“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” said Winston Churchill in the House of Commons in 1944. By this he meant, of course, that although buildings are the result of architects’ ideas, over time – once they have been occupied – people who live or work in them ultimately take on the qualities of the building they inhabit.
By this estimation, how lucky are those of us who have learned and worked within Oliver & Leeson’s warm, red-brick High School building on Tankerville Terrace: purpose-built as a school for Ladies in the Arts & Crafts style, subsequently nurtured and ‘eased into the future’ by others who, in the process of re-shaping her over the years, have at the same time been shaped by her themselves ? Her special atmosphere warms people up, rubs away their rough edges.
February 29th is a special day. It is a ‘leap day’. The specialness of leap days never fails to make me think of Brigadoon, that magical tale of love in a Scottish village which disappears into the Highland mist returning for only one day every one hundred years. If I haven’t lost you off totally by now, Brigadoon reminds me of the Church High site now. Although it’s been painful to watch in many ways, one of the by-products of layers of the building being stripped back during the renovation, is the history that has been uncovered because of it. This is most true at the very top of building where a name from the past hid in the area of the eaves I call ‘The Mouse Man’s Domain’.
This little room in the roof, hidden behind its even littler door, was where Steven Farrell, Church High’s IT Manager, housed the server. If you were ever passing when the entrance hatch to the raised-floor attic room was open, you would have been presented with this view.
It was a strange but magical little space. To me, it always felt like being in one of those attic rooms forgotten by time. When I look at these photographs, taken in the summer of 2014 while the building was still in the hands of the Church High Support Staff before the answerphone was finally switched over to Central, I relive again the curiosity and affection with which I explored the room for the last time, more closely than ever before. If the LRC was the modern heart of Church High, then this amazing place, a creative mish-mash of past and present day, was surely its brain stem. The criss-crossing king posts and trusses were like old neural pathways ossified by time, intermingled with computer debris and, strangely, basketballs. It was to the left of the entry hatch that the Brigadoon idea took hold.
I hadn’t ever had the need, time nor opportunity to explore this room fully before. It’s amazing the detail you take in when you think you are looking at something for the very last time. What I noticed etched onto an old steel beam wedged in between the brick work beside the entry hatch intrigued me enough to take a photo of it .
It was only recently I remembered the photograph and looked up the inscribed name: ‘J & W Lowry’. What I unearthed just further fuelled my fascination with the building. It seems the company who, at the very least, constructed the steelwork of Newcastle High School in 1889 were a very reputable firm indeed back then and were responsible for shaping many of the city’s iconic buildings. J. & W. Lowry was founded in 1848 by John and William Lowry and in 1862, the firm jointly undertook construction of the Central Station Portico in Newcastle as well as several Tyne riverside warehouses.
As the firm’s website makes clear, in 1867 the new Tyne Theatre was constructed next and many other notable buildings in the centre of Newcastle followed, including St. Phillip’s Church High Elswick, the Fleming Memorial Hospital for Sick Children (adjoining Church High), the Newcastle Co-operative Stores in Newgate Street, the Northern Goldsmiths Hall in Westgate Road, J.J. Fenwick’s Store in Northumberland Street and St. Matthew’s Church. When Newcastle High School was built, Walter Lowry (son of John) ran the company. Our building was clearly in very good hands and is ‘sister’ to some very well-known buildings in the city.
Sadly, that historic steel beam is no longer within the building since the renovations, but the server unit remained in situ for 18 months.
At the moment, that magical gable attic space in the eaves still retains some of its original atmosphere, but that will change, I know.
So just as Steven Farrell threaded state-of-the-art fibre-optic network cables throughout the Church High building in the 1990s, one hundred years earlier Walter Lowry’s firm had laced her with steel. Brigadoon. You see, the people who shape buildings never really leave them. If you know your Titanic, we will ‘meet them by the clock.’ And for me, that’s the most important thing to remember.
This was certainly brought home to me last year in a very quirky way. When I knew the north staircase was to be demolished, I asked Wates for a piece of wood as a memento. They forgot, of course, and I don’t blame them. It is a huge job they have to do. The week after, however, I spotted what looked like a piece of dark wood by a skip. I asked for it and took it home, but, as it dried out, it lightened. Greatly so. It wasn’t from the stairs at all. It was from the Barbour Wing constructed in 1998. How could I know this from such a small piece of seemingly insignificant modern wood? Because, amazingly, it had a name on it too. The drying out process revealed faint writing in shiny lead pencil: ‘Ray Armstrong July 1998 Weather cloudy-warm.’
Ray, like countless un-named others, also added to the structure. I can’t help wondering who he was, where he is now and in what ways working within this beautiful building shaped him as a person too.