The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

St. Peter’s Seminary

St Peter’s Seminary made it onto the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List 2008. The list is put together by an international panel of experts in archaeology, architecture, art history, and preservation. This is one of those landmark events where you end up not knowing if you should laugh or cry. We have been watching this amazing site crumble now for so many years and for such a long time our efforts seemed to be swallowed up in a void of inaction. When in winter 2005/6 the altar was vandalised we decided to step up the pressure on the Archdiocese of Glasgow who are the owners, as well as on Historic Scotland and the Local Authority (Argyll and Bute). Although its future is still very much under threat we are cautiously welcoming some progress: Historic Scotland have paid for a study of the situation by Avanti Architects. We very much welcome its commissioning, and are now hoping for a widespread consultation.

It is good to see that modern architecture is being taken so seriously by the World Monuments Fund. The Watch list category Modernism at Risk was launched in 2006 and this underpins the efforts of our Society as well. The risk of demolition to our immediate heritage is being considered on an international scale. The main threat to our cultural heritage is identified as human activity whilst world conflict and climate change are threatening such sites as the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem standing in the midst of a crisis zone, or flood-threatened Sonargaon-Pnam City in Bangladesh. The greatest threat to modernism is a lack of appreciation and understanding leading to wholesale redevelopment.

Main Street Modern, USA is on the new list as a building type at large. It is this collective environment that is at risk of disappearing: The five and dime stores, the cinemas, the barber shops with their candy cane lights, the town halls and schools. It is the immediately recognizable American streetscape before an era of air conditioned shopping malls and Wall Mart. A time when walking a few paces down an outside sidewalk didn’t seem beyond the reasonable.

C20 casework is facing similar challenges in the British High Street, with the outsourcing of post offices to WH Smith, the sale of town halls and the closure of small, often well designed, chains of shops–such as Kennedy’s butchers across South London. Signage, often an integral part of the overall design is particularly vulnerable. Whilst we are endeavouring to find and list the best examples, many good buildings just don’t meet the strict criteria set by English Heritage, CADW and Historic Scotland for buildings after 1914. We are losing some excellent townscape buildings or buildings that are important as a setting or context for more prominent designs.

In particular, the buildings that developed alongside the automobile industry, are still completely under-researched: petrol stations and parking garages, car showrooms and roadside restaurants, many largely designed essentially as big instantly recognisable signs or symbols. There are really only a handful of these buildings left nation-wide that have survived in good condition. The Electric Garage in Newbury has been under continuous threat of either complete or substantial demolition for years although it is listed at Grade II and is now sitting empty. The Botanic Gardens Garage in Glasgow is similarly threatened if a current application is successful. It is believed to be the earliest surviving multi-storey car park in the UK and was built in 1912. And yes, it is also listed at Category B.

But back to St Peter’s and what it means to be on the WMF Watch List of 100 most endangered sites: The watch list is a last cry to action, when local efforts have not been enough to safeguard a building’s survival or even when a com-munity does not want or value a building. It draws attention to the fact that the building is of world stature and therefore of immense cultural value, which is some- times not appreciated at a regional level. This international recognition can be of tremendous support when it comes to applying for funding in order to restore the building.

The Watch list has many success stories which include a number of C20 examples. A comparable case is the Ennis Brown House in Los Angeles, California built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924. The concrete was crumbling and it was in danger of slipping into the ravine because of earthquakes and torrential rainfall. The house is now saved after the inclusion on the Watch List prompted prominent LA residents to rally to action.   St Peter’s was the only C20 site to be included on the Watch List from the UK for 2008. We are hoping for a miracle…

Eva Branscome