Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Higher Market, Queen Street

Sadly the Higher Market's slightly older counterpart, the Lower Market, was gutted by fire during World War Two and subsequently demolished by the city council, but the great Higher Market remains as one of Exeter's finest public buildings, despite the massive mauling it received in the 1970s. As with the Lower Market, the impetus behind the construction of the Higher Market lay in the city's decision to relocate many of Exeter's market stalls into two centralised locations. The Lower, or Western Market was designed by Charles Fowler as a meat market. The Higher, or Eastern Market was intended to house the sale of poultry, vegetables, fish, eggs, butter, etc. The photograph above shows the Queen Street facade of the market. A similar facade of similar dimensions existed on Goldsmith Street before most of it was demolished in the 1970s.

The image left is based on Caleb Hedgeland's model of Exeter. It was completed in 1824. Although the model shows the city as it appeared in 1769 the area covered by the Higher Market, and later Queen Street, had probably changed little between the two dates. Two parish churches can be seen: Allhallows, highlighted in green, and St Paul's, highlighted in purple. Goldsmth Street runs from one church to the other and was to be partially widened with the construction of the Higher Market. The market building itself, its outline based on a 1905 map of Exeter, is highlighted in red. Queen Street had yet to exist when Hedgeland constructed the model but part of Gandy Street can just be seen running top to bottom on the far left of the image. The course of what was to become Queen Street is highlighted in yellow, running from St Martin's Lane and the High Street at the top, bisecting Paul Street at the bottom and out of Exeter through a cutting made in the city wall (not shown).

The Bristol architect George Dymond won an open competition and designed an impressive neo-Classical public building which fronted onto a large section of what was then called New Road (later known as Queen Street). The market extended from its main facade on New Road all the way back to Goldsmith Street at the rear. Although Greek in design, classically-inspired buildings on such a scale hadn't been seen in Exeter since the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. The Higher Market's foundation stone was laid on 08 April 1835 and the building was finished three years later in 1838. However disaster struck when Dymond suddenly died on 29 August 1835, just a few months after construction had begun. The architect of the Lower Market, Charles Fowler, was brought in to replace Dymond, and although Fowler is often cited as being the architect of the Higher Market the building remained essentially the same as Dymond had envisaged it.

The finished building had two main entrances, from Queen Street and Goldsmith Street, with a smaller, narrower entrance from Paul Street. Its dimensions were 230ft by 160ft, making it larger than the Lower Market. Rectangular windows with moulded surrounds alternate with simple but massive Doric columns, four in the centre with two each on either side. Running along the full length of the facade is an entablature decorated with moulded classical triglyphs. Above the central four columns above right is a massive neo-Classical pediment, in the centre of which is a carved representation of the coats of arms of Exeter: a shield depicting three castle towers flanked by two Pegasus. The Doric columns are only partially fluted, the reason being that it was thought that the constant traffic moving past the delicate fluting would damage the decoration.

The facade which fronted onto Goldsmith Street, shown left c1950, was almost totally demolished by Exeter City Council in the 1970s.

Of particular interest are the steep steps which led up into the market area from the street below. This change in ground level was to be obliterated during the redevelopment. When originally built its 260ft length would've completely dominated the still narrow Goldsmith Street.

The chief difference between the Queen Street facade and the Goldsmith Street facade was the use of plain Doric columns with no fluting combined with square pillars. Apart from this the layout was similar with rectangular openings alternating with columned entrances. Only a small fragment of the Goldsmith Street facade remains. The photograph below shows the surviving central portico from the elevation in Goldsmith Street, with its classical pediment, Doric columns and square pillars set amidst the mediocre red-brick shopping centre which now squats over the remains of Goldsmith Street.

The rest of the facade was ripped down. If that wasn't outrageous enough, in an act of crass ignorance the ground level outside the remaining portico was raised by over six feet, burying both the base on which the columns originally stood and the steps which led up into the market. All these changes have only succeeded in destroying the classical proportions of the entrance completely. Comparing the fragment which remains with the photograph above, it's hard to believe that they both depict the same building.

All of the facades were originally constructed out of a Jurassic freestone called Bath Oolite, brought especially into the city from Wiltshire via the Exeter ship canal and heaved up into the city centre on carts where it could be used on the building itself.

The interior was as lavish as the colossal facades which contained it. Running through the centre of the building on the ground floor were a sequence of massive square pillars, carved from granite quarried on Dartmoor. On either side of this avenue were a whole sequence of rooms and open spaces designed to cater specifically for the produce that was being sold. For example, the fish market (now demolished) was built around a square in one entire corner of the market, in the centre of which was a water fountain. On the first floor was a horticultural gallery with large windows designed to flood the spaces below with natural light.

The composite image left shows Dymond's original plan overlaid onto a modern aerial photograph of the Higher Market today. The areas outlined in purple show which parts of the 1830s building actually remain today. Everything in red was demolished in the early 1970s to the great detriment of the architectural and historical integrity of the building as a whole.

The Higher Market was a superb piece of design, both incredibly functional and visually impressive. And it cost the city a fortune. The original budget was £19,000 but the final costs exceeded this by some way. Upon their completion both the Higher Market and its sibling the Lower Market were two of the finest 19th century market halls in England. The Higher Market continued in operation until 1962 and then lay dormant for some years as plans were made to create a new shopping precinct in the city centre. This was to become the notorious 'Golden Heart' project of the 1970s, a project which inflicted further significant amount of destruction upon Exeter's already fragmented historical cityscape.

In comparison with what happened elsewhere in Exeter, the Higher Market actually got off lightly as Exeter City Council wanted the entire building destroyed. A long and acrimonious battle ensued between the council and, amongst others, the Exeter Civic Society led by Professor W.G. Hoskins. According to the archaeologist Aileen Fox, who excavated much of the city after the destruction of 1942, the city council regarded the preservation group as "an ineffectual nuisance". A compromise was reached which saw only the majority of the building demolished rather than all of it. The Queen Street facade was retained, along with the central hall of granite columns, the barrel-vaulted roof and the impressive portico on the Goldsmith Street side of the building. Everything else was pulled down. As a report in 'Country Life' stated in 1989, the building "has been treated in such an insensitive manner that little of the original Classicism seems to have survived". Other journals refer to the 1970s alterations as "vulgar" and "crude". Clearly, if it hadn't been for the intervention of the Exeter Civic Society then the whole building would've disappeared. Despite the building's defacement it still has Grade II listed status. The photograph below shows the surviving colonnaded hall with its barrel-vaulted ceiling and high clerestory windows.


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