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The Spirella Building, associated fountain, lamp standards and steps

A Grade II* Listed Building in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire

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Latitude: 51.98 / 51°58'48"N

Longitude: -0.232 / 0°13'55"W

OS Eastings: 521520

OS Northings: 232762

OS Grid: TL215327

Mapcode National: GBR J6W.VHR

Mapcode Global: VHGNL.XHPG

Plus Code: 9C3XXQJ9+25

Entry Name: The Spirella Building, associated fountain, lamp standards and steps

Listing Date: 7 September 1979

Last Amended: 18 August 2015

Grade: II*

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1347670

English Heritage Legacy ID: 161840

Location: Letchworth, North Hertfordshire, Hertfordshire, SG6

County: Hertfordshire

District: North Hertfordshire

Electoral Ward/Division: Letchworth South West

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Letchworth Garden City

Traditional County: Hertfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Hertfordshire

Church of England Parish: Letchworth

Church of England Diocese: St.Albans

Tagged with: Factory

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Former factory building, designed by Cecil Horace Hignett (1879-1960), built in the Arts and Crafts style in 1912, extended 1913-14, and further extended in 1919-20. Now in use as commercial offices.


Former factory building, designed by Cecil Horace Hignett (1879-1960), built in the Arts and Crafts style in 1912, extended 1913-14, and further extended in 1919-20. Now in use as commercial offices.

PLAN: the U-plan building comprises three rectangular-plan wings arranged symmetrically around a central courtyard, with four corner pavilions.

MATERIALS: a reinforced concrete frame is encased with brick walls laid in English bond. The hipped gablet roof to each corner pavilion has a clay-tile covering, with a felt roof covering to the Ballroom (top floor of the west wing). The flat roofs of the workshop ranges of the north and south wings are paved (replaced c.1997).

EXTERIOR: the Spirella Building is a near-symmetrical four-storey factory building, built in three stages between 1912 and 1920, and executed in the Arts and Crafts style. The south, west and north wings (built 1912, 1913-14 and 1919-20 respectively) are arranged in a U-plan around a central courtyard, and face east to Bridge Road.
The south and north wings each have a six-bay four-storey workshop range over a basement, flanked to the east by a three-bay, four-storey pavilion, and to the west by a three-bay four-storey pavilion over a raised basement (exposed due to the sloping topography of the site). The west wing comprises a seven-bay, three-storey block over a raised basement.

The corner pavilions each have a hipped gablet roof, with a clay-tile roof covering and a central half-dormer to each slope. The dormer on the south slope of the north-east pavilion has a flat roof, and the north-west pavilion has a brick stack on its north slope. The workshop ranges of the north and south wings each have a flat roof, which functioned as a paved terrace, accessed by a door from the top floor of the pavilions. The west wing has a barrel-vaulted roof to the second-floor assembly room, having two hemispherical glass domes with cast-iron finials. Some cast-iron downpipes and decorative hoppers survive.

The reinforced concrete structure has brown brick walls laid in English bond, articulated by plain cast-concrete panels. The pavilions each have a plain concrete cornice under the eaves, supported on concrete brackets with engaged brick pilasters. The east elevation of the north-east and south-east pavilions (facing Bridge Road) bear the painted words ‘THE SPIRELLA COMPANY OF GREAT BRITAIN LTD.’ to the centre of their cornice. The north-east and south-east pavilions each have three bays of cast-concrete mullioned and transomed window openings containing leaded lights. The central bay of these pavilions is canted and contains an original timber-panelled door.
The workshop ranges of the north and south wings each have a concrete parapet, and engaged brick buttresses, articulated by plain concrete lintel and sill courses. The south elevation of the south wing (facing the train line) bears the painted text ‘THE SPIRELLA COMPANY OF GREAT BRITAIN LTD. HIGH GRADE CORSETS’ to the centre of its parapet. The former workshops have large sections of industrial glazing (replaced c1997), facilitated by the strong reinforced concrete structure. The upper floors have segmental-arched windows openings, and the basement has flat-arched window openings. An L-plan set of steps to both the north-west and south-west corners of the south workshop range originally provided access to the factory for workers, but now function as emergency exits.

