The Victorian Society is calling for Preston City Council to refuse plans to alter one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the country.
Tom Taylor, Conservation Adviser for the Victorian Society, said, ‘The Victorian Society objects in the strongest possible terms to these proposals. The Harris Museum is an incredibly important building — amongst the finest Greek Revival buildings in Europe. We must tread very carefully when altering a building of such architectural significance, and these proposals do not adequately take into account the special architectural qualities of this magnificent building. Preston City Council must do more to understand and protect Preston’s historic environment. We urge the council to seek revisions to these damaging plans.’
The Grade I-listed Harris Museum in Preston was built in 1883 to the designs of local architect and former mayor of Preston, James Hibbert, who built many buildings in Preston, including the Grade II-listed Fishergate Baptist Church (1858). Renowned architectural historian Nikolas Pevsner described the Neo-Classical Harris Museum as, "one of the largest, most imposing and memorable public buildings in north Lancashire". Grade I-listed buildings are described by Historic England as being 'of exceptional interest, only 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade I'.
Preston City Council has recently put forward plans for a £10.7m renovation project ‘Reimagining the Harris’ — intended to rejuvenate the interiors and to improve access to the building. The Victorian Society does not object to the principle of these renovations, but questions whether the current proposals are the best way of achieving them. The applicants have shown great concern for the interiors of the building, but have failed to apply the same care to the exteriors, where the proposed changes will cause significant harm to the building’s architectural character. Great civic buildings such as the Harris Museum are important not just for their function or contents, but as public works in their own right and the role they play in shaping place and local identity. Such vital parts of our heritage must be protected from needless and irrevocable alteration for the worse.
Two changes are cause for major concern. Firstly, a new ‘circulation core,’ will alter the building’s exterior to provide a new staircase and lift, giving level access to all floors. Although bringing important benefits, the intervention will be highly damaging to the building’s architecture. An extremely important aspect of the Harris Museum’s design is four high-level loggias. A loggia is a covered but open gallery, often at a high level, with its roof supported by an arcade of columns. The loggias at the Harris are short and projecting, with their roofs supported by plain square columns on three sides.
These are vital for the symmetry and balance of the building and the way they manage the play of solid and void. The new circulation core will infill one of the loggias, gravely compromising the building’s architectural value. This infilling will be the first substantial and highly visible alteration made to the building’s exterior since its construction.
The Victorian Society doubts whether the chosen location is the right one — there are several other possibilities which might prove less harmful overall. All these alternatives involve some alteration to the interior spaces of the museum, but none involve any harmful changes to the exterior.
The Society also questions whether the circulation core is necessary as it not required to comply with building regulations or fire safety.
The second major concern are alterations to the Lancaster Road entrance to widen an original bridge over the basement and remove a pair of decorative gates and stone parapets. These historic gates are an important part of the scheme of decorative ironwork which is characteristic of the Harris. Their removal will erode an important aspect of the building’s design yet no benefits are gained, as the entrance itself will remain its current width.
The Victorian Society has commented on the poor quality of the plans, highlighting that the application documents entirely fail to adequately articulate the architectural significance of the building. The assessment of ‘architectural and artistic significance’ is limited to just 152 words, which mostly offer only vague generalisations about classicism and Victorian civic ideals, with none spent on detailed architectural analysis.