This is one of the ugliest, most inappropriate, most unpopular and abhorrent buildings in Exeter's city centre, although I can think of many others that could also vie for the title. Not only should it never have been built but it is in the process of being tarted up so it can be inflicted on a whole new generation under the guise of a new John Lewis store.
Since its opening in 1964 the seven-storey tower block has squatted on the historically important junction between Longbrook Street, the High Street and, before it was redeveloped out of existence, the High Street entrance into Southernhay. This junction formerly lay just beyond the city's ancient East Gate in the parish of St Sidwell, the three roads meeting close to what was known as London Inn Square. The square had one side open to the High Street. The other three sides were formed by the Royal Subscription Rooms, the New London Inn and a row of properties which curved round into Sidwell Street itself.
Apart from the site of the New London Inn, which had already been demolished in 1936, the London Inn Square/Eastgate area was totally destroyed during the bombing raid of 04 May 1942. The map c1900 above right shows the Eastgate junction and London Inn Square. The blitzed area that was to become the footprint of the tower block is highlighted in red but surviving buildings were also demolished to encompass its enormous size. In fact none of the buildings represented by the numerous plots shown anywhere on the map now exist.
The photograph above shows the view towards the Eastgate Junction from the upper High Street c1900. The buildings highlighted in red occupy what was to become the site of the Debenhams tower block. The Eastgate Arcade and the city's Gothic Revival post office are on the right. All of the properties shown were completely destroyed in 1942, although a significant number survived just out of view in Sidwell Street. The photograph below right shows some of the buildings which stood on the Debenhams site prior to their destruction.
Reading the book in the 21st century one is struck by Sharp's optimistic, tentative naivety. He wasn't overly-familiar with the city's buildings or its history and he had some obvious blind spots. He right lauded the remnants of Exeter's Georgian architecture, and proposed the restoration of the townhouses at Dix's Field, but he also advocated demolishing the city's Gothic Revival Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street, calling it an "architectural horror".
But his interest in Exeter's architecture never strayed beyond the merely visual. A medieval house behind a later facade was of no interest. For example, he proposed demolishing the 15th century White Hart Inn in South Street, hidden as it was, and still is, behind its plain stucco exterior. He also suggested the construction of an enormous ring road around almost the entire city, a road which would've run from the above-mentioned Eastgate junction, looping around the base of Rougemont Castle beyond the city walls, down through Northernhay Street (so destroying the early-19th century Iron Bridge near North Street) before it turned and took the course of the present-day inner bypass known as Western Way from the river to Southgate.
Apart from a few exceptions, such as the construction of the northern bypass and the demolition of the museum, the city authorities appeared to have rejected Sharp's best ideas and only implemented the worst. In his much-quoted statement, Sharp states: "The way to rebuild a city like this is in sympathetic, not ruthless, renewal". He goes on: "Sympathetic planning in such a case lies in the observance of scale and in the creation of intimate rather than monumental forms". Monumental forms, he suggests, are "empty and meaningless" when used in a medieval town.
And so at the Eastgate site, in 1962, work began on the seven-storey monster that was become the Debenhams building, over 120,000 m2 of retail space piled up 140ft (42m) into the air, a "monumental" building which has remained as one of the biggest blots on Exeter's fragmentary historical cityscape ever since.
It's tempting to speculate how such a thing ever received planning permission, but then one remembers that this was the same local authority that barely lifted a finger to reinstate any of the city centre's damaged pre-war buildings and which freely knocked down hundreds of the city's buildings in the three decades following World War Two. The aerial photograph above left © Express & Echo shows the completed tower block in 1965. The buildings highlighted in red, most of them fronting onto Sidwell Street, survived the Exeter Blitz intact but were all demolished in the mid-to-late 1960s for yet more redevelopment in Sidwell Street and the construction of the King William Street car park. A similar number of pre-war buildings lined Sidwell Street on the opposite side until they too were demolished for redevelopment in the 1950s.
The photograph above shows the view c1955 after the destroyed upper High Street was widened and rebuilt but prior to the construction of the tower block. Visible in the distance are the side walls of the properties that remained in Sidwell Street but which were demolished in the mid-1960s.
