Battle for the future of Stonebow

The view of the site in 1963 when the foundations of Stonebow House were being laid down

Stonebow from the flats development in Hungate.

August 1962: A view of the architect's model of the Stonebow project, with St Saviourgate and the church on the left, and Stonebow on the right.

Work progresses on business premises in Stonebow in 1959.

Matthew Laverack

Jon Wright

First published in Features
Last updated

The future of York's Stonebow House will be debated on Saturday. MATT CLARK looks at the options

FEW architectural styles divide opinion like Brutalism, the term coined by Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe post war buildings where function often wins over form.

Perhaps the most lauded example is Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, but critics argue it only works thanks to the Riviera sunshine.

In our damp climate, concrete is often paired with monstrosity. The Prince of Wales once said: "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble."

There are those who champion the form, however. In 1997 English Heritage listed the Park Hill estate in Sheffield and last year culture minister Ed Vaizey afforded the same protection to Preston's monumental bus station.

York's own prime example of Brutalism is Stonebow House, designed in 1964 by Wells, Hickman and Partners. Described by Pevsner as one of the most unsightly post-war developments in York, many have dubbed it the city’s worst eyesore and a couple of years ago a petition was launched calling for the building to be bulldozed.

But, as with any Brutalist building, Stonebow has its admirers. One of them is Jon Wright, a freelance architectural historian who argues that Stonebow has more merit than many might think.

"Once the building has gone, it’s gone forever," he says. "Before that happens, its qualities, without the fog of prejudice, need to be considered along with everything else."

Jon's may be a lone voice. One of the arguments against demolition was that it would leave Fibbers homeless, but now the club has moved out and another brick in the wall of preservation has been dislodged.

That said It would probably need special contractors because of the way it was built and what it is made from.

In which case, York Architect Matthew Laverack thinks the best course of action would be redevelopment.

"I have for some time suggested Stonebow House should not be totally demolished but altered to make the best use of those parts that are worthy of retention and to remove those elements which are detrimental to the traditional urban character," says Mr Laverack. "I also think most of the podium should be replaced with something more appropriate and sympathetic to St Saviourgate."

Recently City of York Council bought the land's freehold and the debate has found new momentum. Indeed, on Saturday a meeting will be held to discuss what could or should be done.

It has been organised by Helen Graham of the University of Leeds, who is involved with the Civic Trust in a project looking at the way decisions about heritage are made in York.

Saturday's meeting, she says, will "focus on whether Stonebow House has architectural merit, a question which certainly provokes strong opinions. The aim of the event is to open up to public debate lots of different ideas about the building. It’s not about a campaign for Stonebow House to be kept but it is about making sure any decision we ultimately make as a city has taken into account all perspectives – including the views of those who quite like it.”

So what could be done? Ultimately that will depend on the property's leaseholder, Loanstar. But should the company decide to sell, the council, as the land's freeholder, will be in a good position to open negotiations about the building’s future.

For now nothing has been ruled out. Any case changes are probably a very long way off, but Helen says the time is right to debate the best course of action.

Jon Wright will be speaking at Saturday's meeting.

"York has the chance to be progressive," he says. "To show how conservation of this kind of building can be a creative and positive exercise and indeed, save a part of the city that makes it quite clear that York is not just a bucolic medieval idyll, but that the late 20th century happened here too."

Stonebow: Past, Present and Future will be held at the Central Methodist Church, St Saviourgate, York on Saturday from 1pm to 4pm.

 

Opportunity for conversion into flats

Matthew Laverack makes a case for the redevelopment of Stonebow House

SUCH a building would never be considered appropriate today but attitudes were different in those post-war boom years when there was an appetite for embracing new ideas and designs; and also a perceived need for more city centre retail units and commercial space.

Stonebow House was always controversial as a structure that just did not harmonise with the traditional character of York. On the other hand it was honest, albeit uncompromising architecture, unmistakably of its time. I have always had mixed feelings about it. Exposed concrete does not weather well in our cool wet climate and tends to look dreary under grey skies.

