Water Street / 4


This brings us to what in the middle of the 19th century was to be the most influential and forward looking office development in the world: Oriel Chambers, the design of Civil Engineer and Architect Peter Ellis. Completed in 1864, this was arguably the most important building, in engineering terms, in the world at the time of its construction, and was to lead to the building of the skyscraper buildings of Chicago and then New York in the later 19th c. The building is the very first to move from structural brickwork and masonry to a metal frame.

It’s worth noting that Peter Ellis’s architectural colleagues despised this building for more than half a century after its construction (and possibly as late as WWII); referring to it as ‘a great abortion’ and ‘an agglomeration of protruding glass bubbles’. Ellis eventually dropped the designation ‘Architect ‘ from his business directory entries. When, however, the world recognised the importance of the building,  the architectural profession sought to rehabilitate Ellis as one of their own, as we can see from the wall plaque alongside the main entrance. This is the world’s first curtain wall building where the outer shell performs no structural purpose. The thin stone mullions are made to look like cast iron, but the real cast iron frame is hidden from view. Ellis’s only other identified building is at 16 Cook Street which has a dramatic glazed wall spiral staircase.

The American architect John Wellborn Root, a native of Atlanta Georgia, and aged 11 at the outbreak of the American Civil War, was sent to England by his father to avoid the war.  After his return to America, he became a partner in the practice of Burnham and Root in Chicago. There he was able to develop ideas apparently based on those of Peter Ellis.  The practice designed many of the early skyscrapers, including the famous Monadnock Building which was extensively glazed to maximise daylight penetration. Early work seemed to be focussed on grillage foundations to cope with the poor ground conditions of Chicago. It was 30 years after Ellis's building that the first skyscraper emerged built on the same principles. Root's first 14 storey block came two years after the ten storey steel framed block by William de Baron Jenney (a contemporary of Gustav Eiffel) in the same city. Whether Root inspired Jenney, or vice versa, Ellis was 30 years ahead of both of them.

Some have claimed that Ellis was working in an isolated provincial environment and was therefore overlooked. This is, however, unlikely because Liverpool was by this time the best known city on the planet, with large parts of the 'Illustrated London News' and contemporary US magazines such as 'Harpers' actually being focussed  on the ‘phenomenon’ of Liverpool. The Mexican upmarket department store chain 'Liverpool' (still in existence) took its name from the overwhelming number of cargoes stamped 'Liverpool' on the packing crates.

The face of the building towards the courtyard is even more dramatic than the front being almost wholly of a cantilevered wall of glass. The rear of the building is of later date: 1959, by James and Bywaters and replaced wartime damage. The wartime damage enabled the original construction to be fully appreciated in detail regarding its engineering significance.

(Anyone who worked in Liverpool in the 1970s will also probably remember that Liverpool’s then most expensive restaurant ‘The Oriel’ was once in the basement of this Building.)

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Proceed down Water Street to view the Royal Liver Building as you approach The Strand.

Oriel Chambers

Continue down Water Street.

The new block (2010) under construction at Mann Island [above] shows how methods of construction similar to those of Ellis continue in use to this day. Here, a steel frame on columns has floor beams cantilevered out to the external window facade, the beams tapering to their extremities. The final building facade will serve no structural purpose, and floor edges and window or panel frames will be of minimal cross section.

We now take these forms of construction for granted, yet this was truly revolutionary in 1864.