The sheer inappropriateness of such a building just beyond the city walls of Exeter is breathtaking. This is the place where William the Conqueror gathered his army and laid siege to the rebellious city in 1068, where Perkin Warbeck attacked the East Gate in 1497 and where Royalist and Parliamentarian forces pounded each other with artillery during the English Civil War. The tower block was 'designed' by George Baines and Syborn and constructed at a cost of over £800,000 before finally opening on 05 March 1964.
It was intended to be a new flagship store for Bobby's (the firm's old premises, the historic New Inn in the High Street had been destroyed in 1942). The name Bobby's, only a subsidiary of Debenhams, was dropped in the 1970s and for as long as I can remember (35+ years) the tower block has been known as the Debenhams building. It wasn't even well-designed. The curve of the frontage at street level creates a tremendous wind tunnel effect, the downfall of many umbrellas which can often be seen flapping on the pavement like dying birds.
Debenhams vacated the building in 2007 and moved into new premises on the 13 acre, £225 million Land Securities redevelopment at Princesshay, and the hideous tower block stood empty for three years. The city council implied that the tower block's days were numbered prompting great excitement amongst many of Exeter's citizens. It was easy to imagine the cathedral bells ringing out in jubilation as the building was demolished! But it wasn't to be.
Land Securites were the new owners and the city council quickly approved the conversion of the entire building into 96 apartments. The council and their development partner were determined to keep the tower block intact. (According to Richard Short, the council's head of planning, the city council and Land Securities have already entered into an "exclusivity agreement" for redeveloping the bus station opposite the old Debenhams building.)
The leader of Exeter City Council, Peter Edwards, stated in 2010 that "the former Debenhams building is a well known landmark for the city of Exeter and it’s great that plans are being explored to give it a new lease of life." It is indeed well-known, for all of the wrong reasons, but to use the word "landmark" in anything like a positive sense would be laughable if it wasn't so risible. Nick Davis, Land Securities Retail Development Director repeated the mistake when he stated that "we remain committed to this landmark building located in Exeter’s city centre and plan to make a significant investment in refurbishing and refreshing the building in preparation for a suitable occupier".
Comments sent to the local paper suggested that many people felt otherwise. One resident wrote: "I've lived in Exeter all my life and even when the building was in use it was a blight on High Street. It's an ugly concrete block and the best thing to do with it is pull it down and build something (anything) more in keeping with the rest of High St. In fact a building site would look better."
Another local resident added: "I cannot help but think this massive eyesore in the centre of Exeter will always be a sow's ear with no hope of a silk purse emerging, regardless of the money that might be spent attempting to make the transformation. Surely demolition and tasteful rebuilding is a better option?" And another: "Flatten it and grass it over. Bloody eyesore it is". Someone else who had watched the original tower block's construction commented that: "The centre of Exeter has become such a mess compared to our expectation as we watched it being rebuilt". Perhaps it was the construction of the tower block that caused Exeter's renowned 20th century historian Professor W.G. Hoskins to state in the early 1960s that "the post-war rebuilding of Exeter has been a disaster".
It is deeply ironic that having demolished so many buildings over the last 50 years the city council has decided to keep the one building that was desperately in need of removal. In November 2010 it was announced that the city council's Holy Grail was arriving in Exeter. John Lewis, allegedly the UK's "most popular retailer", was finally opening in the city and had chosen to use the old Debenhams tower block for their new store.
The building is currently under scaffolding right as the exciting makeover takes place. The city council is to spend £250,000 on pimping up both the equally grim King William Street car park at the rear of the tower block and the footbridge that provides direct access from the car park into the back of the building. A report on the BBC in July 2011 reported that the total expenditure on improvements to the road system around the new John Lewis store, combined with the work on the car park, will cost a colossal £2 million. The structure will actually be larger than it is at present as two extra floors are being added to the front of the building. There are also frankly bizarre plans to have a "European-style piazza" overlooking the area on the opposite side of Sidwell Street.
I must admit that I don't actually care what happens to the building. Exeter's architectural ship sailed out of port a long time ago, and the tower block is after all just one appalling building amongst many others. Its removal wouldn't greatly enhance those which remained. The only advantage would be an improvement in the view of the city as you descend Pennsylvannia Road. The monumental tower block has recently spawned offspring nearby in the bulbous shape of the vast new Next building which now crouches on the opposite corner of the Eastgate junction and which dominates the eastern end of the High Street almost as much as the tower block, below.