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Monuments to a golden past

Volume 32, Number 4, December 2021

Nick Jenkins

The most glorious newspaper palaces were taken over by bankers: the less beautiful ones were ground into dust

When Max Aitken, the first Lord Beaverbrook, opened the Fleet Street headquarters of his Daily and Sunday Express papers in 1932, he was making a statement. The curvy Art Deco building, faced in thrilling black Vitrolite and chrome strips, was a masterpiece of an architectural style known as Streamline Moderne. But it was more than that . . . it was a symbol of power.

Any journalist entering the extraordinary lobby, with its Eric Aumonier reliefs and its modernist light fittings and staircase, knew he (mostly he then, of course) was at the centre of the world. Fleet Street was the heart of global journalism and the Daily Express was the biggest-selling newspaper on Earth. Within seven years, Beaverbrook had opened lookalike siblings of that building, impressing the people of Glasgow and Manchester too with his futuristic vision.

A year after that 1932 opening on Fleet Street, Arthur Christiansen began his 24-year tenure as editor of the Daily Express, going on to double its circulation in barely 10 years. He must have truly believed himself to be a master of the universe. Probably no coincidence, then, that long after his paper’s heyday, the building that Private Eye christened “the black Lubyanka” was occupied by Goldman Sachs bankers. By then, of course, they were the masters of the universe.

The Glasgow building continued to produce fine journalism for many years after the Express moved out as the Glasgow Herald moved in. It is debatable if the same can be said for the offices in Manchester, believed by some to be the finest of the three, which went on to become the home of the Sunday Sport. Some might say that a measure of dignity has been restored now that building has been converted to flats. The Express stable of papers moved to another prestige site in London after Margaret Thatcher opened Ludgate House at the south end of Blackfriars Bridge in 1989. This almost-as-curvy building, although not black so somewhat less thrilling, was evidently intended to mirror the style of Sir Owen Williams’ 1932 masterpiece. It even had a bar, named the Popins, presumably in a nod to the Popinjay, the Fleet Street pub formerly frequented by Express journalists. Alas, just 15 years later, those journalists found themselves shifted back over the bridge to a less imposing HQ – and 13 years after that, Ludgate House was demolished.

These buildings tell the story of the 20th century rise and fall of the mass media estate. It was the era when newspaper and broadcasting buildings that had often developed piecemeal over the years were replaced by confident expressions of power – and optimism for the future. BBC Television Centre in White City, west London, replaced scattered production facilities at Alexandra Palace, Lime Grove and Riverside Studios. When it opened in 1960, it was the biggest TV centre in the world. Arriving for work at this soon-familiar building (something personalities were regularly filmed doing) was another “masters of the universe” moment. Yet barely 50 years later, in 2013, Television Centre was decommissioned.

At least it is still there, albeit redeveloped, unlike the flattened New Broadcasting House in Oxford Road, Manchester, which had only just opened when my newly graduated wife started her first job at the BBC there in 1975. Many other media centres, mostly paid for by the advertising boom of the second half of the 20th century, have also gone altogether. Birmingham architect John Madin, known for his brave and brutal use of concrete, saw two of his hometown masterpieces, the Post and Mail newspaper building and the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios, demolished in his lifetime. Only his death in 2012 prevented him seeing the demolition of his much loved and equally hated Yorkshire Post HQ in Leeds shortly afterwards.

I worked in that building, and even journalists much younger than me will be familiar with my sense of loss that all the places I ever worked in have already vanished. The monolithic and modernist Mirror building at Holborn Circus was only 18 years old when I started work in its enormous newsroom, but it is now more than 20 years since it was replaced on that site by Sainsbury’s head office (is it true the basement presses were left in situ and encased in the concrete foundations as it was easier than dismantling them… or is that just an old journalists’ myth?).

When I arrived at the Yorkshire Post in 1990, it was only 20 years after Madin’s bold building was opened by Prince Charles, who presumably had yet to develop his dislike for carbuncles. The regional press was still thriving, and over the decade I spent there, it was so crowded that we struggled to cram anyone else in. The cavernous octagonal newsroom, with its narrow windows so high up under the roof as to be useless, was once described by a trade paper as the worst in the country, but it inspired affection in those who worked there. It certainly inspired some superb journalism over the years, windows or no windows. Now blocks of uninspiring flats are rising up on the site – and Yorkshire Post Newspapers occupies just one floor of an anonymous nearby office block.

PA’s London building in Vauxhall Bridge Road, near Victoria station, was just five years old when I first walked in – in THIS century. It had replaced PA’s HQ at 85 Fleet Street, which was slightly newer than the modernist Express building but designed by Lutyens in a much more traditional style. Now the “VBR” building too has been demolished, to make way for a hotel. PA’s former editor Jonathan Grun trained as a City of Westminster tour guide in what little spare time he had and now leads walks for charity. One of his favourite lines is: “If you don’t like this modern building, don’t worry – a new one will be replacing it within 25 years.” That is certainly true of most of the ambitious media buildings that have gone up in my lifetime. No doubt many BJR readers will have similar stories to tell of workplaces they will never be able to revisit.

Of course, that is to be expected of the smaller places in which many of us began our careers. I wouldn’t expect to revisit the Plymouth trading estate where I and many other former Mirror trainees began our careers and discover the Portakabin, behind the press hall, where we made the flimsy walls shake as we enthusiastically hammered the keys of our typewriters. And the smoke-filled first-floor office in Exeter where we “crafted” stories in dire style for the regional Sunday Independent is long lost to fine journalism. Somewhat sadder is that the downstairs bakery we had to pass through to get to our desks is now a branch of Richer Sounds. A genuine loss to fine baking.