The west wing is a seven-bay, three-storey block over a raised basement that projects west of the north and south wings. The top (second) floor has three oeil-de-boeuf windows separated by pairs of cast-concrete mullioned and transomed windows. The basement, ground and first floors each have large bays of industrial glazing (replaced c1997), with segmental arches to the ground and first-floor windows, and flat-arched openings to the basement windows. Two modern entrances were added to the basement of the west wing c1997: the central entrance on the east elevation grants access from Bridge Road, and the central entrance on the west elevation grants access from the car park.

INTERIOR: throughout the interior the reinforced concrete frame is evident as regularly spaced rectangular-plan pillars supporting cast-concrete cross beams and spine beams.

The north-east and south-east pavilions each have four floors: a ground floor; a first floor; a second floor (formerly a mezzanine overlooking the first floor); and a third floor which provides access to each of the north and south roof terraces. The ground floor of the north-east and south-east pavilions each has a canted entrance lobby from Bridge Road. The north-east pavilion contains an original canted inner porch and door, with timber panelling to the adjoining rooms, indicating that this entrance was most probably the public interface, used by guests and clients. The third floor of the north-east pavilion retains an ornately-panelled corridor leading to a suite of four meeting rooms, each of the meeting rooms having original timber-panelled walls. The east and west walls of the corridor have original timber-panelled partition walls, comprising rectangular panels with glazed partitions over, providing borrowed light to the corridor from the meeting rooms. The doors are crafted in the same style as the timber partitions, having two rectangular panels. The west side of the corridor has a central opening comprising an elliptical arch on engaged pilasters, leading to a panelled lobby with a central door to the roof terrace of the north wing.

The north-west and south-west pavilions each have five floors: a raised basement; ground floor; first floor; second floor (formerly a mezzanine overlooking the first floor); and a third floor providing access to the roof terraces. The north and south workshop ranges linking the pavilions each have four floors: a raised basement; ground floor; first floor; and second floor (formerly a mezzanine overlooking the first floor). The second floor mezzanines were extended to create a full second floor c1997 (no longer overlooking the first floor) and the original timber railings which once bounded the central bay of the mezzanine level were moved to guard the windows.

The west wing has four floors to the interior: a raised basement (now a reception and café); ground floor; first floor; and second-floor assembly room (now the Ballroom). The basement reception area does not contain any features of note, and has a modern entrance to the centre of its east and west walls (introduced c1997). The second floor retains its original auditorium, with a reinforced-concrete barrel-vaulted ceiling, having original Art Nouveau plasterwork to the ribs, and replacement light fixtures. The ceiling has two glazed domes, each having stained glass (replaced c1997) and plaster rosettes to the soffit. A canted timber-panelled stage is positioned to the centre of the north wall, flanked by ornate engaged pilasters and panels of Art Nouveau plasterwork over timber panelling. The Ballroom is overlooked by an original balcony on the centre of the south wall, which has tiered concrete steps, and is accessed from a plain metal stair from the third floor of the south-west pavilion.

The interior of the building was subdivided into smaller office spaces c1997, and modern partition walls and doors were introduced at this time. The former mezzanine levels of the north and south workshops were entirely floored to create a second floor office space c1997. Reinforced ventilation shafts were inserted c1997 to the centre of each floor of the former workshops in the north, south and west wings.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: a quatrefoil-plan fountain was installed in the central courtyard c1920, and comprises a coursed limestone plinth wall with limestone coping. The fountain formerly held a central sculpture of a putto on a plinth, but this was removed in the late C20. Much of the surrounding landscaping and hardscaping was redesigned c1997 and is not of special interest or included in the listing but the fountain is included in the listing.

Four original lamp standards stand to the east of the north-east and south-east pavilions, and can be identified in historic photographs from c1920, these are included in the listing.

A flight of steps, handrail and associated brick piers survive to the east of the south-east pavilion, providing access from Bridge Road. These features are included in the listing. It is likely that an ornate Art Nouveau style lamp associated with these features was introduced c1997, as the lamp does not appear on historic photographs and is not included in the listing.