Having said that I like the design of the office block and always thought it a modern day equivalent of a mediaeval stone tower. It is the podium on which it sits that I don’t like - not the facade facing Stonebow but the back fronting on to St Saviourgate. It does no favours to this street and spoils the setting of the Central Methodist Church.

The tower has no future as offices. Tenants cannot be found. The city is awash with empty office space. The obvious future is residential conversion. Having been inside the offices I have seen the terrific views across the city from that block. It would make most attractive city centre apartments. There is currently a window of opportunity for a conversion to flats without the planning system rendering the scheme financially unviable.

In May 2013, new Permitted Development rights were introduced for conversion of empty offices to residential use without the need to comply with the usual obligations imposed by planning authorities. These new concessions allowed a conversion of the old Aviva Offices in Rougier Street. For a period of three years it is possible to convert redundant office space without normal planning permission.

There is a “prior approval” system whereby the council can only consider issues of flooding, highways/transport and contamination.

If none of these can be regarded as a legitimate reason to oppose development, the council is legally obliged to sanction the conversion.

It is unlikely, however, that this opportunity will be taken before 2016 because of ownership difficulties in respect of different leaseholds. However, if the Permitted Development concession is extended there is some hope of housing within Stonebow House at some time in the future.

 

An island of post-war idealism in York

Jon Wright is a former case worker for the 20th Century Society. Here he argues why Stonebow is an important building for York and should stay

CONCRETE buildings of the 1960s and 1970s are not easy to fall in love with.

For many they are not even likeable and represent a complex mix of visual offensiveness, social ill and cultural prejudice that largely seems to condense into a couple of fundamental arguments to do with their materiality and form: ie – it’s large, made of concrete and therefore ugly and in some way is the cause of some form of urban blight.

The logical conclusion to such a view is that the object of this view should be torn down. As with any issue of taste and prejudice, it’s not that simple but it is inexorably linked to a wider disenchantment with post-war architecture and its legacy in the UK.

In 2012, The World Monuments Fund placed “British Brutalism” on its Watchlist – this list sought to highlight the fact that we were wilfully deleting an entire generation of buildings... that deserved better treatment, that deserved a second look – it was a decision that underscored a slowly encroaching feeling that we should look again, beyond the easy and the lazy, to see something else in these structures.

Attitudes can only be fairer as a result. It is with these issues in mind then, surely, that we should approach Stonebow House, an island of post-war idealism and aesthetic, situated in one of England’s most historic city centres and surrounded on all sides by important buildings from other, various periods of the city’s rich history.

No decision should be made without thinking about what, exactly, York would lose if it were to go.

Coolly considered and perhaps in spite of everything above, Stonebow House is good but not great and it is at best a borderline candidate on a national level but that should not mean it has to go.

York does not have very many buildings of this type and even fewer of this quality from the post-war period. When you consider the city centre in particular, it really comes down to this example.

Regardless of taste, it has achieved the status of a prominent local landmark. Too many buildings of this type have been lost and their loss regretted.

 

THE WORD ON THE WEB

What do our readers think? Here are a few comments recently posted on The Press website

THE history of York is the history of England. Like it or loathe it, this kind of building, the post-war dream, is part of that history. If other generations had knocked down buildings because they’d gone out of fashion, York would look very different now.

IF the Stonebow building was badly built in the first place and will not stand the test of time (bearing in mind that it’s already 50 years old) then it should be demolished and replaced with something better.

I WAS born in 1950s York and this place has been part of the landscape for many years, so love it or loathe it just leave it alone.

STONEBOW House, The Ryedale Building, BT building and Hilary House on St Saviourgate all need to go. They are all examples of the awful architecture from the 60s. If a volunteer is needed to press the plunger to blow these places up, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.

Comments (17)

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11:36am Thu 24 Jul 14

Knavesmire view says...

Knock it down, an ugly monstrosity.
Knock it down, an ugly monstrosity. Knavesmire view
  • Score: 15

12:31pm Thu 24 Jul 14

redbluelion says...

