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Building Spotlight: The Port of Liverpool Building
November 01, 2017

Building Spotlight: The Port of Liverpool Building

The Port of Liverpool Building is a Grade II Listed Building, located at the Pier Head in Liverpool. The site is one of Liverpool’s Three Graces, which line the city’s waterfront. The former head office of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the name of the building was changed to the Port of Liverpool Building in 2001.

We spoke to Stan Yarker, the building manager, about the challenges of managing such a historic site.

 
When did Helix begin to manage the Port of Liverpool Building?

SY: The site is currently owned by Amtrak Real Estate (who purchased the building in 2015). Helix took over management of the site in November 2015.


Who are the current Tenants?

SY: The majority tenant is Rathbone Brothers plc, who originally started as Liverpool timber merchants in 1742 (a famous family member being Basil Rathbone aka ‘Sherlock Holmes). The building also houses transportation companies Hapag Lloyd and Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha.


The Port of Liverpool Building has a rich history. How did the building come to be?

SY: In 1898 the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (MDHB) decided to close down and infill George's Dock, which was located on the site of what is the Pier Head today. The land was sold to the Liverpool Corporation in 1900, but the MDHB opted to keep the southern section so that they could build a new central headquarters for the company.

Construction began in 1904 and lasted 3 years. The building's frame was built from reinforced concrete, which was then clad in Portland Stone, making the building much more fire resistant than other structural forms in the area.

The new site became the headquarters for MDHB and remained so for the next 87 years (from 1907 to 1994).


Is it true that the prize awarded for the architectural design of the Port of Liverpool Building was £300?

SY: Yes, sounds like a bargain price for a design!

In 1900, under the leadership of Robert Gladstone, a competition was launched for local architects to submit designs for the new building. Alfred Waterhouse, a renowned local architect, was brought in to help judge the competition.

Architects were invited to submit designs and were offered a first prize of £300. Seven entries were received, the winning design being created by Sir Arnold Thornley and F B Hobbs in collaboration with Briggs and Wolstenholme, who are responsible for the Edwardian Baroque style of the building.

 

The building has many beautiful and distinctive features, one of which being the domed roof. I heard the building of this was quite contentious?

SY: Yes, the 220 ft high dome was inspired by an unused design for Liverpool's Anglican cathedral which had been developed several years earlier. The concept of a grand building for the home of the board was contested, and it was argued that it was not part of the board’s duty to ‘beautify’ the city of Liverpool. Nevertheless, the dome was added at the last minute to give the building a more imposing look.

 

The interior also has many beautiful features?

SY: Yes, the main staircase is made of grey granite from Creetown, Dumfries - a quarry owned by the MDHB. The halls and corridors on the ground floor are lined with white Calacatta marble to a height of 8ft 6". The woodwork is made of Danzig oak, and bronze was used for the manufacture of door furniture.

A frieze between ground and first floor features the words of Psalm 107 in gilt letters. The full text reads, "They that go down to the sea in ships that do business in great waters these see the works of the Lord and his wonders of the deep. Anno Domini MCMVII"


 

The site was damaged during the war, how much of the original building remains?

SY: Yes it was, Liverpool became a target for the Luftwaffe and during the May Blitz of 1941, a bomb exploded in the basement on the eastern side of the building.

The damage from the explosion was significant, with the eastern wing being seriously damaged by fire; however, the building's structural integrity meant that much of the building could be re-occupied with only temporary repairs.

Plans for the £10m restoration project were approved by Liverpool City Council in 2005, which included creating new viewing areas inside the dome, a publicly accessible sunken piazza, shops, restaurants and luxury apartments.


What are some of the challenges you have faced in looking after such a historic site?

SY: The key has to be regular and appropriate maintenance and repair. It is obviously tempting to skimp on routine maintenance such as clearing gutters of debris and vegetation, or to reduce the frequency of external redecoration, particularly of the granite features, but what might appear to be useful financial savings can quickly lead to deterioration of the building.

It is sometimes surprising how robust historic buildings can be to this sort of neglect but this can mean that extensive damage can sometimes occur before you are aware that there is a problem and so relatively small savings in maintenance costs can result in considerable repair bills.

Difficulties are often experienced replacing worn or damaged materials and parts because the majority are no longer manufactured. A further issue is ensuring that appropriate advice is obtained once the need for repairs is identified and, that contractors experienced in the repair and maintenance of historic buildings are employed with a good level of site supervision.

An external wall was recently damaged and the quarry where the original granite came from closed a number of years ago, as a result (on the insistence of the Historic Buildings Officer) we had to source comparable granite. We had granite imported from Portugal, which was the closest match we could obtain. The repair eventually took 4 months to complete.


Any interesting management initiatives Helix have implemented?

SY: We introduced quarterly informal tenants meeting as previously there had been no interaction between tenants and landlord, plus I have a weekly email newsletter which I circulate to all. I am also a member of Liverpool Waterfront Business Partnership, which represents the wider interests of businesses along Liverpool Waterfront.


The Port of Liverpool Building has also had its fair share of Hollywood screen time, is that right?

SY: It has been used as a film set in several productions, including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes & Foyles War (TV series).