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Oriel Chambers
14-16 Water Street, Liverpool
Oriel Chambers
associated engineer
Peter Ellis
date  1864 - 1865
era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  SJ339904
ICE reference number  HEW 765
photo  Mark Whitby
The first building in the world to make extensive use of glazed curtain wall construction. The non-structural façade is cantilevered from the building's cast iron frame. Considered by some to be the finest building in Liverpool, it certainly had a worldwide influence on the design of tall buildings. It was extended in the mid 20th century and completely refurbished early in the 21st century.
Oriel Chambers, in west Liverpool close to the River Mersey, was designed as an office building by local architect and engineer Peter Ellis (1805-84) for the Reverend Thomas Anderson. Anderson is commemorated on the exterior by the letters T.A. and the clan emblem of an oak tree above the motto "Stand Sure".
The four-storey building has a concealed cast iron frame and glazed façades. The frame is composed of H-section columns and inverted T-section beams that span the building's width, supporting fireproof floors with brick barrel vaulting below. Transverse brick walls, with integral chimneys, are provided every four bays for lateral stiffness.
On the street-facing elevations, slender full-height masonry piers create bay divisions. Seven bays front Water Street and originally 20 bays faced Covent Garden (pictured). Between the piers, projecting (oriel) windows admit light from all directions. The windows are tall and individually boxed, with delicate cast iron framing and stepped masonry panels below. The oriels on Covent Garden are wider than those on Water Street. The front entrance is placed asymmetrically in the Water Street façade, surmounted by an elongated octagonal window.
At the rear is a narrow courtyard, originally 12 bays long. The elevation fronting the courtyard features curtain wall glazing cantilevered from the frame in horizontal bands. To make the most of available light in the narrow space, each floor moving up the building steps back towards the frame. The windows sit above bitumen-coated panels, and slope back towards the building at the top.
Internal accommodation consists of a basement and four floors of offices. The top floor is about half the height of those below. Full-length corridors on each floor divide the building into two blocks of chambers.
The building’s structural safety was highlighted in an advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury of 8th January 1866, which read, Oriel Chambers, Water Street — Offices to be Let in this fire-proof structure — Apply to Peter Ellis.
It’s thought that Oriel Chambers had considerable influence on the design of tall office buildings, particularly in America through the work of Chicago architects John Wellborn Root (1850-91) and Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912), who were working on early skyscrapers. As a teenager, Root had studied in Liverpool (1864-67), before returning to the USA to read architecture at New York University.
To begin with, the Oriel Chambers was not well regarded by some. The Builder hated it, its 16th June 1866 issue offering this critique: The plainest brick warehouse in town is infinitely superior as a building to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles ... Did we not see this vast abortion — which would be depressing were it not ludicrous — with our own eyes, we should have doubted the possibility of its existence. Where and in what are their beauties supposed to lie?
In February 1868, Building News dismissed it as "a kind of greenhouse architecture run mad" and commented that the tall oriel windows “are trying to escape from the building.”
Ellis designed one other Liverpool building, 16 Cook Street (1866), which also features glazed curtain walling. It too received bad reviews on completion. Perhaps as a result, Ellis’s later recorded works are civil engineering rather than architectural projects.
By the 20th century, critical opinion was turning towards an appreciation of Oriel Chambers. In 1921, Charles Herbert Reilly (1874-1948), head of the Liverpool School of Architecture, called it the "oddest building in Liverpool … at once so logical and so disagreeable". However, he added: "But I hope it won’t be destroyed for many years to come. Its humour as a cellular habitation for the human insect is a distinct asset to its town".
Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83) praised the building, saying it was "ahead of its time” (1936) and in 1969 calling it "one of the most remarkable buildings of its date in Europe”.
In May 1941, wartime bombing destroyed the northern section, exposing the frame and innovative curtain wall construction. The damage was repaired in 1959-61, by James & Bywaters, who also designed an extension. Only 12 of the Covent Garden façade bays are now original. In July 1966, Oriel Chambers was designated a Grade I listed building.
In 2006, owing to a lack of available drawings and data, the building was subject to laser scanning. The results were used to provide working drawings to inform its complete refurbishment, carried out in 2008-9. The building remains in use as offices.
Architect: Peter Ellis
Research: PD, ECPK
bibliography
"In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis" by Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones, Liverpool History Society, 2013
"Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West" by Richard Pollard, Pevsner Architectural Guides, Yale University Press, 2006
"Liverpool" by Joseph Sharples, Yale University Press, 2004
"Studies in the History of Civil Engineering" edited by R. Thorne, Vol.10, Structural Iron & Steel 1850-1900, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000
"A History of Architecture" by Sir Bannister Fletcher, The Athlone Press, London, 1975 (eighteenth edition)
"The Buildings of England: South Lancashire" by Nikolaus Pevsner, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1969
www.ice.org.uk
www.liverpool.engineeringwalks.com
www.liverpoolhistorysociety.org.uk
www.orielchambers.co.uk
Location

Oriel Chambers