Wickhams’ Lopsided Department Store
Observe how the gap-toothed smile of this building undermines the pompous ambition of its classical design. Without this gaping flaw, it would be just another example of debased classicism but, thanks to the hole in the middle, it transcends its own thwarted architectural ambitions, by default, to become a work of unintentional genius.
Built in 1927, but closed now for many years, Wickhams Department Store in the Mile End Rd was meant to be the “Harrods of East London”. The hubris of its developers in the early years of the twentieth century was such that they simply assumed the small shopkeepers in this terrace would all fall into line and agree to move out, so the masterplan to build the new department store could proceed. But they met their match in the Spiegelhalters at 81 Mile End Rd, the shop you see sandwiched in the middle. The first Mr Spiegelhalter had set up his jewellery business in Whitechapel in 1828 when he emigrated from Germany, and his descendants moved to 81 Mile End Rd in 1880, where the business was run by three Spiegelhalter brother who had been born on the premises. These brothers refused all the developers’ inducements to sell.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of the office of those developers because there must have been words – before they came to the painful compromise decision to go ahead and build around the Spiegelhalters. Maybe they comforted themselves with the belief that eventually the gap could be closed and their ambitions fully realised at some later date? If so, it was a short-lived consolation because the position of the Spiegelhalters’ property was such that the central tower of Wickhams Department Store had to be contructed off-centre with seven window bays on the left and nine on the right, rather than nine on either side. This must have been the final crushing humiliation for the developers – how the Spiegelhalter brothers must have laughed.
The presence of the word “halter” within the name Spiegelhalter cannot have escaped the notice of bystanders, “Spiegel-halter by name, halter by nature!” they surely observed. Those stubborn Spiegelhalters had the last laugh too, because the lopsided department store which opened in 1927, closed in the nineteen sixties, while the Spiegelhalters waited until 1988 to sell out, over a century after they opened. I think they made their point.
As part of a new plan to develop this huge empty building as offices, a recent planning application contains the following text,“the attractiveness and uniformity of 69-89 Mile End Rd is only marred by 81 Mile End Rd which is inferior in terms of appearance, detailing and architecture.” These people obviously have no sense of humour. They propose to demolish 81 and replace it with a glass atrium to provide access to the offices. Where are the Spiegelhalters now we need them?
As self-evident testimony to the story of its own construction, the current building stands simultaneously as a towering monument both to the relentless ambition that needs to be forever modernising, and also to the contrary stick-in-the-mud instinct that sees no point in any change. Willpower turned back on itself created this unique edifice. The paradoxical architecture of Wickhams Department Store inadvertently achieves what many architects dream of – because in its very form and structure, it expresses something profound about the contradictory nature of what it means to be human.