The showpiece Willes pool sits beneath an elegant lantern roof, on display again after being concealed by a false ceiling in the 1980s
The Willes pool circa 1901 being used as a meeting room, and the imposing exterior on Prince of Wales Road
Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, with its gleaming aluminium wave-shaped roof, represents everything we associate with 21st century sports facilities: it’s highly engineered, iconic and inspiring. But the Victorians also gave the country a legacy of sports facilities that represent a different set of values: public service, community, human scale. Today, thanks to ingenious 21st century solutions and the resilience of the original Victorian design and workmanship, the building traditions of two eras can live side by side.
St Pancras Baths in Kentish Town, north London, is one example of a Victorian treasure that has been rescued from oblivion by a £25.5m project run by Camden Council. The mistakes of an unsympathetic 1960s renovation have been reversed, the baths’ historic features restored, and its interior converted into a state-of-the-art swimming and fitness centre that includes a gym, dance studio, larger changing rooms and three swimming pools — all within the confined walls of the grade II-listed building.
On its corner plot between Grafton Road and Prince of Wales Road, the building is an imposing presence, its gothic turrets and pointed gables towering over the local streets. When it opened in 1901, St Pancras Baths was more a public service than a leisure facility. With many Londoners not even able to fill a tin bath in front of the fire, the building’s four bathing pools, divided into separate 1st and 2nd class pools for men and women, 129 hot “slipper” baths and extensive laundry facilities, were vital for locals’ health and hygiene.
But in the post-war decades, the building underwent several modifications. In the 1950s the womens’ 1st class pool was covered and converted into changing rooms, while a major refurbishment job, completed in 1960, resulted in many of the original internal Victorian features being removed or badly damaged. In subsequent years, neglect further degraded the structure, until in 2006 the Labour-run Camden Council announced plans to shut it down.
A public outcry ensued, fuelled by fervent protests from The Victorian Society, a charity that campaigns to preserve our Victorian built heritage.
Later that year, a new Liberal Democrat-run council announced a £25.3m project to revitalise the building, with a council grant that would be offset by the proceeds of developing flats on part of the site.
When the project to deliver the new Kentish Town Sports Centre began on site in January 2009, main contractor Wates’ team was daunted by the level of disrepair, says Matthew Heshmati MCIOB, construction manager. “It was all crumbling plaster and collapsing roofs, the amount of work surprised and daunted some of us and the feeling over the first few days was ‘oh my God, two more years of this!’”
Demolishing the post-war internal structures while retaining the original envelope and historic features was particularly challenging, as was the detailed services design. “I’ve been working on Victorian buildings for over 25 years and I have never come across anything so complicated,” adds Heshmati.
But despair turned into admiration when the team explored the building’s Victorian engineering, particularly two boreholes that were used to pump water from deep underground to supply the pools and facilities. “We couldn’t believe that the boreholes went down 140 metres, how they managed to dig that far without modern machinery is beyond me,” says Heshmati.
The 300mm-wide boreholes have both been repaired and relined. The former will remain in operation, pumping out groundwater at a fresh 13 deg C which is then passed through heat pumps for use in the pools and for all water services.
The groundwater is also part of a strategy to cool the fitness studios and changing rooms in the summer. The water used by the chiller system is pumped into special pipes in the boreholes to be cooled to 13 deg C, reducing the energy needed to chill it to the required temperature.
The groundwater is an important part of services engineer Max Fordham’s renewable energy strategy, and the building’s combined heating and cooling system is expected to reduce the centre’s overall energy use by 10%, helping it gain a BREEAM “very good” rating.
The controversial design from architect Roberts Limbrick involved demolishing large areas of the building’s interior, including the original boiler house, changing areas and a public laundry to the north of the site; digging a deeper basement to house the new plant and then building a new first floor mezzanine level that would slice through the double-height Grafton pool hall on the west side of the site, creating a new fitness gym.
This demolition strategy is not as reckless as it seems, says Ian Dungavell, director of the Victorian Society: “It might sound alarming, but the 1960 modernisation had destroyed most of the historic internal surfaces and the decorative finishes, apart from some original tiling, and there were few areas of significance in that part of the building.”
Meanwhile, the baths’ most important remaining Victorian features have been retained and fully restored, including the red brick and ornately-carved terracotta facades, the slate roofs, chimneys and roof lanterns, and the impressive 33m-long Willes pool on the east side of the site, with its vast vaulted plaster ceiling, public gallery and roof lights.
The sports centre’s entrance on Grafton Road, a 1950s addition, has been removed and the brick facade reinstated. A new entrance and double-height foyer has been created through the Dutch gable end on Grafton Road in the space previously occupied by the 1st class womens’ pool. Further along this entrance axis, new male and female changing rooms have been built, below a new studio space at first floor level that features an exposed timber and steel roof structure inspired by the original building.