Knavesmire view wrote:
Knock it down, an ugly monstrosity.
would have made a nice night club.....
[quote][p][bold]Knavesmire view[/bold] wrote: Knock it down, an ugly monstrosity.[/p][/quote]would have made a nice night club..... redbluelion
  • Score: -8

12:49pm Thu 24 Jul 14

ouseswimmer says...

demolition is the only way ahead here. Perhaps we could have a glass pyramid in its place?
demolition is the only way ahead here. Perhaps we could have a glass pyramid in its place? ouseswimmer
  • Score: 10

1:10pm Thu 24 Jul 14

24.2.1969bestcitygoalever... says...

Never liked it. Never felt like York. Hides what's behind it too. Would that space offer any capacity/facility for easing local bus movements to and through York to encourage us to use our cars less?
Never liked it. Never felt like York. Hides what's behind it too. Would that space offer any capacity/facility for easing local bus movements to and through York to encourage us to use our cars less? 24.2.1969bestcitygoalever...
  • Score: 15

1:23pm Thu 24 Jul 14

Daley Mayall says...

I see trees of green, red roses too,

I see a view, for me and you,

And I think to myself,...

What a wonderful idea it would be to blow up Stonebow House and open the area up to a smarter paved area with seating, a revitalised taxi-rank and bus stops and a proper fountain - not like that measly one in Parlo Street that's never working - and make this area strictly off-limits to druggies and beggars who like to sit outside Heron or on the steps of that fine building in St Saviourgate wasting their lives away. Give it 25 years with this Council and...

they might think to themselves, what a wonderful idea,

...Oh yeah.
I see trees of green, red roses too, I see a view, for me and you, And I think to myself,... What a wonderful idea it would be to blow up Stonebow House and open the area up to a smarter paved area with seating, a revitalised taxi-rank and bus stops and a proper fountain - not like that measly one in Parlo Street that's never working - and make this area strictly off-limits to druggies and beggars who like to sit outside Heron or on the steps of that fine building in St Saviourgate wasting their lives away. Give it 25 years with this Council and... they might think to themselves, what a wonderful idea, ...Oh yeah. Daley Mayall
  • Score: 24

2:34pm Thu 24 Jul 14

meme says...

Lets be realistic
If its going to be replaced or refurbished the owners will want something as big. without the scale of something along these lines fortunes will be lost
BUT big does not mean grim and Stonebow hse is generally grim and certainly not fitting into Yorks character buildings. It would not be allowed today but then neither would Holgate Villas, Ryedale hse and Hillary hse all of which are going to be re-clad to provide better looking options.
Its amazing what can be done with a cladding system nowadays which will not mean demolition but will enhance this property
The secret is not to go for something that's flavour of the day ie at moment multi-coloured cladding that will look passé in 10 years time
look at the new school at Poppleton its going to be awful in a few years time but its trendy today!
Its future is residential one way or another on upper floors with retail/leisure etc below and it would be pretty easy to make this look much less brutal and more acceptable to York skyline
Lets be realistic If its going to be replaced or refurbished the owners will want something as big. without the scale of something along these lines fortunes will be lost BUT big does not mean grim and Stonebow hse is generally grim and certainly not fitting into Yorks character buildings. It would not be allowed today but then neither would Holgate Villas, Ryedale hse and Hillary hse all of which are going to be re-clad to provide better looking options. Its amazing what can be done with a cladding system nowadays which will not mean demolition but will enhance this property The secret is not to go for something that's flavour of the day ie at moment multi-coloured cladding that will look passé in 10 years time look at the new school at Poppleton its going to be awful in a few years time but its trendy today! Its future is residential one way or another on upper floors with retail/leisure etc below and it would be pretty easy to make this look much less brutal and more acceptable to York skyline meme
  • Score: -7

5:46pm Thu 24 Jul 14

Pinza-C55 says...

"The Prince of Wales once said: "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble."
That is surprisingly intelligent and amusing for him.

