There’s a great programme on Radio 4 called ‘The Long View’ which compares decisions we make today with decisions made in the past. On the face of it today’s driverless cars and the start of the railways in 1830 seem to have nothing in common neither would Brexit and the conflict between Offa and Charlemagne in the early mediaeval period. But when you start to look at the decisions being made at the time you understand that making decisions with the Long View in mind are difficult and they have lasting repercussions.
This week I was reminded of an old Irish proverb, when there’s no smoke coming from a chimney the house will soon be falling down. In the case of the Palace theatre you might think the opposite was true as it was smoke coming from the building that brought the surrounding streets to a standstill as the emergency services went to save the Palace. The truth behind the proverb is that once a building isn’t inhabited, isn’t being used, isn’t alive with people living, working and looking after it, it will soon become a ruin.
Anyone who has passed the Palace in recent years will know that this was bound to happen sooner or later. Now it has happened what do we do next?
In the past few days I’ve heard lots of opinions. It’s too expensive to repair, a waste of money, tear it down.
So just like the radio show can we attempt to take the long view.
On 25th March 1807 the Mumbles Railway opened. It was the first fee paying railway service in the world. Let me just repeat that, the first in the world.
By the late 1950’s the Mumbles Railway had been bought by South Wales Transport who liked buses. Trams were too expensive, buses were better.
It makes no economic sense to keep the railway, knock it down and let it rot.
The Weaver Building built in 1897 was designed by French Engineer Francoise Hennebique and was the first reinforced concrete building in Europe. It survived the Swansea blitz but In 1984 it was demolished to make way for Sainsburys. The Weaver Building and the old docks were all cleared as part of the general post war clearance to tear down the old and build new.
I could go on naming buildings and streets now long gone. At the time I’m sure each of these decisions would have made complete sense. Who wants a rattling old tram if you could have a brand-new bus or possibly a car? The ugly rat-infested derelict Flour Mill stood in the way of progress and as they had also decided to fill in the docks and tear down the warehouses it was out of character with modern Swansea.
Just stop for a moment. Can you imagine what our city would look like now if the Strand and the docks had never been filled in.
If instead of the roads, car parks and Parc Tawe Lego like buildings we now had all of that water frontage with the possibility of bustling cafes and bars.
What if the Weaver Building had been transformed into offices or apartments just like the old dockside buildings have been in Manchester, London and New York? We were lucky that someone had vision to retain some of the old industrial buildings which helped create the Marina. That the Old Guildhall still stands as does Morgan’s’ Hotel and the Old Evening Post Building. Imagine Swansea without these landmarks and their connections with our past.
The secret is to find a way to make the buildings live again, to bring them back to life even if it means a new reason for it to exist. The last thing you need is to save a building only for it to turn into a museum or white elephant that sucks public funds. Of course, that doesn’t apply to the National Waterfront Museum which actually took an old dockside warehouse and turned it into a real living breathing museum and tourist attraction.
Will the Palace ever be a Theatre again? We probably have enough underused performance space in the city already, but I think whatever it becomes it should definitely make the most of its history when it finds a new reason. I recently went to visit my daughter in London not far from Ealing studios. We had lunch at the Red Lion, a pub that was the favourite watering hole for all of those massive names form the Ealing films; Syd James, Charles Hawtry, Frankie Howard.
In the same way that the Palace may no longer be a theatre the pub obviously wasn’t a film studio but its capitalised on its history, its walls were covered with pictures of those who had visited because of its location. A Palace Theatre restoration should remember and capitalise on its links with Charlie Chaplin and Anthony Hopkins.
Some say it’s in the wrong part of town. My argument would be that as a derelict building it has contributed to problems currently being experienced in the area. A new Palace Theatre building would help in the regeneration of that part of High Street.
There is already great work being done at Matthew’s House, itself a renovated old church which now serves a community often overlooked in our city.
There are music and dance studios around the corner and with regeneration happening with all the building in the rest of High Street this would be a great time to invest.
New York has a similarly designed Flat Iron Building, bigger of course but no more iconic than our Palace Theatre. People visit that building for photographs, it’s a landmark. If New York needs a Flat iron building maybe Swansea does too.
And in 70 years’ time when our grandchildren look back at the decisions we make now will they wonder how we could let such a beautiful building, with so much history disappear as we do now with the Mumbles Railway or will they say our grandparents made a bold and difficult decision but we thank them for their vision?