One of my favourite buildings in the East End is Wickhams Department Store, wrapped snugly around the former Spiegelhalters’ Jewellers in the Mile End Rd. But now the owners Resolution Property plan to demolish Spiegelhalters, erasing the extraordinary story it tells and sacrificing a unique architectural wonder for the sake of a glass atrium. Below I uncover the curious origin of this idiosyncratic landmark as a campaign to save Spiegelhalters gets underway with a Petition by David Collard demanding Tower Hamlets Council grant it locally-listed status.
Wickhams, Mile End Rd
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 to become a work of unintentional genius.
Built in 1927, Wickhams Department Store in the Mile End Rd was meant to be the ”Harrods of East London.” The hubris of its developers 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 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, compromised 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 plan to redevelop this building in 2009, a planning application contained 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 – proposing to demolish 81 and replace it with a glass atrium to provide access to the offices. Where are the Spiegelhalters when we need them?
Five years ago, you could look through the metal shutter and see Spiegelhalter’s nineteenth century shopfront intact with its curved glass window and mosaic entrance floor spelling out “Spiegelhalters.” Since then, with disdainful arrogance, the owners of the building have destroyed this, leaving just the front wall of the building – ready to proceed with their glass atrium once they get permission. Yet at this moment, while the facade of Spiegelhalters still stands, the entire building and the story it tells is legible. So I ask you to show some of that Spiegelhalter pluck and sign the petition to save this remarkable edifice for future generations as an embodiment of the East End spirit.
As self-evident testimony to the story of its own construction, the Wickhams building is simultaneously a towering monument 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.
Resolution Property’s proposal to replace the historic Spiegelhalters with an empty space
Wickhams seen from Whitechapel
Resolution Property’s proposal for the future of Wickhams with Spiegelhalters as a mere void
Spiegelhalters in 1900