But it’s the loss of those architectural expressions of power and influence that hurts. Some, like Rupert Murdoch’s inward-looking “Fortress Wapping” might not be much missed, but others are bound to inspire sentimentality, especially when old journalists gather for a pint or two. Thomson House in Newcastle’s Groat Market – home of the Journal, the Chronicle and the Sunday Sun – was described as the most advanced newspaper office in the world when it was opened by prime minister Harold “white heat of technology” Wilson in May 1965. Now it has been abandoned, to be replaced by two hotels. Its journalists have moved to “state of the art” offices on the second floor of a block attached to a shopping centre. Meanwhile, another Thomson House, formerly home to the Western Mail and South Wales Echo in Cardiff, is now just a hole in the ground.

Journalists in Plymouth moved into the flamboyant and expensive new Western Morning News/Evening Herald headquarters in 1993 – a building nicknamed The Ship because of its distinctive maritime shape. This was indeed a classic statement of confidence . . .  yet the papers moved out only 20 years later and instead of a newsroom, the building now houses the Adrenalin Trampoline Fun Park. At least it still exists – saved from demolition when it became the newest building in the country to be given listed status – and fun is still being had there. And, curiously, it’s not the only one: the Leicester Mercury’s old press hall is now a trampoline park too. A former employee told me: “My daughter went soon after they opened it. ‘How was it?’ I asked. ‘Pretty good, but I felt like I was bouncing on your grave,’ she said.”

From a buzzing newsroom to a dusty museum-piece

The story is the same across the country – great media centres that burned all too briefly with creativity then fizzled out, to be turned into flats or hotels, like the former Liverpool Post and Echo HQ , or to vanish forever. Some titles moved out of town, such as the Manchester Evening News, now in Oldham rather than Deansgate, but others took advantage of the decoupling of newsrooms and press halls to downsize.

From Aberdeen to Southampton, Worcester to Preston, Carlisle to a town near you, buildings that once married journalistic endeavour with the excitement of ground-shaking presses have been reduced to rubble. The Evening Sentinel’s old office in Stoke, built on the site of a historic Wedgwood factory, has now gone, replaced by a headquarters for Bet365. Clearly, gambling is a better bet than newspapers these days.

And it isn’t just the nationals and the big city dailies that invested – serious money was often spent on weeklies too. Princess Diana opened a new out-of-town plant for the Harrogate Advertiser in 1991 when times were good. Now it’s back in town. The Newbury Weekly News was still buying new presses in 2004 and 2009, possibly the last weekly to have its own printing plant. It has now abandoned Newspaper House and moved into an old Skoda dealership.

In the mid-’90s, I took my children to the Yorkshire Mining Museum, where we were shown round by an ex-miner. The following week we went to the fishing museum in Grimsby and were given a tour of a trawler by a former skipper. I joked then that, one day, children would be shown round the Yorkshire Post offices and a wrinkly one-time editor would tell them: “You’re not going to believe this, kids, but once upon a time, hundreds of people worked here producing these things that used to be called newspapers . . .  ask your grandparents about them.” It seemed fanciful at the time, but in May this year the Coventry Evening Telegraph’s fine 1958 modernist building re-opened as a newspaper-themed hotel where you can read your room information in a mocked-up tabloid. Our history has become a museum piece.

Would it be romantic or sentimental to wonder if those who follow on from us in those repurposed newspaper or broadcasting centres feel the energy that once brought these places to life? Of course it would. A building is a building. But those few rebranded palaces of dreams that haven’t been reduced to rubble would be a perfect metaphor for the decline of our industry, if only they weren’t such concrete realities. Shelley was remarkably prophetic in the poem he clearly wrote about the 21st century media estate: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.”

There were those who gloomily predicted that sharing an office block with insurance companies or financial institutions, far from the Street and the pubs where journalists once gathered, would kill the magic that comes from having a dedicated, purpose-built headquarters, with a big sign outside displaying the paper’s name and thundering presses in the basement. They were wrong about that: great work is still being done.

But now, of course, it is often being done at home. A former Grimsby Telegraph staffer tells a familiar tale: back in the ’80s, when she first worked in the Telegraph building (opened by Princess Anne in 1976), “all floors were bursting. Now they all work from home”. In this Covid era – and no doubt the cash-pressed post-Covid era to come – when journalists, still in their pyjama bottoms, push open the door of the spare room and switch on the laptop to start their shifts, are they still able to imagine themselves masters of the universe?

Of course, there have always been people in our business who could legitimately claim that power. Withy Grove in Manchester was once the largest newspaper printing plant in Europe. It housed many newspapers under one roof until it was renamed Maxwell House by Robert Maxwell, who then closed it. Now only the facade survives, wrapped around a ghastly “entertainment venue” called The Printworks. Not long before the end of its newspaper-producing days, I was wandering the antiquated corridors when a door with gold lettering on its frosted glass caught my eye. That door would surely lead to the job we had all been aiming for (though not being Catholic might possibly have been a barrier to this particular appointment):

Managing Director

The Universe.

Nick Jenkins formerly worked at some of the titles mentioned above (and appreciates the important job done by those still labouring, even if they have to do so in less impressive offices these days). He never did get a job as a newspaper museum guide, but is chief sub of the BJR as compensation.

@nicholasjenkins

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