Harrogate's Victorian heritage battles against demolition

Concerned resident Clare McCormack outside the disputed Harrogate building - Victoria Park House. (17080774AM2)
Concerned resident Clare McCormack outside the disputed Harrogate building - Victoria Park House. (17080774AM2)

A quiet, leafy Harrogate street is at the heart of an architectural battle for the soul of the town.

Momentum is growing against what its opponents regard as a brutalist affront to traditional Harrogate in a Conservation Area near the town centre.

Opposition to the plans to demolish no 18 Victoria Avenue - known as Victoria Park House - ­­and replace it with a modern office block have caused alarm among some local residents and one of the town’s strongest guardians - Harrogate Civic Society.

Reasons for controversial plans

The vista down the street seemed so tranquil when the building’s owners Harrogate Borough Council announced in January this year that it had completed the sale of Victoria Park House.

Having been put up for sale in 2015, this desirable spot attracted signficant interest but was eventually sold for £1 million to Hornbeam Property Developments after a competitive bidding process.

The new owners soon revealed what was in store - a new Grade A office accomondation which could accomodate 150 full time jobs on site and 120 jobs during the construction.

All concerned said it would be good for Harrogate’s general economy and would also offer a cash injection for Harrogate Borough Council’s plans to build its new civic headquarters at Knapping Mount.

At the time of the announcement, the managing director of Hornbeam Park Developments, Chris Bentley unveiled the plans for the new building with its convenient basement car park by saying they would set a new “benchmark.”

He said: “Our vision for an exciting new Grade A office statement building on this site, which will create a new benchmark in facilities for town centre offices and mirror those that are already available on Hornbeam Park.

“We hope to attract the most adventurous, high growth companies to Harrogate with this project.”

Building's rich Victorian history

Victoria Park House is probably best known from its days as the former offices of the Citizens Advice Bureau.

But its pedigree is deeper and richer, going back to Harrogate’s Victorian heyday as the town expanded through the twin forces of railways and its spa reputation.

According to leading local historian Malcolm Neesam, the existing building is the work of a renowned architect.

He said: "The design of Victoria Park was by the great Bristol architect J. H. Hirst, who may also have been the architect of Kirklington Villa, some of his other Harrogate work including Cambridge and Prospect Crescents and St. Peter’s Church.

"The villa was built in about 1864 and was first occupied by woollen manufacturer James Lomas.

"Later, it became the family home of the Lomas-Walker family, of whom Sir Bernard Lomas-Walker was Chairman of the West Riding County Council and an influential Harrogate Councillor.

"It was Sir Bernard who ordered the planting of Crocus on the Stray immediately after the Second World War."

Though it’s not a listed building, the historian says it is a building of merit.

He said: “With its pleasant symmetrical stone facade, the two storeyed villa at 18 Victoria Avenue is a good example of Victorian residential development of the time.”

Residents' fears over town's heritage

What worries some neighbours is not that the new plans involve offices, though they argue Harrogate is currently awash in empty office space.

Local resident Clare McCormack, herself a partner in a Harrogate architectural firm, said she wasn’t opposed to redevelopment per se.

The problem is the fact this one involves demolition rather than conversion.

She said: “I’ve lived on Victoria Avenue for 10 years. It’s a desirable area. I know it’s already of ‘mixed use’.

“But once the historical, architecturally rich buildings of Harrogate have been destroyed and replaced with the fashion of the moment, they are gone for good and with them a part of Harrogate’s rich heritage and history.”

She also disputes the reasons given in the planning application for the decision to demolish rather than allow Victoria Park House to survive.

“The Design and Access Statement in the plans says things like “the existing building has a heavy layer of soot and pollution.

“This is a ridiculous reason for demolition.

“The D & A also states that there is “structural subsidence” to the north-east corner of Victoria Park House resulting in “uneven floors, damp ingress” etc. But underpinning isn’t quite a difficult as people imagine.”

Clare McCormack claims its identical rows of stone cladding, with glazed curtain wall, aluminium and glass windows amount to a “brutalist affront to traditional Harrogate.”

Developer's 'strong' case for demolition

But Hornbeam Park Developments’ Chris Bentley said the condition of Victoria Park House made conversion simply unfeasible.

"Victoria Park House is not fit for purpose.The building has major structural problems.

"At some point in the past the front half and the back half of the villa have separated.

"As for converting the existing building into offices, we're not interested in doing a shoddy job.

"Hornbeam Park Developments prides itself on successfully creating good projects.

"I think this building warrants the development we are proposing. Converting Victoria Park House is beyond any economic sense.

"Within a 100 yards of Victoria Park House there are a dozen or so no dissimilar office buildings to the one we are proposing to build.

"Trying to retain the building wasn't part of the terms of the council's sale and plans for the future of the site.

"It was used as offices before and the council wants to keep its use for offices and employment.

"It's a much wider debate than the demolition of one Victoria building.

"If you look at the rest of Harrogate, no one is converting Victorian villas into modern offices.

"Companies looking for offices do not want what these sort of buildings can offer.

"Would you want to go to work in this type of old building from eight to five each day of the week?"

But he said he was listening to the concerns of opponents of the demolition.

He said: “I take on board all the comments from Harrogate Civic Society and some residents. We will take that on board in the decision over the planning application.

“If it is deemed to be not what people want, obviously it won’t go ahead.”

Harrogate Civic Society's viewpoint

Talking to the Harrogate Advertiser, it said: "Harrogate Civic Society is very unhappy at the thought that a significant building in the conservation area could be demolished.

"Victoria Avenue is one of the towns' grandest streets, perhaps the grandest. We are told that Victoria Park House is in poor condition but is it really beyond repair?

"The application mentions some insignificant items like inappropriate garages. We would be content for them to be demolished and any discolouration of stone is easily remedied.

"There has been movement in the structure but even this I suspect could be dealt with. There needs to be extremely compelling reasons to demolish this building in the conservation area which is designated a building of local interest and merit in the Conservation Area Character Assessment.

"This section of Victoria of Victoria Avenue has suffered enough with inappropriate developments such as Jesmond House, Clarendon House and although significantly improved in recent years, the office block at No. 30.

"The application says by way of justification of the proposed office block that there is a variety of design to be seen in the area - past mistakes are not a recommendation!"

Crucial planning meeting looms

Resident Clare McCormack says she has received backing for her views in emails and telephone calls from other local residentsas the deadline for public consultation over the planned development looms on Friday, August 18.

So the scene is set for a a battle over a single building which may well have wider ramifications for Harrogate’s future.

Potential compromise solution

But local historian Malcolm Neesam says there is an alternative to this small clash between tradition and modernism in Harrogate.

He said: "One solution which could please both opponents and supporters of the application would be to demolish the old villa, but to retain the main facade which could be incorporated into the new building, which would have its principal frontage and entrance facing south, rather than north as it is at present.

"If one of the new building’s major selling points is that visitors can drive in and out of a basement car park, it doesn’t matter whether the main front entrance faces north or south.

"In this way, the new building’s frontage could overlook a quiet garden and receive maximum sunshine, well away from the northern facing Victoria Avenue with its traffic, and Victoria Avenue would retain a significant part of its architectural history."