St Peter’s Building, Huddersfield – Wrong Time, Wrong Place

I have, I will admit now, posted words and pictures about this building before.  To the majority of you who will read this, I had better explain.  The subject of my study, St Peter’s Building, sits just off the ring road in the Northern town of Huddersfield in Yorkshire.  Now derelict, it sits in limbo while planners and developers argue about its future, the money that would have funded its restoration now almost certainly gone with the bursting of the property bubble.  But why this ugly building, you might ask?  Why is it worth a post of its own, when it is clearly a relic of a bygone age when taste and appropriateness had clearly been abandoned?

Let’s start with some history.

As I have already written, Huddersfield was one of the towns that benefited greatly from the industrial revolution.  Textiles were the things that made fortunes here.  The town was enlarged and great stone buildings prevailed, and they still impress today.  The vista looking up Northumberland Street [now a conservation area] towards the railway station is one of the finest in the town, flanked with muscular stone edifices that bear testament to the civic pride of the townfolk.  But in the early 1960s, in a fit of inspired modernist fervour, the YMCA in the town decided to extend their existing Victorian premises into the neighbouring Primitive Street by erecting a vast red brick edifice some ten stories high.  The work was completed in late 1964 and the building inaugurated in February 1965 by the late Princess Margaret.  With space for various commercial units on the ground floor, the next three or four stories were made up of class rooms, a vast sports hall, and stairs and lifts that gave access to the four stories of living accommodation that sat on the top floors.

When you look at the clash between the original building, in the foreground above, and the new one, it is something of a struggle to see how any architect could have been so crazed and delusional as to think that there would be any visual synergy between the two.  Forgive me again if I go a little Prince Charles here, but it doesn’t really fit does it?

I still marvel at the sheer inappropriateness of siting such a building where it is – not just in terms of its style, but also its size.  It is vast.  And it’s not just me – the architects engaged to come up with plans for a refurbished site in the last few years commented:

The St Peter’s building is an extraordinary structure entirely out of scale with its surroundings and unsympathetic to the neighbouring Methodist Church – a former YMCA. However it has been mellowed with age and accepted by the people of the town. “

When you look at the edifice, you do see some nice modernist touches, though.  The shot above, which I took standing on Northumberland Street, shows some rather pleasing details like the slightly recessed wrap around windows at the top of the sports hall.  It’s just that the sheer starkness of a massive wall of brick gives the eye nothing to focus on.

Moving into the 1980s, the YMCA’s requirements had changed and it was felt necessary to dispose of the building, with the original Victorian YMCA now being large enough on its own.  The Polytechnic then purchased St Peter’s for use as extra teaching rooms and student halls of residence – no doubt it was a highly desirable, conveniently located and probably cheap way of meeting their expanding needs.  And that’s where the great pile of bricks entered my life.  I still remember that September Sunday afternoon in 1986 when I, along with a few hundred other provincial teenagers, was dumped with my hi fi and my Smiths LPs in a modest student bedroom on the 6th floor of the building and left to fend for myself for the first time.  The communal kitchen quickly became a meeting point where we would gather after the sparse timetable of lectures had been dispensed with, and where over pasta and tins of beans, tall tales of towering sexual achievement and incredible female conquests would be trotted out to a disbelieving audience.  It was a great little community in the sky, really, and one drunken evening, which still makes me cringe when I think about it, I ended up walking on the flat roof a hundred feet above the sodium lit ring road for a dare, oblivious to the sheer drop a few feet away.  This post which I found on t’internet gives you an idea of the view.

Flushed with excitement at my new found independence, I quit St Peter’s at Christmas after my first term to live in some run down terraced house where even the mice would freeze to death.  And I never went back.  Until this summer, when I happened to be in town for work, and I decided to go and shoot some pictures on a sunny afternoon for old times sake.  As you can see, the results are sad.  Abandoned for five years, the interior stripped to enable the demolition to take place, the building sits like a grounded ship; the development plans are stalled and mired in confusion, and so the building juts out on the sky line, having changed from a place full of life to a grave yard for the aspirations of the town, in stark contrast to its Victorian symbols which still, ironically, thrive a few hundred yards away.  The windows are broken and the relentless rain floods in.

I will keep looking out for St Peter’s as I pass through the town, which these days is seldom.  Thousand of people passed through the doors of this building, each with their own memories to take with them – memories of the highs and lows they encountered in their brief student lives here, the friendships made , the romances forged in these distinctly un-hallowed halls, with no doubt some inevitable resulting  break ups, and the eventual, inevitable moving on.


6 responses

  1. Starship Fighter

    I too have never returned to St. Peter’s following a full year living there in 1994/5. Tensions were high that year as the university had just announced a million pound payout to the former Vice-Chancellor, as well as a series of cutbacks to the library, and St. Peter’s was a massive sinkhole which needed money desperately. All of the other halls had been refurbished that summer, particularly the ones on Campus, and several new developments had been opened that year providing reasonably high quality accommodation. We arrived to discover 1 fridge in each kitchen per floor to accommodate 24 students, windows that wouldn’t close, sinks that stank as well as other plumbing issues in the bathrooms and a generally raw deal for those unfortunate enough to find themselves allocated a room there. The fees were the same for us as they were for all those in acceptable accommodation which was just wrong. Given the very militant atmosphere on Campus that term we decided to act and organised a rent strike. We managed a 90+% compliance rate for the first 2 terms and in the end the University were forced to act. We got the fridges we needed and a large amount of maintenance carried out and felt very pleased with ourselves. It made living there just a little more bearable…
    Despite that I do indeed have many happy memories of the place. We were pretty much left to our own devices once the daytime security left and much mischief ensued, including the memorable night when a group of 5th floor residents decided to have a barbeque on the gym roof. A bystander spotted the smoke and called the fire brigade who arrived with 2 tenders and a turntable expecting a major incident. My girlfriend and I were at the time enjoying an early evening in bed and had chosen exactly that moment to experiment with a tub of Haagen Dazs Pralines & cream. Following evacuation we stood outside the Vulcan for over an hour in our dressing gowns, cold and humble, picking hazelnuts out of my chest hair… Great times!

    March 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm

  2. paulmor

    I like the story. In my day, the decline was already underway but I don’t remember being either aware/worried about it, because everybody was so over excited at being away from the stifling atmosphere at home for the first time.

    March 1, 2012 at 8:42 pm

  3. Jim

    I also enjoyed living in St Peter’s building (also in 1994) – lot of fun times and a mega convenient spot with the Vulcan pub right outside, and tesco just round the corner. The lifts in the building were quite scary!
    We used to regularly climb out of our windows in nice weather to bask on the sports hall roof while enjoying a hoffmeister or two. Happy days.

    March 4, 2012 at 10:21 am

  4. Jim

    Forgot to say, was anyone else involved in the great waterfight of 1994 in St Peter’s? I can hear now the voice of the caretaker (John, not Roger) as his feet slopped along our corridor then next morning muttering “B*stards. They’re all b*stards!”, as we tried not to giggle out loud enough to be heard, and wondered if our deposits would be left intact or not…

    Needless to say I was not involved in any shape or form, just an observer of the other students who were of course far less well behaved than I…

    March 4, 2012 at 10:32 am

    • paulmor

      It’s good to hear other stories from later years. I’m glad to have jogged your memories, so keep them coming.

      March 4, 2012 at 3:57 pm

  5. tweek

    good read this. i have linked you, hope you don’t mind…

    August 13, 2012 at 11:05 am

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