We’re thrilled to announce that the former John Lewis / Cole Brothers building in Sheffield by YRM (1963-64) has just been Grade II listed, marking the culmination of 20 year battle for C20 Society, who first applied to list the landmark store back in 2001.
The news also heralds a long-called for thematic investigation by Historic England into the department store as a unique building type, testament to C20’s ongoing Department Stores Campaign and the efforts of other heritage organisations in helping raise awareness of so many underappreciated examples. With the nature of retail and the character of our high streets changing so profoundly in the past two decades, the plight of former department stores has recently become a topic of national conversation.
Threat of demolition
The retailer John Lewis made the surprise decision to close their Sheffield store in March 2021, with the building remaining unoccupied ever since. Sheffield City Council have since been seeking a buyer for the site on a 250 year lease, with recent press reports quoting Cllr Mazher Iqbal as saying they had received ’15 or 16 credible and exciting bids’ from developers. The council had been pursuing a preferred strategy of ‘part retention’, with the clear possibility that some or all of the building could ultimately be demolished. Community consultations on the building’s future were also due to start shortly, led by Sheffield Society of Architects, Sheffield Civic Trust and Hallamshire Historic Buildings, with representation from C20 Society.
Designed by prominent post-war modernists, Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall (YRM) – also behind other big commissions like St Thomas’s Hospital in London, Gatwick Airport and Manchester Magistrates Court – the store is centrally sited on the south side of a public square at Barkers Pool, opposite the City Hall and with the Sheffield War Memorial (both grade II* listed) in between.
The building is notable for its strong proportions, with equal care being given to all elevations, and for its clever use of topography, allowing pedestrian access on two levels. The clean, crisp lines and unity of the building are emphasized by the strict geometry of YRM’s signature uncut, white-glazed tiles, which are even applied to the canopy over the ground-floor display windows on the principal elevations. The tiles combine the practical benefit of producing a clean and easy to maintain finish that did not easily stain, with the creation of a fresh and modern appearance. There is an egalitarianism in the visual simplicity and unity of the building which clearly reflects the ethos of both YRM and the employee-owned John Lewis Partnership.
The building was accepted by Historic England as ‘a good example of early Sixties architecture by an important firm of architects’ but initially turned down for listing in December 2001. Although further acknowledging the store as an ‘important post-war building’, a Certificate of Immunity from listing (COI) was issued in September 2002. Locally, the conservation area Statement of Special Interest identified it as an unlisted building that contributes to the character of the conservation area and refers to it as one of a number of ‘Prominent Modernist 20th century shops which have architectural interest.’
The original COI lapsed in 2007 and upon consultation for its renewal in May 2022, C20 Society strongly objected and called for the building to be listed at Grade II. The recognition of Cole Brothers architectural and social significance among post-war department stores is therefore very welcome, with Historic England’s listing assessment stating that the landmark building ‘…stands out as a rare surviving example of high modernism in a department store…very few modernist examples appear to have ever been built and it is significant that they are in the realm of nationally regarded architects.’
175 years of retail
The Coles began retailing in Sheffield in 1847 and by the early twentieth century Cole Brothers were Sheffield’s leading department store, with ‘Coles Corner’ a central landmark and part of the city’s identity. Taken over first by Selfridges and then by John Lewis in 1940, it remained as a single store but retained its name within the John Lewis Partnership until 2002. A decision to expand the store led to a new building at Barker’s Pool not far from ‘Coles Corner’ in 1963. Although it weathered the recessions of the early eighties and nineties, online competition compounded by the pandemic lockdown led to John Lewis – despite having signed a new 20-year lease with Sheffield City Council in August 2020 – announcing in March 2021 that the Sheffield store would not reopen when lockdown restrictions eased, marking the end of nearly 175 years of trading. At the time, more than 20,000 people signed a petition against its closure.
We look forward to working closely with Sheffield City Council, Historic England and all other stakeholders in helping to define potential future uses for the building.