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Apr 19, 2021
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Twentieth Century Society fights plans for landmark department store buildings

Published
Apr 19, 2021

A UK action group is out to prevent the demolition or redesign of historic retail properties as town centres respond to the reduction in physical retail.


Debenhams - Photo: Nigel Taylor



The Twentieth Century Society has its sights set on saving seven properties, and has further concerns about the future of another 23, The Guardian newspaper reported.

The Society is also calling on the public to flag other at-risk building, particularly after the failure or downsizing of many UK department store banners across the country, including Debenhams, Beales, House of Fraser (HoF) and John Lewis, leaving them empty and available for redevelopment.

High on the Society’s list of the most endangered buildings are Birmingham’s mid-century Rackhams, which is currently home to HoF; Debenhams in Taunton, which was built in 1938 and planned for demolition; and Marks & Spencer’s store near London’s Marble Arch.

There are also concerns about the future of Aberdeen’s John Lewis, and Browns of Chester (most recently a Debenhams), parts of which date back to the 12th century.

Landlords, local councils and developers are already considering plans for conversions to homes, offices, hotels, lecture halls and schools. 

The Society says some are sensitive to the original architecture, but others “involve the total or partial destruction of some well-loved local edifices".

Historic England, which has the power to list buildings and protect them from redevelopment, said it was “constantly assessing new applications for listing, including for department stores”.

Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, told the newspaper that many of the buildings may struggle to get listed status as they don’t necessarily use innovative techniques, or weren’t designed by famous architects. But, she says, they can be of tremendous local importance.

“People like to have a sense of continuity from the past. We are not saying we have to keep them as they are – housing Are You Being Served? department stores – but to keep the building and think imaginatively,” she says.

“They are extraordinarily varied, from streamlined Taunton to the brutalism of Aberdeen and neo-Gothic and neo-Regency, demonstrating a diversity of concerns and interests. A lot are beautifully constructed and have quality materials, and are integrated with streets around them.

“People have enormous fondness for them as places tied up with memories of growing up. They are where you had your first shoes fitted and where you had your wedding list when you got married. They have romance in terms of people’s personal history and different patterns of social life through the 20th century”.

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