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What's in store for the Bridge House mural?

Lifestyle | Article

Fifty-five years ago, the view of the city from Town Bridge was very different. Over the years, the power station was demolished to make way for Rivergate, Charter’s arrived and before that, Bridge House was built.

With plans to redevelop the South Bank, the view will change again. With a question mark hanging over the future of Bridge House, Simon Stabler uncovers the history of its construction.

Bridge House - photo copyright Paul Shreeve
© Copyright Paul Shreeve

By November 1940, The Blitz, the Luftwaffe’s nightly bombing raid on Britain, was halfway through. Thousands of lives were lost and countless buildings damaged. One of these was the London Contracts Office of Mitchell Engineering Limited.

Unable to find suitable accommodation, Mitchell moved to Peterborough. The tracing staff worked in Market Chambers, while technicians and draughtsmen squeezed into Fengate House. The decade that followed the war saw Britain trying to adjust back to normality. With large scale rebuilding programmes, matched with rapid growth in technical advancement, it was time for Mitchell to plan a purpose-built office block.

A plot was found on the southern embankment alongside Town Bridge. Located opposite the old Customs House, this spot had been left untidy and derelict ever since the bridge was built in 1934. Despite the complexities of a river location, consulting engineer Walter C. Andrews suggested the use of steel framework and reinforced concrete floors would allow the building to be completed relatively quickly.

Bridge House was designed by architects Howard V. Lobb and Partners, who had been behind the Royal Festival Hall and later the British Government Pavilion at Expo ‘58. The colour of bricks was chosen to avoid clashing with nearby buildings. The height set to avoid affecting the view of the Cathedral. Any future extensions would move outwards towards East Station Road.

The 26-by-150 foot window alongside the river, allows the maximum of natural light to enter the drawing office. Cork flooring and double-glazing reduces heat loss and traffic noise, while photocells on the roof turn the lights on when it gets dark. It lights up in rows, starting with the furthest from the window.

Providing radiant heat, similar to that given off by the sun, radiators and pipes are hidden from view. In the drawing office they are located above the acoustic ceiling installed by Frenger Ceilings Ltd, while pipes in other parts of the building are embedded in the floor.

The sculptor Arthur J.J. Ayres designed the 25-by-50 foot Portland stone mural, which runs alongside the bridge. It was chosen during a competition judged by Roy Mitchell, managing director, his father F.G “Tiny” Mitchell, chairman of the Mitchell group of companies, Gilbert Ledwood, chairman of the Royal Society of British Sculptors and Howard V. Lobb. The mural was believed to be the largest bas-relief in England at that time. It features historical figures from the world of science and engineering, such as Archimedes and Newton, grouped around the sun, “the source of all power” and three men representing modern industry – administration, design and works. Roy Mitchell explained that the competition was devised “to foster a closer relationship between art and industry.”

Ayres carved the mural in-situ with assistance from son James, wife Elsa and daughter Jane. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of British sculptors and his work adorns buildings as grand as Westminster Abbey. His relief above an entrance to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London bears the same Horace Mann quote as the Bridge House mural – “every addition to true knowledge is an addition to human power.”

The mural gave Ayres “a fresh approach to a modern problem” as the thin walls meant that the “sculpture was executed in a different manner.”

Despite a late delivery of steel followed by the steel erectors working to rule, Bridge House, constructed by subsidiary Mitchell Construction Co, opened for business in November 1955, a year after work began. It united 200 staff members for the first time since 1940. An agreement with the Ministry of Transport, keen to reduce congestion, meant that the front entrance was for the sole use of visitors. Staff would enter via the car park at the rear.

Under managing director David Morrell, Mitchell Construction helped the group go from strength to strength, until a contract to build a hydroelectric power station on the North Bank of the Zambesi River signalled the beginning of the end. Awarded the contract in 1971, it became apparent that the ground conditions were poorer than described on the tender document.

Almost 90 lives were lost, work slowed down and costs rose. By the time Mitchell had called in the receivers, its costs were alleged to be over £200k a month. Mitchell Construction became part of Tarmac Construction and, despite Morrell’s attempts to sue those he felt had deliberately sabotaged the project, the name faded from view.

After Bridge House was vacated, British Telecom took it over. Bosses covered up “Mitchell Engineering Limited” from the mural, until Peterborough City Council occupied the building in the early 90s, bringing the name back into view.

While the council still own the property, using it to accommodate their transport, engineering, environmental and public protection teams, the building closed to the public in February when the planning department moved to Bayard Place.

The building falls within the South Bank development area, which proposes the construction of leisure facilities, offices and zero carbon homes. No date is set for the closure of Bridge House. And while no firm proposals have been drawn up, there is a possibility that the site will be used for a hotel.

If the site is redeveloped, structural engineers Waldeck Associates say that the mural can be saved. John Peach, leader of Peterborough City Council, wants it moved to a prominent location, possibly a school or shopping complex. Wherever it ends up, the mural will ensure that the memory of Peterborough’s past as a home technological innovation will live on.


April 2009 - Peterborough UK Community Website




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