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West Midlands Fire Service Headquarters

A Grade II Listed Building in Nechells, Birmingham

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Coordinates

Latitude: 52.486 / 52°29'9"N

Longitude: -1.8914 / 1°53'28"W

OS Eastings: 407473

OS Northings: 287571

OS Grid: SP074875

Mapcode National: GBR 626.9Q

Mapcode Global: VH9YX.5SG2

Entry Name: West Midlands Fire Service Headquarters

Listing Date: 27 October 2006

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1393931

English Heritage Legacy ID: 509130

Location: Birmingham, B4

County: Birmingham

Electoral Ward/Division: Nechells

Built-Up Area: Birmingham

Traditional County: Warwickshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): West Midlands

Church of England Parish: Cathedral Church of St Philip Birmingham

Church of England Diocese: Birmingham

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Listing Text


997/1/10432 LANCASTER CIRCUS
27-OCT-06 West Midlands Fire Service Headquarters

II
Fire Service Headquarters. 1935. Herbert Humphries and Herbert J. Manzoni. Red Flemish bond with Portland stone and concrete dressings with a pantile roof. Three storeys with attics and basement. The building is triangular with ranges set around a central drill yard and faces onto three streets; Corporation Street, Aston Street and New Street. The Fire Service Headquarters was designed to house an enclosed community for the fire-fighters, their families and the senior officers. It included housing, a school room and roof top playground, and recreation rooms, with garaging for the fire engines, workshops and stores for their repair. The style is Neo-Georgian to the exterior and functional or 'Moderne' to the courtyard fronts and the tall hose tower at the eastern corner of the yard.

HISTORY: The building was designed as the New Central Fire Station for the City of Birmingham. The design was by Herbert Humphries [later Sir Herbert Humphries] and completed by Herbert Manzoni after Humphries' retirement in 1935. It was built on a site which was already built over and a tavern, the City Weights and Measures Department and a row of houses had to be demolished to clear the site of c. 8,000 square yards. By October 1930 the site had been cleared, but the foundation stone for the new building was not laid until March 1934. The building was finished by December 1935 at a cost of £157,000 and officially opened by the Duke of Kent. Contemporary accounts reflect the high degree of civic pride which the building provoked and it is described in glowing articles which spoke of its advanced technology. This new technology included lights to indicate which machines were to respond to a fire, loud speakers to identify the location of the fire and electronically controlled engine starting and door opening. It also featured the latest 'turntable escape' which was reputed to be the first of its kind in the country.
The overall plan gives rich insight into the functioning and aspirations of the fire service at that time, prior to its nationalisation in 1941.

DESCRIPTION: The building occupies a triangular site at Lancaster Circus, central Birmingham. It is surrounded by Corporation Street, New Street and Aston Street. The original intention appears to have been to create an enclosed community or citadel for the fire-fighters, their families and the senior officers. The building included housing, a school room and roof top playground, and recreation rooms, with garaging for the fire engines, workshops and stores for their repair. The style of the building is Neo-Georgian to the exterior and functional or "Moderne" to the courtyard fronts and the tall hose tower at the eastern corner of the yard. The materials are red Flemish bond brick with stone dressings and pantile roof and the building is 3-storeyed with basements and attics. The interiors reflect both the Neo-Georgian and Moderne styles. The building takes advantage of the fact that it is sited on rising ground and the façade to Corporation Street and the corner tower above the entrance arch at the junction of Corporation Street and Aston Street are designed to be read from a distance and seem intended as a statement of civic pride. The tower and archway are in an English Baroque idiom that owes something to Nicholas Hawksmoor's church designs. It is of Portland stone with a large central arch of 2-storey height flanked by square-headed pedestrian gates. The stone here has banded rustication with prominent voussoirs to the arch. Above this is plain ashlar with a clock face and to the top is a belvedere with aedicular surrounds to the principal openings facing South West and North East. The 35-bay front to Corporation Street and the 31 bays to that of Aston Street both have symmetrical centres flanked by projecting Portland stone pavilions. The front to New Street is similarly of 27 bays with a symmetrical centre, although more subdued. The fronts facing the courtyard have 2 tiers of balconies giving onto flats on the upper floors of the New Street and Aston Street ranges. The ground floors house workshops [New Street] and shops [Aston Street]. The Corporation Street range has a machine room at ground floor level with space for 11 engines, above which were the single men's rooms and administrative rooms including the school room, committee rooms and the Second Officer's House. On the second floor were the large barrel-vaulted Recreation Room and the Gymnasium.
A projecting addition was added to the courtyard side of the Corporation Street block in the mid-C20 to house a new Fire Control room at first floor level with plant rooms beneath. The tower at the eastern corner of the triangular courtyard was originally built to dry out the canvas hoses as well as to act as a drill tower. It is "Moderne" in design with paired openings to the west front and ribbed and cogged detailing to the top. Two single-storey generator sheds were built against the south and east sides in the later C20.

