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Peter Ellis Architect

Oriel Chambers, 14 Water Street.
Peter Ellis 1864

Oriel Chambers was built in 1864, it is one of Liverpool's architectural treasures. The building was far ahead of its time and a precursor by 20 years of the frame- and curtain-wall buildings of Chicago and New York. Built to the designs of Liverpool architect Peter Ellis (1808-88), it stands on the corner of Water Street and Covent Garden. Ellis also designed another building located at 16 Cook street, the Cook Street building dates from 1866. It seems that Peter Ellis won the commission for the first building (Oriel Chambers) as a result of a competition between local architects organized by the developer.

Left, the windows on the Water Street side
and right the Covent Garden side of the buiding.
Oriel Chambers has an iron frame, built of standardised prefabricated units, from which are cantilevered projecting windows, each with the most slender of iron glazing bars, flooding the interiors with natural light. The oriel windows which give the building its name, stand proud from the frame, give the appearance of a continuously glazed exterior. Oriels facing Covent Garden are wider than those facing Water St which seem a good idea since the former receive less natural light.  The lightness achieved through the oriels is really high by today's standards, and it must have seemed extraordinary to Ellis' contemporaries. The vertical surfaces between the windows are clad in stone and project upwards to a stone parapet. The building has a courtyard, accessible through the passage off Water Street to the left of the entrance, has, although in a much simpler style an even more breathtaking elevation with the glazing cantilevered out from the frame.

View of the oriels from inside. Façade overlooking Covent Garden

Oriel Chambers Blitz Damage

The north end of the building, fronting onto Covent Garden, was badly damaged in the Blitz and rebuilt between 1959 and 1961 to blend with the original. The  professional journals of the time poured scorn on its construction but Oriel Chambers was the forerunner of 20th-century city architecture. The young American architect John Wellborn Root (1850-81), who studied in Liverpool as a young man before returning to work with Daniel H. Burnham, a fellow founder of the Chicago school of architecture, is thought to have been much influenced by Oriel Chambers.

Cook Street

16 Cook Street, top of front view

16 Cook Street. Peter Ellis 1866.

The building a 16 Cook Street is an L-shape (as Oriel Chambers) but much smaller in size and with only a main façade. Glass and stone appear again in the design of the Cook Street building, but here there are no oriels and glass remains flat between slender stone-clad columns. Built in 1866, two years after Oriel Chambers, is was world's second glass curtain walled building.

The tiny rear courtyard is amazing for its date (1866). There is a whole wall almost entirely of glass. Here too is the spectacular glazed spiral staircase. It is made of cast iron and designed without a central support. The tall narrow street frontage at Cook Street is composed of three full height bays of glazing topped with Venetian arches.

Peter Ellis (1804 – 1884) was a Liverpudlian architect. He lived for a time at 40 Falkner Square, on which an English Heritage Blue Plaque is now sited. Ellis's work may have influenced that of the American architect John Wellborn Root who came to Liverpool when 16 Cook Street was being constructed. For example, in the Rookery Building, Chicago, Root used a glass and iron spiral staircase similar to that in 16 Cook Street.

It was not until the 1960s, that Ellis’s work was beginning to be critically appreciated. In his book, Seaport, Quentin Hughes describes Ellis as a “genius” who was much abused in his day.

“Few buildings foreshadow the modern movement so strikingly as his courtyard design for Oriel Chambers and No 16 Cook Street, built at a time when cast iron was tending elsewhere to deteriorate into an abundance of elaborate and florid decoration,” wrote Hughes.

In 1969, Pevsner called the building one of the most remarkable in Europe of its time, and one that prefigured the Chicago skyscrapers of 25 years later.

Video:Peter Ellis: Oriel Chambers, Liverpool


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