Cardiff’s lost buildings 5

Guildford Crescent Baths
Guildford Crescent
The 1846 Public Baths & Wash-Houses Act gave local authorities the power to raise money through rates to build much-needed public baths. But Cardiff’s councillors declined to exercise this power for fear of upsetting wealthy Tories who, then as now, didn’t like to part with any of their riches to benefit society. So it was left to a few public-spirited individuals to take the lead, setting up the Cardiff Baths Company to build Cardiff’s first public baths in 1862. Designed by Borough surveyor Thomas Waring* (1825-1891), a Yorkshireman who originally came to Cardiff in 1854 to engineer the new Sewage Works, the Baths were cleverly inserted on an unused wedge of ground between the embankment of the 1841 Taff Vale Railway and the glassy waters of the 1839 Dock Feeder on its north-south course between the River Taff at Blackweir and the first Bute (West) Dock. The chapel-like building with Gothic-style arched windows had two open-air swimming pools – first class and second class – stretching southwards alongside the Feeder, as well as Turkish baths, a Mikveh, hot baths, shower baths, a gymnasium, conveniences and changing rooms within the main building. The Company wasn’t seeking to make profits but the expensive and complex operation soon meant that running costs weren’t even being covered. After two years of lobbying and persuasion, the Borough Council agreed to buy out the Baths in 1873 (for £2,200, approximately £250,000 at today’s values) and so they became a public asset and amenity, known as the Corporation Baths. Then major modernisation works, completed in 1896, added ventilated roofs over the swimming pools and reconfigured and refurbished the internal lay-outs. The first and second class division was scrapped and replaced by no less than three splendid pools, men-only, women-only and mixed. Guildford Crescent Baths was fit for purpose and over the next seven decades it became an integral part of Cardiff life, used at one time or another by just about everybody.

The Baths and Dock Feeder in the 1920s

In 1949 the Tory Council diminished the Baths by making the stupid and short-sighted decision to culvert the Dock Feeder under a wide new road called Churchill Way (named after the alcoholic, racist, imperialist Tory who as Home Secretary in 1910 had viciously sent armed troops, fusiliers, cavalry and over 400 police to Tonypandy in the Rhondda Fawr to crush the resistance of striking Welsh miners). Today, the current Labour Council has approved a scheme to open up a small section of the Feeder under Churchill Way in order to create yet another city centre zone devoted to sickening, mindless consumption that is to be called, with typical ignorance and contempt, the ‘Canal Quarter’ (the actual Canal was 500m to the west). Apart from the fact this belatedly confirms what a disastrous mistake the car-encouraging Churchill Way was in the first place, the concurrent construction of an immense new student tower (‘Vita Student’ – ooh, how vital!) bang on top of another culverted section of the Feeder between Park Place and Park Lane confirms the entire project is nothing to do with restoring Cardiff’s waterways but just more cosmetic marketing and grasping commercialisation.

Following the opening of the Empire Pool in 1958, the Baths were given over to the exclusive use of children and remained very popular right up until the Tory-controlled South Glamorgan County Council summarily closed them for good in 1984. Despite a massive ‘Save the Baths’ campaign across the city, they were demolished in 1985. A cheap-as-chips chain hotel (Ibis) was eventually erected on the site. The wanton destruction was, of course, all about land values and greed – as the recent demolition of what remains of Guildford Crescent has vividly demonstrated.

Penylan Observatory
Cyncoed Gardens
Between 1906 and 1979 Cardiff could boast its own astronomical observatory, open to the public free of charge from September to April between 6pm and 10pm. It was situated at the top of the 200ft (60m) high Penylan hill, well above “the haze and smoke of Cardiff”, and featured a state-of-the-art 12-inch reflector telescope in its own observatory building. The telescope had been donated to Cardiff in 1898 by Radyr-born Franklen G Evans (1826-1904), a surgeon, scientist, businessman, JP and philanthropist with an extraordinary breadth of interests, who lived in a large early-Victorian house near Castleton called Llwynarthan (now it’s the St Mellons Country Club). The 6 acre (2.4 hectare) observatory site was originally acquired in 1897 by the Council from the Roath Court Estate of the Williams dynasty for the construction of a waterworks and reservoir. The full reservoir plan was soon ditched when much larger reservoirs to the north made the idea redundant, leaving just the fabulous 1898 red-brick castellated water tower with a small reservoir alongside. The elevated open space with superb views in all directions, set amid rolling wooded hills and farmland, was a fascinating place for those with an interest in the natural sciences – not just for the observatory and the panoramic views, but also for Franklen’s adjacent meteorological station with its rain gauge, sun recorder, barometers and painstakingly recorded weather records.

Meteorological Station and Observatory, 1911

After WW1, it was agreed that the land including the observatory be transferred to the Cardiff Parks Committee for recreational use, and so Cyncoed Gardens was born. By WW2, as the posh suburb of Cyncoed grew around it, the park included lawns, paths, seats, herbaceous borders, a putting green, and tennis courts built on top of the roofed reservoir in 1938. Pride of place went to the observatory, enlarged and refurbished in 1925, which became a compelling port-of-call for school trips, astrophysics undergraduates and professional astronomers. The observatory had a full-time curator, a revolving dome and shutters, the largest telescope in Wales and an adjoining lecture room. It really came into its own at night when amateur star-gazers would marvel at the spectacular firmament of the milky way, twinkling with countless points of light in the infinite heavens, crystal clear in the pitch black skies that Cardiff still enjoyed until gross overdevelopment generated by the insane creed of perpetual ‘growth’ turned them into a turbid mush.

