If you’re reading this, it’s likely a grey and dreary day, a stroll along the Harbour Arm doesn’t sound tempting and you’re unlikely to fancy frolicking in the fountains. Why not grab a cocoa, find a comfy chair and enjoy a nice story – well, the history of a building that was forgotten long ago by many….
Despite receiving a Charter from Edward II in 1313 entitling the town to a Mayor, Folkestone remained a rather sleepy port and market town for centuries. It wasn’t until George IV took the throne that the Earl of Radnor began building the Folkestone Estate, hiring the existing Cistern House to the Council for use as a Town Hall. Fittingly, the building was replaced with a Regency style Town Hall – the King’s preferred architecture – in the year of his death and opened in 1831, when the population was below 4,000. Joseph Messenger, a local architect, designed it and his building still stands today as the museum, cinema and Town Council offices. The town grew rapidly during the Victorian period, particularly after the arrival of the railway, rising to just under 19,000 by 1881. By the turn of the Century, the Council had taken over offices in Foord Road and Dover Road as well. 100 years after the Town Hall was built, the population had almost reached 36,000. This had risen to almost 46,000 when war broke out in 1939. During WWII, the Council used the evacuated Harvey Grammar School as temporary offices before taking a lease on 1 The Leas (no, not the current one!) and 2-10 West Terrace (pictured below).
Unfortunately, these buildings were not cost-effective. They were old, tired, plaster was peeling off the walls, narrow stairways were inefficient for a large staff and the open grates made the buildings expensive to heat. The owner was also keen to redevelop the land. So the Council approached the Royal Institute of British Architects for help. The president nominated Frederick Gibberd, known as the ‘flat architect’ for his modernist designs, which included Pullman Court in Streatham Hill, Nuneaton Town Centre and St. Albans and Doncaster Civic Centres. He suggested 7 acres of the Pleasure Gardens Theatre land that was used for sports including a croquet lawn and the prestigious Folkestone Lawn Tennis Club where early Davis Cup matches were played prior to WWI. Much to the annoyance of the club, the Government approved the land purchase for £38,478 in 1961 (about £860,000 in today’s money), with no compensation for the loss of facilities. Two parcels of land adjoining Trinity Road were sold for a totally of £14,910 (around £335,000 today) to the London Institute of Underwriters and Ministry of Public Buildings and Works for offices. Gibberd was by then working on the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral so recommended McMorran and Whitby, known for Lammas Green housing estate and several buildings at Nottingham University. With their Devon County Hall, City Police Station (now known as Wood Street) and Amersham Free Church projects under construction, they seemed to be a good choice for Folkestone, especially as they drew more classical inspiration in their work than the Brutalist and Modernist movements, and were hired in April.
“No building should be judged in isolation but always in relation to its surroundings” – Sir Hugh Casson, in Folkestone Town Hall
By May 1962, they had come up with two designs. One was initially favoured, blending a four-storey classical styled block in with the neighbouring Wampach Hotel via a broad walk between the two buildings leading to a future public assembly hall and neighbouring Magistrates’ Court with a minimal amount of new road. No decision was made, except that it would be a waste of money to build an information centre there.
“It is difficult enough for 36 elected representatives to decide on anything, without calling on 45,000 townspeople to agree to every individual item” – Cllr. Banfield
However, the favoured option quickly became a nine-storey tower block of reinforced concrete with brick infilling before the plans went to public exhibition at the end of the year, with Councillors justifying this as giving more room to build in future and as an invitation to build tall. As per the other plans, this did not include a Council Chamber, but it could be accommodated at a later stage.
“We shall show builders that we welcome them here to develop upwards” – Alderman Sainsbury
Interestingly, public opposition mostly slated the sloped roofs and arches, which were considered reminiscent of a Victorian stable conversion, but McMorran defended these as softening the straight lines, although pointing out he was unhappy about infilling the arches, which should have a walkway under them. He also advised against cutting the cost of stonework above them by using concrete as it would be ‘tricky’. However, the main objection was that it looked like a warehouse, a criticism the architect was puzzled to frequently receive about his designs. He warned against removing the surrounding Victorian buildings, which many liked.
“I am rather fond of the Victorian era. Their buildings have a breadth and scale about them, a sense of power which we never had before nor have had since” – Donald McMorran
By 1964, the design had again been changed and this was the final design to be built. Or so we thought. The Government approved a £399,800 loan (about £8.1 million in today’s money) for the work, which commenced that year. However, the following year saw a change of heart and the previously vetoed Council Chamber was added to the West of the tower block as a single-storey building. A further £48,800 loan (about £950,000 today) had to be approved. Sadly, McMorran died in 1965, leaving Whitby to oversee the project.
The 112ft high building was sufficiently completed for most of the 130 staff to move in on 4 July 1966, but the complex was officially opened by Princess Alexandra on 4 May 1967. All departments of the Council were under one roof for the first time ever, and they proudly boasted having the tallest building in the district. The buildings included the Mayor’s parlour, Alderman’s robing room, a press room, the information centre Councillors had insisted was a waste of money, laboratories, strong rooms and enough room to hold over 14,000 plans dating back to 1875 and another 10 years’ worth, which seems rather short-sighted if their archive was already nearly 100 years old!