The Spirella Company was founded at Letchworth in 1909, following the success of the Spirella Stay in America. The Spirella Stay was invented in 1904 by Marcus Merritt Beeman, and provided a revolutionary aluminium corset structure that had hitherto been constructed of whalebone. Beeman and two associates, William Wallace Kincaid (1868-1946) and Jesse Homan Pardee, set up the Spirella Company in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and the company soon prospered and expanded, first to Canada, then to the UK.

Kincaid set about finding a suitable location for a UK factory, and met in 1909 with Ebenezer Howard, founder of Letchworth Garden City. Howard published his book ‘Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’ in 1898, and this treatise was republished as ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’ in 1902. Howard advocated the construction of a new kind of town with industrial zones separated from commercial and residential zones, having an abundance of trees and open spaces, as was famously explained in his ‘Three Magnets’ diagram. In September 1903, the First Garden City Ltd was formed, and Richard Barry Parker (1867-1947) and Sir Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) were appointed architects to develop 16km² of land outside Hitchin.

Kincaid admired the ideals of the First Garden City, and wrote in 1912: ‘A principle of Spirella’s policy has been to instil into its employees right thoughts, right methods of living, right methods of work, an appreciation of the vital needs of sunlight, of food for health and of congenial employment for happiness. The Spirella found itself in sympathy with every detail of the Garden City Movement which has found its best expression in Letchworth’. The Spirella Company of Great Britain Limited was founded in September 1909, and the firm opened temporary premises at the old wooden sheds on Nevells Road in Letchworth in 1910. These sheds were built by the First Garden City Ltd a few years previously to temporarily house labourers who were employed to construct the town. Corset manufacture commenced in March 1910, with just 25 employees and 12 machines, and within two years the Spirella Company occupied all of the available space in the sheds. It became apparent that the growing business needed larger and better factory facilities for its expanding business. The Spirella Company selected a prominent site on Bridge Road, to the north-west of Letchworth train station. This town centre site was more than double the cost of an industrial site, the great majority of which were located in the industrial zone to the east of the town off Works Road. The Spirella Company also leased premises at New Bond Street in London, for use as a ‘Corset Parlour, Showrooms and Offices’.

In July 1912, Cecil Horace Hignett (1879-1960) was chosen to design the new corset factory at Letchworth, ‘to provide unbroken and well-illuminated working spaces with good access and with provision for future expansion’. Hignett was a pupil of Edgar Wood between 1896 and 1900, and assistant to Thomas William Hudson between 1900 and 1901, before commencing employment with Parker and Unwin at their Buxton office in Derbyshire in 1901. Parker and Unwin were awarded the commission to design the First Garden City at Letchworth in 1904, and both decamped to Baldock in Hertfordshire in the same year. Hignett stayed in the Buxton office supervising commissions until the eventual closure of the Buxton office in 1906. Hignett joined Parker and Unwin at Letchworth in 1906, and later established an independent practice at Letchworth in 1909. Hignett employed a grand Arts and Crafts style in a monumental scale for the design of the Spirella factory, a style which suited Letchworth Garden City but also fitted the ‘company style’ used in Canada and the USA. Howard Hurst was contracted to build the fireproof factory in reinforced concrete and brick.

