Ipswich Icons: Superior communications tipped the balance for HQ
- Credit: Archant
Prior to 1974 Ipswich was divided into two separate counties, East and West Suffolk, with two administrative centres, one in Bury St Edmunds for West Suffolk and one in Ipswich for East Suffolk. After much debate, lobbying and analysis it was decided to base the new joint headquarters in Ipswich, much to the dismay, not only of those in the west of the county but also those in more easterly rural areas.
Bury had the advantage of being in the centre of East Anglia (but not in the centre of the county) whereas Ipswich had the main communication links, by road, rail and via Felixstowe to the continent. Ipswich also had an airport but unfortunately it was not to last.
A shadow team began working together in 1973 and a seven-year lease was taken on St Peter’s House (now St Vincent’s House, Grey Friars Road), the purpose being to house the technical departments of the new county council. During the occupation of St Peter’s House discussions were held to establish where a new building could be constructed to be ready for when the lease expired.
Sites both close to the town centre and on the outskirts were discussed but it was obvious that the whole of the county’s office-based workforce should be close together and therefore near the existing East Suffolk buildings in St Helen’s Street. The county owned a plot of land, at the time being used as a car park by Suffolk College just off Grimwade Street in Rope Walk.
An internal competition was held, limited to the county architects, to establish design concepts and a dynamic, forward-thinking member of the team, Peter Brooks, came up with the outlines of St Edmund House. It was to be some 6,750 sq m and was eventually built for £2 million.
The police were due to move out of their accommodation in Grimwade Street to the new police headquarters at Martlesham Heath (in summer 1976) thus vacating space for area offices (St Andrew’s House which is currently being converted into flats by Barnes Construction).
St Edmund House was designed to accommodate county architects, surveyors and planners and importantly to integrate staff from the previous East and West Suffolk county offices. The adjacent eight storey Suffolk College by architect Birkin Haward persuaded Peter Brooks to design a building that was closer to the Suffolk vernacular, a brown facing brick under a red tiled roof.
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The building was divided into three with the middle section pushed off line which reduced the bulk and dominance, a building with an architectural character appropriate to Suffolk.
Suffolk County Council occupied St Edmund House between 1979 and 2004 when they moved to Endeavour House on the other side of town. An alternative use has been sought for the building ever since.
In 2014 an Essex developer drew up proposals to convert St
Edmund House into 74 flats. Given the large floor plates and the distance across the building between the external walls (and daylight) this will be a difficult task and I suggest that the resultant accommodation will not sell at a premium.
An interesting aside in the development of the County Hall complex is that to aid the flow of people between St Edmund House and the town centre (numbers swelled by students from the college) subways were to be dug under Grimwade Street and under Bond Street (both of which were, at the time, still two way). Subways are a hindrance to wheelchairs, buggies and bicycles and almost universally hated by older pedestrians. If the county highway engineers had put them in in 1979 then I’m sure they would have been refilled and replaced by surface crossings by now.