The Unsung City Architect’s Department

1 Tbd City Architect Office
Fig. 1: John Harper, 1-9, St Leonard’s Place, York, 1834. The City Architect’s Department was housed in 8, St Leonard’s Place from 1951 to 1996. Photo: © Patrick Nuttgens, York, (London: Studio Vista, 1970): 60.

While much has been written on other architect’s departments around the UK, the delicate operation of the post-war York City Architect’s Department has oddly been neglected in the historiography. The post-war York City Architect’s Department headed by Ernest Firth had left the city of York a remarkable legacy of fine modern public buildings, marking the transition in municipal design from the practice of the pre-war city engineers to that of the later more sophisticated City Architect’s Department. By looking back to its history with the administrative changes in York, one can certainly trace the city’s once ambitious project of modernisation.

The role of the City Surveyor and Engineer was founded in 1850 after the reformation of the City of York Corporation following the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. The City Surveyor/Engineer of the Corporation’s City Engineer’s Office was principally in charge of the survey, planning, design, implementation, assessment, and maintenance of civic structures and buildings across the city. The position was successively carried by John Bownas Atkinson (1850-1854), Thomas Pickersgill (1854-1869), George Styan (1869-1887), Enoch George Mawbey (1887-1889), and Alfred Creer (1889-1900).1 In 1900, the role of the City Engineer/Surveyor expanded to include the responsibility for architectural designs of civic and public buildings and the title of City Architect was thereupon founded. In the pre-war era, the position of the City Architect was held by Alfred Creer (1900-1907) and Frank Watson Spurr (1907-1935).2

After the war, Charles John Minter, who joined the Corporation in 1935 as the City Engineer/Surveyor (1935-1962), served briefly as the City Architect (1935-1951).3 Minter, with the architects Stanley Davenport Adshead and Charles William Cashmore Needham, designed the first post-war plan for the city in light of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947.4 The plan, which addressed key revisions to the city centre and railway station area after the introduction of cars, was largely endorsed by the influential civic dignitary John Bowes Morrell in his book The City of Our Dreams (1950).5 Upon joining the Corporation, Ernest Firth was the Chief Assistant Architect under Minter. In 1948, they co-designed two modernist school buildings in Acomb, the Carr Infants School (demolished in c. 2017) and the Beckfield Secondary School (demolished in c. 1984), to respectively accommodate senior and primary children in the new Acomb housing area and the west of the River Ouse.6 In 1950, another school of their design opened in Tang Hall: the Burnholme Secondary School, partly demolished in 2016 and converted to the present Tang Hall Explore Library in 2018. These are the first few recorded projects of Firth. In 1951, the role of City Architect became independent from City Engineer/Surveyor and the York City Architect’s Department was thereupon established. The York City Architect’s Department, headed by the City Architect and in liaison with the Engineer/Surveyor, consisted of architects, quantity surveyors, and other departmental staff. Firth was the first dedicated City Architect of York; the office was moved from the Guildhall to 8 St. Leonard’s Place (in a terrace designed by John Harper, 1834).7 F. B. Walker was the Deputy City Architect. In 1954, the Department under Firth designed one more school for the City of York Education Committee, the Ashfield Secondary Modern School (demolished in 2005), to fill the secondary education gap in Bishopthorpe. Designed to be permanent additions to York’s educational network, all the schools had a homogeneous framework of light steel with modern materials to allow maximum lighting and generous ventilation.8 Though a traditional symmetrical elevation was present in Firth’s earlier collaborations with Minter, his radical application of glazed screens flooded these spaces with an amount of natural lighting York had never seen.

2 City Architect Burnholme
Fig. 2: York City Architect’s Department (Charles John Minter, City Engineer/Surveyor/Architect, Ernest Firth, Chief Assistant Architect), Burnholme Secondary School, York, 1950. Photo: “Post-war Schools in York,” Building (Nov 1948): 369.