The official publicity, which included a presentation brochure, gushed about the reinforced concrete with infilling of Dorking brick, Portland stone facings, Reamy glass in the Council Chamber, polished hardwood floors, quality African hardwoods such as Agba for the doors and Utile in the Council
Chamber, shadow-free fluorescent lighting and oil-fired central heating. However, there was still a fair amount of public outrage, especially that we could have had something a bit better for our £474,033 (around £10 million today).
“How ridiculous of our City Fathers and their clerks to come and perch themselves up above our heads in this ugly, pretentious civic centre in the best residential part of Folkestone when they might just as well have been carrying out their duties less ostentatiously in the workaday part of the town!” – N. L. Bickers
You may notice that the brick building photographed looks quite different from the dreary grey monster that looms over Folkestone today. So how did that come about? In December 1971, the Council issued a writ against the architects, stating that ‘extensive dampness is coming through the walls’. The architects blamed the builder, Costain (Construction) Limited, who were then named co-defendants. A consultant architect recommended ‘experimental remedial works be carried out to the tank tower, consisting of an external rendering of sand and cement, graded to the strength of the brickwork with lime.” The experimental work was thought to cost £2,000-3,000 (£25,000-40,000 today) but this would then have to be applied over the whole building for considerable cost. The outcome of this writ is unknown, but it is assumed that the building was rendered after this. However, this wasn’t the only work to take place.
In 1972, the Government introduced the Fair Rents Act, for which the Council needed extra staff. The robing room was deemed superfluous and converted to waiting and interview rooms at a cost of £1,000 (around £13,000 in today’s money). The weights and measures department moved to Church Street, still owned by the Council. 1974 saw a request for enlarging and altering the Civic Centre, less than 10 years after it opened, at a cost of £25,000 (about £260,000 in today’s money). This was thought to be a saving on suggestion that Council buildings in Hythe and Lyminge should be put to use. And it was suggested that the information centre should be moved to a more central location. Later that year, an application for £4,000 (about £42,000) was put in for office furniture – curious when most furniture was thrown away during the move from West Terrace – and another for £561 for signposts as ‘people wander around like lost sheep’. However, yet another request illustrated the Council’s inability to make effective decisions from the outset – £3,500 to convert the central heating to gas. Apparently, a new oil storage tank was needed and that was estimated at £2,000 but turned out to be £3,300. The running costs would be reduced by about £450 on gas. Which makes you wonder why they didn’t choose it in the first place. The biggest change came in 1989 when two storeys were added to the front single-storey building in the form of the glass structure now seen and an additional 68 car parking spaces were added.
The car park came under criticism in 2014 when former Mayor Janet Andrews slammed the Council’s decision to resurface their car park at a cost of £40,587.56 when public car parks in the district were also in disrepair. The Council’s response was that the car park was in a worse state than any other Council-owned car park. Furthermore, it was available for the public to use at weekends, thus it was the most in need of resurfacing. As the sign states that the visitors’ car park is 1 hour maximum for visitors only and the rear car park is for ‘Staff and Councillors permit parking only’ and appears to have since at least October 2015, it would appear the public weren’t able to take advantage of a nice new surface after all.
The Council have now announced their intent to move out of the Civic Centre, stating that the gas heating is one of the largest contributors to its carbon footprint. So the solution this time isn’t a costly refit, but construct a new building elsewhere. It would appear Otterpool is the favoured location, with a satellite office in Folkestone – perhaps in Folca, or Debenhams as most people still know it. This isn’t a new idea, with an out-of-town location explored years ago. It does seem rather odd to rename your district after its largest towns because ‘nobody knows where Shepway is’ right before building a new garden town and moving your municipal offices there. Where is Otterpool, people will ask!
So what will become of the Civic Centre? There’s a possibility it could be converted, but the Council’s hint at much-needed housing suggests they’ll probably knock it down and start again. Many will cheer the demise of the building that inspired high-rise in Folkestone. But should we be so hasty? It has an interesting history and is the last building designed by an often-forgotten architect, yet many of his buildings are Listed. So should we be celebrating this coup rather than trying to obliterate it? He is also the man who awarded first place in the Golden Lane housing competition to Modernist architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon who went on to design the Barbican, much of the University of Leeds and our own No 1 The Leas and Whitefriars – again, all listed, except the Folkestone buildings. Should we be celebrating these buildings, rather than condemning them? We’ll let you decide.
In the meantime, what happened to that 90 years of planning archives? A request for old documents came back with the response that ‘our planning documents date from 1974’, so it seems a great deal of history has been discarded. With the Council moving, will old documents once again be thrown away? We hope not. Give them to the library which, when you moved into the Civic Centre, you still ran.
The Shepway Vox Team
The Velvet Voices of Dissent