I find the logic of "Yes it would never be built now but it was alright 50 years ago" utterly bizarre.
50 years on we may have the chance to demolish it and replace it with something which DOES look good now.
As long as I can still buy those huge pork pies at Heron Foods I will be happy.
"The Prince of Wales once said: "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble." That is surprisingly intelligent and amusing for him. I find the logic of "Yes it would never be built now but it was alright 50 years ago" utterly bizarre. 50 years on we may have the chance to demolish it and replace it with something which DOES look good now. As long as I can still buy those huge pork pies at Heron Foods I will be happy. Pinza-C55
  • Score: 4

8:11pm Thu 24 Jul 14

Dave Ruddock says...

level it, note that St Crux church was thought to be hard to demolish, it went, Stonebow monolith seems to be prefab block slaps, standard 60s build. How about Small bus interchange/low level shops, and "Affordable homes" That's (AFFORDABLE) or leave it as it and let the architects that think its great live in it for (their) lifetime. that's a few suggestions..
level it, note that St Crux church was thought to be hard to demolish, it went, Stonebow monolith seems to be prefab block slaps, standard 60s build. How about Small bus interchange/low level shops, and "Affordable homes" That's (AFFORDABLE) or leave it as it and let the architects that think its great live in it for (their) lifetime. that's a few suggestions.. Dave Ruddock
  • Score: 5

8:48pm Thu 24 Jul 14

jake777 says...

Knock it down and build a bus station like the one in Leeds, With small shop units.
Knock it down and build a bus station like the one in Leeds, With small shop units. jake777
  • Score: 4

1:10am Fri 25 Jul 14

Magicman! says...

Consider this: any developer that takes on Stonebow House will want returns. If they knock Stonebow House down and the area is turned into a grassed area with a fountain, and maybe Stonebow itself is widened a bit, would the contractor get their moneys' worth out of the job? no. So then it becomes economically unviable.

And then there is this thought: can you name any *publicly accessible* buildings (ie shops, offices) which have been built in York city centre since 2000 that actually stand out as having any sort of architechtural merit as a design? Because I am struggling to think of any momorable modern buildings meeting that criteria; and that's the problem, modern construction tends to be much of the same stuff: light coloured stone cladding, mixed with the odd random piece of wood, large panes of glass (along with massive louvres to prevent the inside getting too hot on summer days by reducing sunlight ingress), a roof at a jaunty angle, a curve somewhere on the frontage - and they're just not memorable. At least with Stonebow house you remember it, so I guess that counts for something. Compare it with the collonade of shops on Spurriergate which houses Zara, H&M and the mini Morrisons - which of the two buildings is more memorable?

Now I am not a particular fan of Stonebow House, and having worked on one of the top floors back when it was occupied for a while I know it left a fair bit to be desired; but the highest likely scenario is that *if* it were to be demolished, it would be replaced with some random generic modern structure that would be just as big but would then be bland and forgettable too - plus the car parking provision will have been lost too... do we really want a large structure of cream-coloured stone pannelling, vast expanses of glass and jaunty roof angles there, still obstructing views of the church and St Saviourgate?

(Think too about what the York College building on Sim Balk Lane looks like, what if that got built on the Stonebow House site!)
Consider this: any developer that takes on Stonebow House will want returns. If they knock Stonebow House down and the area is turned into a grassed area with a fountain, and maybe Stonebow itself is widened a bit, would the contractor get their moneys' worth out of the job? no. So then it becomes economically unviable. And then there is this thought: can you name any *publicly accessible* buildings (ie shops, offices) which have been built in York city centre since 2000 that actually stand out as having any sort of architechtural merit as a design? Because I am struggling to think of any momorable modern buildings meeting that criteria; and that's the problem, modern construction tends to be much of the same stuff: light coloured stone cladding, mixed with the odd random piece of wood, large panes of glass (along with massive louvres to prevent the inside getting too hot on summer days by reducing sunlight ingress), a roof at a jaunty angle, a curve somewhere on the frontage - and they're just not memorable. At least with Stonebow house you remember it, so I guess that counts for something. Compare it with the collonade of shops on Spurriergate which houses Zara, H&M and the mini Morrisons - which of the two buildings is more memorable? Now I am not a particular fan of Stonebow House, and having worked on one of the top floors back when it was occupied for a while I know it left a fair bit to be desired; but the highest likely scenario is that *if* it were to be demolished, it would be replaced with some random generic modern structure that would be just as big but would then be bland and forgettable too - plus the car parking provision will have been lost too... do we really want a large structure of cream-coloured stone pannelling, vast expanses of glass and jaunty roof angles there, still obstructing views of the church and St Saviourgate? (Think too about what the York College building on Sim Balk Lane looks like, what if that got built on the Stonebow House site!) Magicman!
  • Score: 3

