the mining valleys of Glamorgan, allowing the company to splash out on elaborate high-quality buildings. In 1860 company offices fronting Crockherbtown were built; a triple-bayed neo-Gothic eyeful by Irish architect HJ Paull (c1820-1891) featuring a showboating Italianate-influenced clock tower. This was followed in 1887 by a brand new station designed by long defunct London architects Wallace of Westminster. It was another monumental Gothic pile in local Pennant sandstone and Bath stone trimmings with a fantastic internal arched roof of glass and iron lattice girders, the building stretching its sinews along Station Terrace and exuding the gravitas and excitement befitting the potency and promise of travel. At the same time, both the main road and the station were renamed Queen Street. A century went by, the TVR passed into history, the buildings became part of Cardiff’s bone-marrow – and then, for no better reason than maintenance costs, British Rail scandalously demolished both in 1973 with cavalier disregard for Cardiff’s built heritage and public realm. The old TVR Offices were replaced by a routinely offensive multi-storey for the AA (that’s the Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous) and, after that proved to be untenable, converted in 2002 into the ‘Aspect’ apartments with the help of some white cladding and balconies that couldn’t accommodate an inhaling anorexic. The replacement station is a tawdry, insulting disgrace which states loudly that, since only internal Welsh trains arrive at Queen Street, a shitty prefabricated portakabin will suffice. Most of the site is a private carpark behind a derisory fence, the rest an incredibly cheapskate embarrassment where nobody lingers long. The important Station Terrace/Queen Street axis has been ruined, turned into a filthy, clogged, ugly rat-run when once it was a compelling urban space at the heart of a comprehensive public transport system. City planners and the Welsh government are coming to the belated but unavoidable conclusion that Cardiff desperately needs to end its obsession with roads and its dumb surrender to the private car and create the sort of public transport system it once possessed; until that happens the treatment of Queen Street Station will remain a perfect symbol of wasteful folly.

TVR Offices

Queen Street Station

Wood Street Congregational Church
Wood Street
By Nonconformism’s peak in the early 20th century, the various schism-prone Protestant sects had built more than 90 chapels in Cardiff. Since then, right across Wales, it’s been downhill all the way for religiosity in general and Nonconformism in particular, meaning many of the chapels have gone the way of all flesh. Significant losses in the city centre alone include: the 1807 (rebuilt 1865) Bethany Baptists in Wharton Street, swallowed up by the James Howells store in 1963, leaving just a ghostly outline of its façade within the ladies underwear department of what is now House of Frazer; the 1827 Seion Methodists in Trinity Street, removed in 1880 to make way for the Free Library; the 1838 Bethel Methodists in Union Street, cleared away along with the whole Street in 1979 to be replaced by the St David’s Centre; the 1848 Trinity Presbyterians in Womanby Street (site of Cardiff’s first Nonconformist foundation in 1696), converted into a workshop after relocation to Canton in 1894 and since 1980 an empty, boarded-up plot; the 1850 Wesleyan Methodists Hall in Bridge Street, supplanted in 1980 by what is now Job Centre Plus; the 1858 Working Street Calvinistic Methodists, a 1979 casualty of the St David’s Hall development; the 1865 Stuart Gospel Hall on The Hayes, taken over by the Salvation Army in 1894, demolished in 1965 to make way for the Oxford House block, which itself was demolished in 2008 for the St David’s shopping precinct extension; and, the most grievous loss of all in the city centre, the Wood Street Congregational Church. Built on the former bed of the re-routed river Taff in 1858 as a Temperance Movement Music Hall on the main artery through the terraced streets of Temperance Town, the failed venture was taken over by the Congregationalists in 1868. The quirky, neo-Georgian/Byzantine hybrid was remodelled and extended in 1896 to the point where it had a near 3,000 capacity and was Cardiff’s biggest Nonconformist place of worship, famed for a choral tradition encouraged by the original hall’s resonant acoustics. It was an architectural gem, a squat, white-stuccoed hotch-potch of influences containing a labyrinth of secret passages, hidden cavities, dummy windows, inaccessible attics, pitch-black cellars and doors that led nowhere. But this wholly unique slice of battered and bruised elemental Cardiffness was compulsory purchased and erased in 1972 as the Council pursued the same sort of cock-eyed, half-baked, developer-led ‘improvement’ schemes still being inflicted on the city today. Conservation and re-use as, say, the additional medium-sized music venue that Cardiff could really do with, was never even on the agenda. Following seven years as an open-air carpark, the hideous 13-storey, double-winged Southgate House speculative office block went up on the site in 1979. Over the years the block stood half-empty and hard-to-let, until the Welsh government came to the rescue – as it so often does in order to artificially pump up the Cardiff property market – and bought the monstrosity to assist the ever-floundering Central Square development. Southgate House is still mostly to let and is now surrounded by unwanted, oppressive, alienating slabs where the city’s bus station used to be. These cold corporate towers achieve the seemingly impossible by making Southgate House look almost attractive in comparison. Somewhere deep beneath it lie the old chapel’s subterranean chambers, dripping with the ceaseless residual seepings of the thwarted, distorted Taff.

Wood Street Congregational Church


Pictures: WalesOnline; Tiger Bay & The World; Trigpointing UK; Grace’s Guide; Museum Wales; J Blount Hopkins; Not Cardiff Museum