Saturday, 6 November 2010

Save Georgian workhouse from wrecking ball, says Simon Callow

From the London Evening Standard, 4 November

Actor Simon Callow has joined a group of celebrities trying to stop one of London's best-preserved Georgian workhouses from being demolished. The hospital trust that owns the old Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, has submitted proposals to replace the 18th-century building with a mixture of 142 homes, shops and offices.

But the plans to create a 10-storey building have angered residents as well as heritage enthusiasts worried about the loss of the historic workhouse, and campaigners are calling on the Government to give the building listed status.

Callow told the Standard: “I strongly believe that buildings and antiquities such as this should not be demolished. It is a real piece of living history that relates perfectly to Charles Dicken, his vision for the city and his lifelong anxiety about being put in the workhouse. To have a site like that is a wonderful thing.

“It is very easy to forget that workhouses were on the whole benevolent places, but they were open to the abuse that Dickens writes about. Our view is that it is a prime site, and it should not be turned into a museum, but there should be some acknowledgement of what it meant and the public should be able to see how it stood in relation to the city at the time.”

A group of 24 campaigners including Callow, comedian Griff Rhys Jones, historian Dan Cruickshank and local gallery owner Rebecca Hossack said in an open letter: “Nearly every other Georgian building of any note in this country is already listed. We urge the Government to protect this building from destruction because of its harmonious architectural proportions and compelling social history.

The current building is only four storeys high, and was used as a hospital annexe by its owner, University College Hospitals NHS Trust, until 2005. The workhouse, built on fields in the 1770s as the poorhouse for the parish of St Paul Covent Garden, lies within the Charlotte Street conservation area. Camden Council is yet to make a decision on the planning application.

A spokesman for the trust said: “The former annexe was entirely unsuitable for healthcare use, one of the reasons why we built the new world-class University College Hospital. Planning approval for the new hospital required us to provide a much-needed social housing development in Fitzrovia and after many years of negotiation it was agreed that it should be located on this site. We have consulted the local community and were pleased that the vast majority of people supported our plans.”

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