2:16am Fri 25 Jul 14

Annio66 says...

Knavesmire view wrote:
Knock it down, an ugly monstrosity.
This has to have been the worst of sixties design in the U.K. To have this grotesque design in the centre of an historical city is offensive. it sits like an Ogre in a beautiful garden, An industrial site would have been more suitable for this concrete box if we need such examples of buildings from this era. The building overshadows the street and even on sunny days the street is a wind tunnel , cold and grey ,reflecting the emotion it stirs. .
It is time for the building to go as it has deprived the people of York of Council tax monies, as it has been left empty for far too long.
[quote][p][bold]Knavesmire view[/bold] wrote: Knock it down, an ugly monstrosity.[/p][/quote]This has to have been the worst of sixties design in the U.K. To have this grotesque design in the centre of an historical city is offensive. it sits like an Ogre in a beautiful garden, An industrial site would have been more suitable for this concrete box if we need such examples of buildings from this era. The building overshadows the street and even on sunny days the street is a wind tunnel , cold and grey ,reflecting the emotion it stirs. . It is time for the building to go as it has deprived the people of York of Council tax monies, as it has been left empty for far too long. Annio66
  • Score: 1

10:20am Fri 25 Jul 14

tgfoy says...

Bluntly I think the architectural merit or not arguements are distractions. The question should be "is it fit for purpose?"
The tower has been underused for years, I understand the walls are damp due to the rain water downpipes within them leaking. Much of the place is empty or emptying. There are probably other practical issues that need resolving as well.
Perhaps this needs exploring more than the aesthetics of the place.
Bluntly I think the architectural merit or not arguements are distractions. The question should be "is it fit for purpose?" The tower has been underused for years, I understand the walls are damp due to the rain water downpipes within them leaking. Much of the place is empty or emptying. There are probably other practical issues that need resolving as well. Perhaps this needs exploring more than the aesthetics of the place. tgfoy
  • Score: -1

10:38am Fri 25 Jul 14

SR0843 says...

The 1960s photo is a gift as it shows us how the area could look: open, beautiful, with the steps of St Saviour's Church as York's answer to The Spanish Steps in Rome. A lovely piazza where people can sit or play, perhaps with a fountain; and it's on the far edge of the shops so people arriving by rail would be encouraged to walk across town, spending money in the shops en route. This side of town is lacking a large open space compared with Museum Gardens by the river; Kings Square is hopelessly small and enclosed. St Saviourgate could be partly paved (eg from Dig downwards to Colliergate) in the way that Kings' Square has been in order to make the space feel larger still. An underground bus station would be best, otherwise we'd risk St Saviour's church being hidden all over again.
The 1960s photo is a gift as it shows us how the area could look: open, beautiful, with the steps of St Saviour's Church as York's answer to The Spanish Steps in Rome. A lovely piazza where people can sit or play, perhaps with a fountain; and it's on the far edge of the shops so people arriving by rail would be encouraged to walk across town, spending money in the shops en route. This side of town is lacking a large open space compared with Museum Gardens by the river; Kings Square is hopelessly small and enclosed. St Saviourgate could be partly paved (eg from Dig downwards to Colliergate) in the way that Kings' Square has been in order to make the space feel larger still. An underground bus station would be best, otherwise we'd risk St Saviour's church being hidden all over again. SR0843
  • Score: 0

4:16pm Fri 25 Jul 14

pbrowne2009@live.co.uk says...

