Friends Meeting House, York Street, City Centre
The Friends’ Meeting House is a Grade II early 19th century Quaker meeting house, formerly designed as a Freemasons’ Hall by William Wilkins in a Greek Revival style, situated within the Bath conservation area and World Heritage Site. It forms part of the setting for multiple Grade II terraced buildings along York Street, notably 11A and 12-15 York Street which are thought to also have been designed by William Wilkins, with a frontage contemporary to the Friends’ Meeting House. The building’s special architectural and historic interest is principally defined by its principal street elevation, with a portico pediment and symmetrical, flanking wings, and a pair of circular lanterns to provide internal natural lighting via the roof. The central blind doorway was intentionally designed to reinforce Masonic mystery and secrecy. Originally, the windows were similarly blind, but these were probably opened in the 1820s-1840s following the change of use from a Freemasons’ Hall to an events space and non-conformist chapel until it became the Bethesda Chapel in 1842.
BPT previously supported the consented listed building application 20/04050/LBA for the reuse and refurbishment of the building to house Toppings book shop. We accepted the business case need for central access and that the loss of historic fabric in the creation of an opening would be outweighed by public benefit brought about by the improved interaction with the streetscape to facilitate the successful, long term reoccupation and reuse of the building.
However, we did maintain some concerns with some of the design details of the scheme, in particular the inclusion of a metal balustrade between the portico columns (this was consequently omitted from the scheme and did not form part of the granted consent). We were resistant to the visual ‘closing off’ of the grand, projecting portico which features as the central point of the building’s principal elevation, and consequent harm to the special architectural interest of a listed building. We emphasised the need for a solution to allow for increased transparency between the columns so as to sustain the original design and appearance of the building following its new use.
We acknowledge that efforts have been made to find a less visually invasive and more “temporary” option with a metal balustrade that can be removed outside of working hours. We consider that the proposed ground-mounted balustrades would result in some loss of historic fabric, but would be appropriately set back to avoid material interaction with or fixing to the Ionic columns and associated harm to or loss of detailing.
However, owing the normal opening hours of the bookshop, we note that the railings would be in position for a significant portion of the day, and would therefore remain of high public visibility in views on the east and west approach along York Street with associated harm to the building’s original architectural design. Furthermore, we have some concerns that the addition of balustrades within the portico would encourage a more active use of the portico space, such as the addition of seating, which would further visually clutter up an important aspect of the building’s grand principal façade.
We query whether an alternative position for the proposed balustrades has been considered, and suggest that the balustrades could instead be repositioned behind the portico columns as a continuation of the railing ‘line’ established by the consented new access steps and handrail. In this position, the balustrades would be of reduced public visibility and would be concealed in head-on views of the elevation, retaining a sense of visual openness around the Ionic columns. However, should this repositioning be considered acceptable, we emphasise the need to carefully consider how the balustrade would interact with the architrave of the blind doorway and suggest that a matching floor-mounted design with adequate set-back from both the architrave and Ionic columns would appropriately mitigate harm to historic detailing. We encourage the continued consideration of a removable-style balustrade to ensure the aesthetic reversibility of these measures.
We do not oppose the proposed design of the balustrade, but do have some concerns regarding the proposed detailing as follows:
We note that the proposed steel balustrade is proposed to be painted “signal black” to match the existing railings along the pavement. However, there is no indication as to the proposed finish of the “metal caps” intended to cover the stainless steel floor tubes. We maintain that these metal caps should be similarly finished in signal black to match. The use of a shiny, ‘unfinished’ stainless steel in this location would be inappropriate.
Furthermore, the metal caps appear to sit approximately 100mm above floor level and form a clunky intersection between the balustrade and means of fixing. We strongly recommend that these are reduced in height to enable the balustrade to sit as flush as possible with the portico floor level.