Union Crescent gentle curves at the top of Margate’s town centre, an unloved sweep of opposing Georgian terraces and a religious collection of church, mosque and Salvation Army Hall. The biggest mass of buildings on the street are a jumble, united only by peeling, faded red paint and in the Sterling board covering the windows and door.
Behind the boards are The Thanet Press. Anybody who’s shopped around Margate old town will have found mention of this place; all the shops have old leather-bound ledgers from this business, which collapsed in 2011 under the weight of a £100,000 unpaid tax bill. Have a look in fashion boutique Ahoy Margate for a blood red ledger, full of copperplate script listing ‘Plant and Repairs and Renewals’. And that ledger tells you more; embossed in gold, it’s titled ‘Eyre & Spottiswoode Ltd (Thanet Press Account)’.
That’s a name that is full of history. Eyre & Spotiswoode are the Queen’s printers, entitled to print the King James bible without her permission. And they printed invitations and other material for Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. They were printers for exam papers, too, and – if all that establishment work was too much – also produced the fan club magazines for The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
For all of that, Thanet Press was a rough commercial printers, producing manuals, journals, diaries and calendars for a range of different organisations. The business survived almost a hundred years, since the first records of Bobby & Co as a printer in Union Crescent. The site is a jumble of buildings, from Victorian industrial with pretensions to grandeur through to mid-20th century modernism. There are factories, offices and shopfronts facing onto Union Crescent. There are a dozen doors, windows at every level. A courtyard, the old front office curving into it. This is organic, not planned, a site which has grown over time, the kind of street scene loved by Jane Jacobs and Francis Tibbalds and Lewis Mumford. Individual buildings may not have much architectural merit, but collectively they show that even a seaside town like Margate had industry, even here in a street full of seaside boarding houses.
And they show that there was a pride in industry. Look at elegant ventilation, curved glazed bricks, the details of shopfronts, and it’s obvious that this was an important building, made to last.
The back of the site, on Princes Street, has its own style and tells more of the story. It’s mid 20th century, streamlined even as it slips down a hill, but even here there are odd, older doorways and well-proportioned details. There’s some heavy industrial ducting, too, and an electricity substation that is humming behind red louvred doors that remind me of the post-war junior school I went to. This is the bauhaus ideal made in brick: a delight in technology and an elegance in simple function.
Of course, change is inevitable and the site is scheduled to be cleared, and a dull, cod-Victorian block of flats built in the place of Thanet Press. And this in Margate, which has over 200 empty homes already.
I can’t understand how an architect can look at this site, and not be inspired by glazed brick, perfect proportions and elegant fenestration. And instead of demolition, suggest these buildings repurposed, an assortment of flats, live-work units, workshops and studios bringing new employment. New ideas must use old buildings, Jane Jacobs said. what better than housing young, digital businesses and start ups in an old printworks?
This site is quite ordinary, but very special because of that. Some buildings are made great, and others have greatness thrust upon them. That’s what Thanet Press deserves.
This was originally published on another blog in 2013: I’m moving it here as I have a ‘blogs I never really used much’ cull.