Less talk, more bulldozing please.

This monster of a building hurts my eyes every time I see it.

I sometimes walk down monkbar instead of layerthorpe when I walk into town because this building offends my eyes.

Remember driving into Selby before the Toll bridge, those hideous building on your left, its nearly as bad as that, it just doesn't smell as bad
Less talk, more bulldozing please. This monster of a building hurts my eyes every time I see it. I sometimes walk down monkbar instead of layerthorpe when I walk into town because this building offends my eyes. Remember driving into Selby before the Toll bridge, those hideous building on your left, its nearly as bad as that, it just doesn't smell as bad pbrowne2009@live.co.uk
  • Score: 0

12:52am Mon 28 Jul 14

ColdAsChristmas says...

It's a part of York and has been for as long as most of you commentators can remember.
I think Magic man had it about right on this one. Forget for a moment the aesthetics and look at the facilities currently offered: Office space, job centre, the Duchess, cafe, food shop and car park.
You won't get that by having a bigger bus stop and a fountain and neither would a developer be interested in grass and paving stones either.
So, what are you suggesting? Knock it down and build another one?
Haven't our Council wasted enough of our cash already?
Tidy it up and fix the damp spots etc and promote the place for maximum use. Where is your business sense? I forgot, when dealing with OPM (Other peoples money) you don't need any sense!
It's a part of York and has been for as long as most of you commentators can remember. I think Magic man had it about right on this one. Forget for a moment the aesthetics and look at the facilities currently offered: Office space, job centre, the Duchess, cafe, food shop and car park. You won't get that by having a bigger bus stop and a fountain and neither would a developer be interested in grass and paving stones either. So, what are you suggesting? Knock it down and build another one? Haven't our Council wasted enough of our cash already? Tidy it up and fix the damp spots etc and promote the place for maximum use. Where is your business sense? I forgot, when dealing with OPM (Other peoples money) you don't need any sense! ColdAsChristmas
  • Score: 2

3:53pm Mon 4 Aug 14

Yorkkeiyyer says...

It's not really clear what York is aiming to be -

A commuter city for Leeds and London?
A pensioners retreat?
A tourist haven with all the central areas polished, exposing original features?
An attractive student city, exciting, with diverse and comparable night life.
A future manufacturing and business hub with road links?
Maybe some, maybe all of these...

What does York look like in 2050? What's the vision?
It's not really clear what York is aiming to be - A commuter city for Leeds and London? A pensioners retreat? A tourist haven with all the central areas polished, exposing original features? An attractive student city, exciting, with diverse and comparable night life. A future manufacturing and business hub with road links? Maybe some, maybe all of these... What does York look like in 2050? What's the vision? Yorkkeiyyer
  • Score: 1

9:29pm Tue 12 Aug 14

baldiebiker says...

pbrowne2009@live.co.
uk
wrote:
Less talk, more bulldozing please.

This monster of a building hurts my eyes every time I see it.

I sometimes walk down monkbar instead of layerthorpe when I walk into town because this building offends my eyes.

Remember driving into Selby before the Toll bridge, those hideous building on your left, its nearly as bad as that, it just doesn't smell as bad
this WAS the industrial part of Selby providing 1000s of jobs just about gone now as has the smell, except when Greencore is making curry? when did you last visit Selby? (and why would you want to)
[quote][p][bold]pbrowne2009@live.co. uk[/bold] wrote: Less talk, more bulldozing please. This monster of a building hurts my eyes every time I see it. I sometimes walk down monkbar instead of layerthorpe when I walk into town because this building offends my eyes. Remember driving into Selby before the Toll bridge, those hideous building on your left, its nearly as bad as that, it just doesn't smell as bad[/p][/quote]this WAS the industrial part of Selby providing 1000s of jobs just about gone now as has the smell, except when Greencore is making curry? when did you last visit Selby? (and why would you want to) baldiebiker
  • Score: 0

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