Problems under the portico

Just been watching a re-run on YouTube of this morning’s meeting of B&NES planning committee in which an hour or so was spent debating the proposed signage that Topping’s Bookshop want to put on the front of their latest city acquisition.

They’ve bought the old Friends Meeting House in York Street and – when the refurbishment is completed – this will be the largest independent bookshop to open in England.

This is a significant Grade 2 listed building – built in 1817 in Greek Revival Style as a Freemason’s Hall – and then transformed briefly into a Bethesda Chapel before The Religious Society of Friends (The Quakers) took on the building in 1866.

More recently they decided to move their gatherings elsewhere and have three times tried to sell the building. In the mid 1970’s it was thought it would make a good base for an art gallery or heritage centre but that attracted no bidders. A restaurant proposal in 2008 fell through because of the bank crisis.

So now Toppings have bought it and, with their planning permissions and listed building consents already agreed and under their arm, they went back today (Wednesday) to get similar permissions for their external signage.

Not such an easy matter. The concern was that painting the bookshop name across the portico frieze would causes harm to a heritage asset because they would be painting out the existing ‘Friends Meeting House’ sign and its loss ‘would diminish the historic and evidential value of the listed building’.

The planning officers were recommending refusal for the external installation of 4 hand-painted timber signs – and a hand painted sign on top of the existing signage under the portico – and the majority of the committee members agreed.

Despite the fact some members thought the existing sign was a ‘ghost sign’ – it had to be explained that ghost signs were the faded advertising remnants of former business found on the sides of old buildings.

On this building the sign was the name over the ‘blind’ door of a Friends Meeting House. The current one being the ninth to be painted there since the building opened.

Despite planning officers trying to seek a compromise on signage, it seems the applicants declined to negotiate!

I think most people are agreed that the new bookshop is going to help rejuvenate York Street and – along with the millions being spent on the Abbey’s Footprint Project and the World Heritage and Clore Learning Centres also coming on stream – is going to form a major part of a new ‘Abbey Quarter’ which should attract additional footfall.

With the street closed to traffic and cafe furniture spilling out into the street during the summer its going to be a welcome edition to the vibrancy of the city centre street scene.

Whatever they decide to do, with regard to where Topping’s main sign goes, that existing frieze is going to need restoration. I don’t like the idea of screwing boards into the stone fabric and would rather see some sort of free-standing signage. Maybe hang neon signs or project the name onto the building?!

I have asked Mr Topping for comment. I hope both sides will quickly sort this out. It’s a great scheme and a splendid way to re-use and protect and preserve a heritage building.