As Penzance celebrates the 400th anniversary of the granting of its Royal Charter by King James I, is its most iconic building, the handsome Market House, falling into disrepair?

[See the updates at the bottom of this post – as of September 2014 progress has been made and the first wave of repairs to the Market House are due to begin in October]

To use its formal name, Penzance Market Building is Grade I listed (English Heritage building ID: 69515), and of national importance. Its impressive portico atop ionic columns on the eastern side has commanded the view of Market Jew Street since its completion in 1838. The building, crowned by its lead-covered dome with octagonal lantern, can be seen from all around the town and surrounding landscape.

The western half of the building is occupied by Lloyds Bank. Unfortunately the eastern half, once home to the town’s Guildhall, lays empty and at risk from further dilapidation. The basement shop has been vacant for many years. The former clothes shop on the ground floor closed over two years ago. The businesses occupying the offices on the first floor left years ago. There are no “To Let” signs. Many of the basement windows are boarded up.

It is becoming a shadow of its former glory, right under the eyes of everyone who lives in, works in, or visits the town. Slow decline can be difficult to notice. But listen to tourists visiting the town – I have heard several saying that it was a shame that it’s all shut up.

A few weeks ago, I had a good look at the eastern half of building. A quick look through the middle side door on Market Place alerted me to the damage that may be occurring inside.

The middle side door

Damp runs up the wall and across the ceiling. Fallen plaster lays on the floor. This indicates water ingress, possibly as a result of the recent storms. There will also be damage in the floor above.

Damp and fallen plaster

Damp and fallen plaster

Inside the old Guildhall, with its beautiful moulded ceiling, paint is peeling off and plaster falling off around the ornate ceiling rose. Dark stains indicate water damage.

Peeling paint and fallen plaster around the ornate ceiling rose

Peeling paint and fallen plaster around the ornate ceiling rose

Meanwhile, several of the windows of the basement are boarded up, reinforcing an image of neglect.

Boarded up windows

Tehmina and I have been worried about the building for a long time, and have gone to some effort to try and discover who is responsible for the building. The Corporation of Penzance owned the building until 1965 when it sold it to Lloyds Bank, retaining use of the flagpole and portico for official occasions.

Lloyds sold the freehold of the Market Building in 1995 as part of a sale and leaseback programme. They remain lessees of the building, and responsible for repairs. Sadly, until recent pressure, they have let the unoccupied (eastern) portion building fall into disrepair. The lack of any “To Let” signs have done little to encourage local businesses to move into the premises.

The best way to look after a historic building is to use it. People working there would notice leaks, and keep it ventilated and heated. This is what needs to happen to our beloved Market House. It needs to be used again.

In mid-April, after first noticing the damage inside, we contacted the Cornwall Buildings Group with our concerns.
They took them very seriously, and summarised them on their website:

We are concerned about the state of the Market House building, Market Jew Street, Penzance. The major portion including the basement lies derelict and has done so for some years. We are concerned that

  1. Despite the building being cleaned in 2011 the surface of the granite is showing signs of algenous growth and vegetation is emerging from the pointing between the granite blocks.

  2. There are probable damp problems in the basement, it has been boarded up for so long.

  3. Plaster is falling from within and the interiors are becoming ruinous.

  4. The building appears to be in a neglected state

We have asked Cornwall Council Enforcement and a conservation officer to get together to look at this important building in Penzance.

Cornwall Buildings Group also wrote to SAVE and the Victorian Society. I have done the same to the latter and Cornwall Council.

Simon Reed, a good friend and former Mayor of Penzance, has been lobbying Town and County Councillors, and the matter will be brought before Penzance Town Council’s Planning Committee on 21 May 2014.

The pressure from the Cornwall Buildings Group has caught the attention of local newspaper, The Cornishman, in the article “Pressure group calls for clean-up of Penzance’s historic Market House” which was published whilst I was drafting this blog post.

A Lloyds spokesman said:

“We understand that Market House is an important place in Penzance and take our responsibility to manage the building very seriously”

“We are currently evaluating the required work, and plan to carry out a repair programme over the coming months.”

This is excellent news. However, we must continue to keep up the pressure to make sure that this grand old building gets the new lease of life that it deserves.

Penzance Market House was built to:

direct its users attention away from the vulgarity of the streets and the uninspired and often depressingly ugly uniformity of the town.

Here’s to it continuing to do just that. Maybe one day it could even host the Town’s market once again.

See more photos of the problems caused by the dereliction of the Market House.

[Update] There is a movement by Popup Penzance to negotiate with the property owners to transform the vacant units into a multipurpose community venue, incorporating a museum exploring the life of scientist Humphry Davy who was born here in Penzance in 1778. It will be fantastic to have the building repaired and see it used again.

[Update 11 August 2014] No visible repairs have been made to Penzance Market House since this post was first written – I assume that we are still in the “coming months” period. Further damage is visible through the glass of the Market Place door – a large piece of wood has fallen from presumably the ceiling of the landing and slid down the stairs. Further plaster is visible on the floor.

Damp, fallen plaster and wood inside the Market Place door into the eastern half of Penzance Market House

The warm weather has dried out some of the damp visible on the ceiling of the former Guildhall, but it is not possible to see if any plaster has fallen off. The building requires an internal inspection.

There are still no “To Let” signs, suggesting a lack of will to have the building reoccupied.

Cornwall Buildings Group have issued a statement about the state of Cornwall’s listed buildings and Cornwall Council’s lack of action in several cases. Watch this space.

[Update 27 September 2014]

Progress. A survey of the external and limited internal damage has been completed, and a planning application has been made and approved by Cornwall Council. The Heritage Statement, prepared by B3 Architects suggests that an enforcement notice has been served on Lloyds, compelling them to fix the damage. It makes sad reading:

To date the bank as failed in its duty to maintain this building effectively so these proposed works – as a result of the enforcement notice – are designed to put that shortcoming right.

The damage in the eastern half is more extensive than is visible from the outside, and quite shocking, especially on the first floor:

This area has suffered from lack of maintenance for many years; there is a large buildup of organic spores on all surfaces.

The ceilings have largely collapsed, the doors have delaminated and a good portion of the flooring is soft under foot.

This area is a danger to Health and a real safety risk. It should not be occupied unless under strict supervision.

According to a further report in The Cornishman entitled Repairs to start at listed Market House building in Penzance repairs will begin in October 2014, and from a glance at the Heritage Statement, it’s going to cost Lloyds a pretty penny as the entire building and dome will be encased in walled and roofed scaffolding.

This is just the first planning application to get the building watertight. Further work and applications will be required to repair the rooms inside. Doubtless this will cost several hundred thousand pounds to complete – all because routine maintanance hadn’t been undertaken.

Hopefully this is the beginning of getting our wonderful Market House back into shape, and bringing the eastern half back into use. We are on the path to helping Penzance be proud of it once more.