At the southern end of the site, along Prince of Wales Road, the distinctive main elevation with its turrets and bell tower has been separated from the rest of the sports centre and converted into luxury apartments, while the former Resident Engineer’s Block at the northern end of the building has been converted into flats and social housing apartments. These units will be sold to offset the cost of the development.
A new mezzanine and fitness gym has been inserted above the 30m Grafton pool
The showpiece Willes pool sits beneath an elegant glazed gothic vaulted roof, exposed for the first time since the 1960s. It was in a terrible state before work began, the fibrous plaster covering the vaults was rotting and falling apart, the roof lights were blacked out and leaking and most of the vault was obscured by a suspended ceiling, erected in the 1980s.
“There was horrible 1960s tiling covering the walls, and when we removed it to see what was underneath, we found the faces had been cut off of the original glazed brickwork to increase adhesion. You look at that attitude today and you can’t help but think ‘how could you?’” says Terry Gallagher, senior building surveyor at Camden Council.
A dizzying 5.5 miles of scaffolding was erected inside the pool to gain access to the underside of the vault. Fibrous plaster specialists then made highly accurate drawings of every surviving roof panel, which formed the basis for new panels and mouldings. Remarkably, the roof’s 12 main exposed timber trusses were relatively undamaged, so English Heritage insisted they remain in place, although new metal shoes incorporating damp sensors linked into the building management system were inserted at the ends of each truss to prevent future rot. Double-glazed, self-cleaning roof lights were then installed.
Max Fordham’s strategy of incorporating services within the building’s structure is evidenced in Willes pool, where all the air conditioning ductwork and other services have been routed through spaces underneath the original public gallery seating surrounding the pool at first floor level.
Now the hall is complete, sunlight cascades through the vault into the pool’s blue waters below. Somehow it feels like a Victorian vision of the future, a watery version of St Pancras Station. “It’s spectacular, I don’t know of anything else like it in the UK,” confirms the Victorian Society’s Dungavell.
Repairs to the terracotta stone and brickwork facades and slate roofs were equally involved. The facades were first washed to clean off dirt, scaffolding was erected, then a painstaking “brick-by-brick” detailed condition survey was completed. Individual terracotta tiles and bricks were removed and repaired and those too badly damaged were remade. The attention to detail on the facades even extended to repainting all the lettering over the ladies’ and mens’ entrance signs with gold leaf.
Kentish Town Sports Centre was handed over to the council in July this year, on time and on budget — a considerable achievement considering the scope of work, says Dungavell. “A good balance has been achieved between preserving areas of historical interest and accommodating modern uses,” he says. Now, there’s every hope that a building that combines the achievements of two eras will continue to be at the heart of the community for the next 100 years.
Constructing the new Victorian-inspired roof to the fitness gym
The roofscape of the Willes (left) and the Grafton pool halls
The floor of the Willes pool doubled as a joinery shop during construction
Tiling work for the base of the reconstructed Grafton pool
Ian Dungavell, Victorian Society
Ian Dungavell, director of the Victorian Society, explains why he’s been campaigning to save the last surviving examples of Victorian baths.
As an architectural conservation charity, we believe Victorian and Edwardian pools have a vital role to play in communities, which have often evolved around them. Many people love the architecture for its intrinsically human scale, while the privacy of the swimming environment is very unlike modern pools, where glass walls between spaces can make you feel like you are in a goldfish bowl.
In 2008 we surveyed the number of listed Victorian and Edwardian swimming baths still being used for their original purpose and found a total of 14 in England and Wales. Many are in danger of being forgotten and urgently need attention, but some are now being faithfully restored.
As well as the St Pancras Baths, the 1920s-built grade II-listed Marshall Street Baths in London’s Borough of Westminster also opened in July. Here, the pool had all its original marble lined floors and barrel-vaulted ceiling restored.
Another good example is the partially-restored grade II*-listed Victoria Baths in Manchester, which has beautiful public spaces clad in glazed tiles and many decorative stained glass windows, although the swimming pools remain neglected.
Perhaps the best surviving example is Bradford’s tiny Manningham Baths, built in 1904 which, apart from some damage to the roof structure, is practically the same inside as the day it opened, right down to the spittoons that run the length of the scum channel.
Many projects are London-based, such as Ironmonger Row Baths in Islington, which is currently undergoing extensive refurbishment work, and Haggerston Baths in Hackney. This is probably because land in London is more valuable, so developments can make money by incorporating flats, plus there is also a shortage of land available to build new pools, making refurbishment more attractive.
We want to spread London’s good practice around the country because there are other pools that really need it, the most important being the 1907-built Moseley Road Baths in Birmingham, which is the only grade II*-listed Victorian or Edwardian bath still open for the public to swim in.
In the past, some baths have been converted for new uses. But the Victorian Society wants to ensure that these buildings are used for their original purpose so they don’t lose their essential character. We’re not saying every inch of the building has to be used as it was before, but the aim is to keep what’s most important about each site and also bring other new uses in.