The observatory closed in 1979 as the Council increasingly abandoned the concepts of collective ownership, public services and the common good in favour of rampant dog-eat-dog turbo-capitalism. The telescope was melted down for scrap while Cyncoed Gardens was relentlessly nibbled away with upmarket private housing and the observatory site itself became a particularly vulgar ‘luxury’ eyesore behind hostile fencing. Today, scandalously, barely 20% of the park is left, consisting of a children’s playground, a patch of grass and a derisory pathway. Those who want to observe the night sky must travel to Dyffryn Gardens in the Vale of Glamorgan where the Cardiff Astronomical Society has an observatory or, for a fee, the privately-owned Spaceguard Centre under dark skies in countryside near Tref-y-Clawdd (Knighton) in Powys.

Student Union
Park Place/Dumfries Place
Founded in 1883, University College Cardiff, then part of the federal University of Wales, moved into its brand new HQ building in Cathays Park in 1909. At this juncture the National Union of Students (NUS) didn’t exist but its forerunner the Student Representative Council (SRC) had been founded at Edinburgh University in 1884. This prototype was soon followed in all Scotland’s universities and the right of SRCs to represent students’ interests, provide a channel of communication with university authorities and promote a university’s social and academic life became enshrined in Scottish law in 1889. Wales, a mere English possession without a shred of autonomy, and latecomers to further education compared to the rest of Europe, would have to wait for such advances. It was only in the aftermath of the tectonic shifts triggered by WW1 that progress could be made. The NUS was founded in 1922 and soon afterwards Cardiff Uni purchased an Edwardian residential house on the other side of the road at 51 Park Place to act as the city’s first Student Union (SU). In the 1930s, these facilities were expanded along Park Place both northwards, with a three-storey reading room and meeting space that entailed the demolition of two houses, and southwards with first an attractively plain sports hall and then an adjacent small office block, which neatly filled the awkward narrow space previously left empty because of the close proximity of the 11 tracks of the Taff Vale Railway.

Original Student Union

By the 1950s these cramped quarters were considered inadequate and so the SU was relocated to a vacant university building in nearby Dumfries Place that had begun life in 1875 as Cardiff Proprietary School. This was a fee-paying private school founded “to supply a thorough classical and commercial education at a moderate cost to the sons of gentlemen, professional men, merchants and others of the middle classes.” The term ‘proprietary school’, incidentally, although long redundant in the UK, is still used in the USA for private schools – whereas in the UK such exclusive and excluding institutions are now called, with trademark British disingenuousness, ‘public schools’. Designed by young Manchester architect Alfred Armstrong (1849-1915), who had hitherto only been responsible for Lancashire warehouses, the building on the west side of Dumfries Place was an idiosyncratic and enchanting hotchpotch of Gothic stylings in local Pennant sandstone, featuring an array of turrets, chimneys, oriel windows, galleries, bays and porches.

Mary Traynor illustration of the second Student Union

Within a decade the enterprise was on the rocks and the governors were pleading for financial help from the Council, but no bail-out was forthcoming and the school closed for good in 1891. The company was wound up and the building was sold in 1892 to the University to be used as its School of Technology until WW1, when it was superseded by the 1916 College of Technology in Cathays Park (the neoclassical Bute Building, today’s Welsh School of Architecture). Then followed over 30 years as government offices until it became the new SU in 1954. Here the concept of students as bohemian party animals evolved through the 1960s, helped by the old school’s capacious assembly room becoming an important venue for live music in Cardiff, until in 1974 a brand new SU was opened. Utilising some of the many disused tracks of the railway line, rendered superfluous by the collapse of the coal economy, this major development on Senghennydd Road involved the construction of a hideously ugly brown-brick lump that straddled the surviving pair of tracks across to Park Place, where mature trees were felled and an infamous flight of steps completed the architectural atrocity.

The third Student Union, with its stairway to A&E

As soon as the new SU was completed, down came the old one on Dumfries Place as part of the transformation of the road in 1976 into part of the six-lane race-track formed by Stuttgarter Strasse and Boulevard De Nantes. This egregious vandalism wiped out the entire Gothic array on the east side of Dumfries Place, all of Dumfries Lane and Cathays Park Road, much of Friary Gardens and parkland alongside the Dock Feeder, and worst of all wrecked the civic centre’s sense of spaciousness, serenity, cohesion and proportion. Yep, it was yet another almighty blunder by Cardiff’s perennially atrocious local government. The whimsical charm of the old Proprietary School was replaced by the ghastly orange and yellow brick and dull sub-modernist tropes of Haywood House in the 1980s (as ever, it’s currently To Let).

As for the current SU, it has recently received a £50 million revamp by Bath-based architects FCBS and been renamed, with appropriate unjustified self-congratulation and sweeping over-reach, the ‘Centre for Student Life’. On the Senghennydd Road side this means unrestrained commerce, cafes and shopping outlets, while the Park Place side of the tracks has been lumbered with a massive wall of glass and concrete complete with a breathtakingly kitsch frontage of faux columns that manages to pull off the difficult trick of being both overbearing and mundane. Saying that, more or less anything would have been an improvement on what was there before. What’s certain is that this 4th incarnation of Cardiff’s Student Union will in due course be splattered with regurgitated takeaway food, stained by filthy air pollution and sullied by casual neglect and disregard. Anyhow, you can tell it’s rubbish: the Uni is already referring to it as “iconic”.

It’s amazing what cladding can do

*NOTE
Surviving buildings in Cardiff by Waring, often in collaboration with other architects, are the Cathays Cemetery chapels, High Street Arcade, Prince of Wales theatre (now pub) in St Mary Street, and villas at the southern end of Richmond Road

Pictures: Public domain; Cardiff Naturalists Society; Cardiff University; Mary Traynor/Glamorgan Archives; Culture Trip; Dic Mortimer