Following last week’s worrying news that the owners of Renshaw Street’s Grand Central Hall, the O’Brien Group, have submitted a planning application “To change use to create 41 bed student accommodation on 1st, 2nd and 3rd floors” rumours of the demise of the building’s shops and workshop spaces have been calmed.
Martin Womack, co-owner of the ‘Hippy Hole’ at Grand Central tells me:
“We’ve had discussions now with the O’Brien Group, and they’ve made it clear that the planning permission they’re’s seeking is mainly about the upper floors of the building. The ground floor and basement, where most of the shops are, will not be affected by the plans and on the first floor the plans are for an area that’s currently offices, not the shops. So we feel mostly ok now.
Obviously we know things can change in the future, but equally we’re all supportive of the fact that something’s got to be done about the upper floors and the fabric of the building, which are in dire need of help.”
So, fears generally calmed then. Though feelings left a little bruised by the fact that the owners, who people generally seem to get on with, left them to find out about the planning application through SevenStreets, rather than tell them directly. Another shop and workshop owner complains:
“Even in this one week I’ve had schools ringing me about whether we’ll now be going ahead with projects we’ve got planned for their pupils? You know, worries like that are not good for business.”
Which, along with downright curiosity, is one of the reason’s I’m here. To get an inside view of what’s happening at Grand Central and to have a serious nose around the historic building, with my hosts Martin and his partner Jen Womack, from the Hippy Hole.
Central Hall (it acquired the ‘Grand’ along the way) was built in 1905 as a Methodist Church, replacing a previous Methodist Church which had stood on the site since 1790, one of its congregation back then being William Roscoe. Being so large, the art nouveau Hall was used for multiple purposes right from the start. Variously a cinema and also a temporary home for the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, after the original Philharmonic Hall burned down in the 1930s.
The Methodist Church finally sold the building in 1990 and a few years later parts of it were renovated, becoming the Barcelona Bar, our very own bit of downtown Barcelona. That didn’t last long though and soon Renshaw Street was emptying out, the whole Rapid Hardware side becoming vacant as the Liverpool One shuffle of retailers broke out and the town centre moved itself closer to the river. Leaving space, though, for new and independent life to arrive at, by now, Grand Central Hall, as many of the former Quiggins tenants started arriving here as Quiggins on School Lane was closed down for Liverpool One
And here they still are, with clothes, piercing, gaming, vintage, vinyl and couture shops joined by newer arrivals like tie-dye Hippy Hole. Thirty and more shops and workshops trading in a colourful bazaar that’s some kind of imitation of or homage to the great architect Antoni Gaudi of, yes, Barcelona. Well, his ‘Sagrada Familia’ or ‘Parc Guell’ this certainly isn’t. But looking up at its colourful carved ceilings (‘All inspired by the four elements’ Martin tells me) and down into the twinkling shops which seem to have tumbled from the balconies and stairs above, there is certainly nothing else like it in Liverpool.
The place also contains a large theatre, Roscoe Hall, soon to stage ‘Elvis!’ A performance space where, not too long ago, Jenn and Martin had their wedding. They love this place.
But they’ve never been on its roof, which is where ‘H’ the building’s friendly ‘security’ agrees to take us. Wonderful it is too. With views over to nearby Bold Street none of us have ever seen before. But also worrying. Because it’s in a terrible state. Well established buddleia forcing apart the bricks and dome-work, leaving none of us in any doubt that considerable restoration needs to be carried out up here as soon as anyone likes, to preserve the place.
But works that also include adding to the city’s student housing stock on the floors below?
As we walk down through the warren of oddly shaped rooms, exploring the third and second and first floors, two words are on all of our lips: ‘Affleck’s Palace.’ This is easily big enough and interesting enough to be our version of the great Manchester emporium. The Liverpool Palace, down on Slater Street might be long gone, but in here could there perhaps be an even bigger bazaar than now? Full of more shops, more art, more Liverpool creative types? Just a thought. Something, anyway, more fitting with the spirit of the place than yet more student flats.
Still, even as it is the place is a marvel and well worth crossing the road from Bold Street to see. And while you’re this side, have a look at what else is here. The Olive Tree for all things Moroccan; 69A for antiques, curios and buried treasure; And, of course 81 Renshaw for your hunger, thirst and a good sit down after all that shopping.
Do come and explore Grand Central Hall. In an age of increasing corporate blandness, such a one-off wonder full of independent enterprises is a treasure. So let’s treasure it. A market place, a bazaar in fact, that enriches all of our Liverpool lives. Long may it continue.
Guest post by Ronnie Hughes, joint editor of a Sense of Place