Firth’s City Architect’s Department was one of the key promoters of the architectural modernisation of York; in the 1960s, a City Architect’s building was even proposed to house his modernising ambitions. From the late 1950s, the Department started to design the first two purpose-built branch libraries in York: Tang Hall opened in 1962 (due to be demolished in 2022-2023) and Acomb opened in 1969 (extended in 2007, now Acomb Explore Library).9 The two low-rise buildings, with the extension of Dringhouses Library’s nineteenth century schoolhouse in 1964, marked the Department’s approach towards the tension between York’s celebrated tradition and the city’s urgent need for its own modernity. They could be seen as an architectural alternative to the early community libraries in urban settings. Planned in the same year as the Tang Hall Branch Library, the York Crematorium in Bishopthorpe (opened in 1963, extended in 2011) was another attempt, after the Woodland Cemetery (1940) by Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz in Stockholm, to incorporate a nuanced, simple functionality in a secluded suburban location.10 In 1968, the Department planned their largest budgeted project in the 1960s, the Edmund Wilson Swimming Pool in Acomb (opened in 1969, extended in 1970, demolished in 2010), costing £165,000 (later reported to be £181,000).11 In the same year, the construction of the College of Further (and Higher) Education in Dringhouses (planned in 1960, now part of the York College) was completed, it was the most comprehensive scheme of buildings the post-war Architect’s Department had designed.12 The expansive career of Ernest Firth also left multiple post-war housing schemes in York including the redesign of house types from 1952 to 1958; the redevelopment of the Walmgate area onwards from 1957 (phase 1), the redevelopment of Cambridge Street from 1964 to 1969, and the redevelopment of Lindsey Avenue from 1965 to 1970, all of which provided a “humane” living environment for the city.13 Firth had also contributed greatly to the renewal of the Guildhall from 1952 to 1971 and the restoration and renovation of the Shambles (R. W. Horton, project architect) from c. 1946 to 1975.14

3 City Architect House Type
Fig. 3: Ernest Firth, City Architect, Architectural Drawing of City of York Two Storey Flats Type SF 1/2, 1956. Photo: © York Explore Archive (Y/PPT/6/1/3943).
4 City Architect House Type
Fig. 4: Ernest Firth, City Architect, Architectural Drawing of City of York House Types 2/4 G and 3/4 T, 1953. Showing the signature of Charles John Minter crossed and changed to Ernest Firth on the bottom right corner. Photo: © York Explore Archive (Y/PPT/6/1/3642).

Due to the Local Government Act 1972, York became a district council within the North Yorkshire County Council in 1974, and a new Architect’s Department was thereupon established under the County Council. According to the York District Council Minutes of 1973-74, the department comprised a City/District Architect, 2 Assistant City/District Architects, 2 Assistant City/District Architects, 2 Principal Architects, 5 Architects, and various departmental roles.15 In c. 1975, Firth was succeeded by Roy Fogg, who joined the department in 1973.16 During his service, Fogg was the chief architect of the Barbican Leisure Centre in Paragon Street (1976; Richard Sawyer, project architect).17 The title of City Architect got abolished in the late 1970s and Fogg was the last City Architect York has ever had. In c. 1983, the York City Council appointed John Pennock as the Chief Architect; and by the end of the 1980s, the size of the Department was around 40. During Thatcher’s administration, city architects’ departments across the nation that designed civic buildings for local councils became obsolete. Following the Local Government Act 1992, York City Council became the present City of York Council in 1996, and the York City Architects’ Department was dissolved as a result of this reorganisation. The service of in-house architectural design and engineering was merged into the Property Service Department housed at 9 St. Leonard’s Place.

5 City Architect College
Fig. 5: York City Architect’s Department (Ernest Firth, City Architect), College of Higher Education, York, 1960-68. Photo: © Patrick Nuttgens, York, (London: Studio Vista, 1970): 80.
6 City Architect Housing
Fig. 6: York City Architect’s Department (Ernest Firth, City Architect), Lindsey Avenue Redevelopment, York, 1965-70. Photo: © Patrick Nuttgens, York, (London: Studio Vista, 1970): 86.

Sadly, the delicate modernity produced by Firth’s post-war City Architect’s Department was quietly fleeting away. During the past 20 years, York has witnessed the consequent demolition of Firth’s work: the Beckfield Secondary School (demolished in c. 1984), the Ashfield Secondary Modern School (demolished in 2005), and the Edmund Wilson Swimming Pool (demolished in 2010). While some works seem to be safe from the fate of demolition for now, their modernist appearance was concealed by the contemporary extensions: the Burnholme Secondary School (partly demolished and repurposed in 2016), the Acomb Branch Library (extended in 2007), and the York Crematorium (extended in 2011).

With thanks to Georgie Myler of the York Explore Library and Archive and Alan Thomas of the City of York Council.