The Spirella factory was built in three phases between 1912 and 1920. The south wing was built in 1912 to the immediate north of the Cambridge branch of the Great Northern Railway. The south wing is a four-storey structure over a basement, with a four-storey pavilion to the east end to Bridge Road, and a four-storey pavilion over a raised basement to its west end (owing to the sloping nature of the site). The building comprised four floors of workshops, the third floor being a mezzanine gallery overlooking the second floor. The reinforced concrete structure allowed a flat roof over the workshops, which was utilised as a roof terrace and accessed from the top floor of the pavilions. The pavilions of the south wing held employees’ bathrooms, a rest room and a reading room, with four stairwells to ensure escape in the event of an emergency.
The company’s business grew rapidly and the west wing was built attached to and perpendicular to the south-west pavilion between May 1913 and July 1914. The west wing had three floors of workshops, with an assembly hall on the top floor (now the Ballroom), designed to hold 1100 people. Further building was not possible during the First World War, but within three months of its end, the Spirella Company attained release papers for Cecil Hignett, who was serving in France with the Royal Engineers. Within five weeks of his return, work had begun on the third (north) wing of the factory. Started in 1919, this final wing was not completed until 1920 due to a shortage of building materials and skilled workmen after the war. The north wing was laid out on a symmetrical plan, mirroring the south wing (built 1912). Similar to the south wing, the north wing is a four-storey structure over a basement, with a four-storey pavilion to the east end to Bridge Road, and a four-storey pavilion over a raised basement to its west end. The completed design is shown on the 1922 Ordnance Survey (OS) map, and the factory is labelled as ‘Corset Works’ on the 1922 and 1939 OS maps.

The factory’s design, combined with its garden setting, led to it being known as ‘The Factory of Beauty’. The Spirella Company supplied staff with excellent working conditions and facilities. The large windows ensured each employee worked with natural sunlight, and free optical testing was provided with spectacles at wholesale prices. Bathrooms were provided, and it was reported that over 75 per cent of the workforce utilised this facility. An enclosed shed was built to the west in 1914, and extended in 1936 to store 350 bicycles, and on wet evenings the firm issued capes to employees travelling homewards without a coat. Fitness was encouraged through gymnastic classes, while a choral and orchestral society and a library catered for quieter tastes. The building provided for the social activities of its employees, with an auditorium for 1100 people, a kitchen and dining room, a library, roof gardens and baths.

In the inter-war years, the Spirella factory became affectionately known as ‘Castle Corset’, following W Fitzwater Wray’s satirical account of Letchworth in ‘How Sir Gadabout came to the Garden City’ (1923). The Spirella Company manufactured and assembled parachutes during the Second World War, and historic photographs show the Ballroom being used for this purpose. The west end of the south wing was extended in 1939 to accommodate an increase in manufacture, and an underground air raid shelter and decontamination unit was constructed west of the factory with accommodation for 1,000 workers (now a car park). Concrete blast walls were erected to protect ground-floor windows, plywood light shields were installed around door surrounds, and the glass domes of the Ballroom were protected with sandbags. Historic photographs indicate that the factory had its own fire brigade and Home Guard, and observations posts were erected on the roof terraces over the workshops.

The company transferred brassiere manufacture to Harlow New Town in the 1960s, but maintained a presence in Letchworth manufacturing surgical corsets until 1989. The former Spirella factory building was purchased by the Letchworth Garden City Corporation in July 1994, by which time the building was in a poor state of repair. Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation was founded in 1995, with the objective of applying the proceeds from the administration of the Letchworth Estate for the benefit of the community. The Foundation began restoration works at the former Spirella factory in February 1997, and following an £11 million regeneration project, the building was formally opened by HRH the Prince of Wales in January 1999. The regeneration project was awarded the ‘Property Innovation of the Year’ prize at the Property Week Awards in the same year.

Reasons for Listing

The Spirella Building, a former factory building, designed by Cecil Horace Hignett, built in the Arts and Crafts manner in three stages between 1912 and 1920, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: as a confident and monumental industrial building constructed in the Arts and Crafts style, and designed by accomplished architect Cecil Horace Hignett;
* Historic interest: for the contribution of the Spirella Company of Great Britain to local and national industry, manufacturing corsets at Letchworth Garden City from 1910 to 1989. Also for the important role the factory and its workers played during the Second World War, manufacturing military parachutes, assembling a local fire brigade and Home Guard, and providing factory workers with a large air raid shelter and decontamination unit;
* Interior: for the high level of survival of the original interior floor plan, as well as the survival of high quality interior features in the meeting rooms of the third floor of the north-east pavilion, and the second floor assembly room of the west wing;
* Group value: for the strong group value the Spirella Building holds with nearby listed buildings in Letchworth Garden City constructed in the Arts and Crafts manner, as well as the nearby, Grade II Registered Park and Garden, Broadway.

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