EXTERIOR: The clock tower and principal gateway is at the corner of Corporation Street and Aston Street. It is of Portland stone with a large central arch of 2-storey height flanked by square-headed pedestrian gates, each opening having decorative bronze gates. The stone here has banded rustication with prominent voussoirs to the arch. The keystone bears an escutcheon with the letters B F B in a cipher. Above this is plain ashlar with bronze lettering 'WEST MIDLANDS/ FIRE SERVICE/ HEADQUARTERS'. A clock face is set above and to the top is a belvedere with aedicular surrounds to the principal openings facing South West and North East. These have Corinthian columns and open pediments. The tower is topped by a stepped parapet with concave panels. Beneath the archway the tunnel vault is coffered. At either side are single bays with sash windows of 4X5 panes, a type which recurs across the building. The 35-bay front to Corporation Street and the 31 bays to that of Aston Street both have symmetrical centres flanked by projecting Portland stone pavilions. The front to New Street is similarly of 27 bays with a symmetrical centre, although more subdued. The Corporation Street façade has 8 plain bays at left and 10 to the right of the central composition which is marked by 3-bay pavilions of Portland stone which project slightly. These are similar and each has banded rustication to the ground floor and a central doorway with a Diocletian window as fanlight. At first floor level the central window has a deep aedicular surround supported on brackets with free-standing Tuscan columns. To either side of this central window are panels of banded rustication and the lateral windows have Gibbs surrounds. The central second floor window is sunk and there is a pedimented gabled dormer to the roof. Between these pavilions are set the 11 pairs of panelled, half-glazed double doors to the machine room. These have a colonnade surround of Portland stone which projects slightly and has a Bolection moulding to the outer edge. The bays are divided by pilasters and there is a parapet with escutcheon and coat of arms to the centre. Recessed, above this are 13 bays of first and second floor fenestration with keystones to the sashes and cambered heads to the second floor windows. To the ridge is a timber belvedere with copper-clad roof and plinth which has Corinthian demi-columns, a squared dome and a ball-and-spike finial. The Aston Street façade is broadly similar in its treatment but differs in the handling of certain elements. The central portion is also terminated by 3-bay Portland stone pavilions. Here these have banded rustication to either side of the central 1st and 2nd floor windows and Pedimented dormer windows to the attic. The 15 bays in between are divided into modules of 3 bays, the central bay in each module having banded brick piers to either side of a Gibbs surround to the first floor window. At ground floor level are 14 shop fronts, grouped as pairs and divided by banded stone piers, the majority of which appear to retain their original windows, stallrisers, transom lights and fascias. The façade along New Street is similarly divided into 3 parts but more plainly treated with tripartite windows, illuminating the workshops at ground floor level and grilles at attic level for the roof top playground.
The drill yard is set with its original granite sets. The New Street range has the double doors of the workshops at ground floor level and the Aston Street range has the small back yard walls of the shops. Both ranges have walk-up flats to the first and second floors with concrete balconies and brick stair towers. The range facing Corporation Street has projecting 3-bay wings at either side of the central 13 bays. To the ground and first floor and placed in front of the 6 left-hand bays is the added Fire Control Room. The drill tower at the eastern corner of the yard is c.90 feet high. It has the most pronounced use of the 1930s Moderne aesthetic on the site with horizontal bands and cogged detailing to the top stage. It was originally built to dry out the canvas hoses and has paired openings to the west front. Two single-storey generator sheds were built against the south and east sides in the later C20.

INTERIOR: The entrance hall has a patterned Terrazzo floor and the treatment is carried up the walls and is seen on the treads and risers of the staircase. There is a bronze statue of a fireman gifted by the sculptor, Wheatley. The committee room has raised and fielded oak panelling to ¾ height and a Bolection moulded fire surround. The large Recreation Room has had a stage inserted, but otherwise conforms to its original appearance with a segmental tunnel-vaulted ceiling which has oval and round occuli to the centre. The interior of the Machine Room is also largely original, with tiled patterns to the floor, decorative tiles to the walls and panelled ceilings and the original pairs of double, semi-glazed doors facing Corporation Street. The original firemen's housing is now used as office space. Despite this the degree of alteration is minimal and the plans of the one and two-bedroom flats can still be easily 'read'. This building is a carefully designed example of the Neo-Georgian style as it was adapted to inter-war institutional buildings. It also gives a graphic impression of the life of the community who lived and worked on the site. In its organisation it anticipates the report of the Riverdale Committee in 1936 and the Fire Brigades Act of 1938 which foresaw the needs of wartime.

Summary of Importance:
This is a notable municipal complex, completed in 1935 to the designs of (Sir) Herbert Humphries, the City Surveyor, and one of the finest fire station ensembles of the mid-C20. The outward elevations possess considerable architectural dignity, whilst the internal configuration reflects the careful design of the complex, which housed a community and included housing, recreation, workshops and offices. The ancillary quarters are of less interest, but overall the complex is of special architectural and historical interest as an important inter-war municipal ensemble.


Sources: The Builder, 6 December 1935, pp1022, 1011-2

This text is from the original listing, and may not necessarily reflect the current setting of the building.

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