CIVIC TRUST AWARDS IN WOLVERHAMPTON
The Mander Centre
The Civic Trust gave this shopping centre and office block an award in 1969, when it had just been completed. The citation reads: "Although similar to many new shopping developments in back-land and behind existing street frontages, this one has real magic and real urban quality and is made of real materials. Success would seem to be due first to the client, prepared and perhaps asking for a scheme with quality above the normal; then to the architect for seizing his opportunity and producing a simple, almost classical, answer in spite of the strange site and considerable change in level; and finally to the contractor for making a good job of it. The result is a great asset and credit to Wolverhampton. The tall square tower is handsome and stands well in the town. Detailing and finishes of the shopping area are excellent. Architecturally it shows well controlled imagination throughout. It is also full of people shopping and enjoying themselves". (The architect was James Roberts, the contractor was C. Bryant and Son Ltd.; and the client was Mander Property (Wolverhampton) Ltd., the property holding arm of the Mander family enterprises).
The Mander family had settled here ages ago and established a japanning works, which gradually turned into a varnish factory, which spread from the original house to cover a large site on both sides of St. John's Street. By the 1950s a town centre varnish factory was no longer acceptable and quite uneconomic; the company moved everything out to their works at Heath Town. They also did as much site acquisition as they could to provide a suitable area for redevelopment. What they ended up with was a site which was mostly surrounded by existing shopping streets and which sloped diagonally. The Civic Trust assessor may well have been right in guessing that the client wanted a high quality scheme - Manders was still a family owned company and had a commitment to the town. The result was that the town lost most of St. John's Street, a foul factory and one of its better (if then more than little dog-eared) buildings, the old Grammar School. What it gained was a large new shopping centre with an office tower block. It was largely of exposed concrete ("real materials") but did not present a brutal face to many existing streets. Indeed it was largely hidden behind existing street frontages (a feature not as common as the assessor seems to think) and its "magic quality" probably rested on its being a bright, bustling and enclosed area which you got into through passages from the ordinary streets. The most intrusive aspect of the centre was, and is, the office tower block, which rather offensively competes with the tower of St. Peter's on top of the hill. The centre having been built across the slope of the land, shops in Victoria Street could also have access to the Mander Centre. The whole effect could be puzzling, but endearing. Many people will remember that the top floor of Yarnolds was on the bottom floor of the Mander Centre. All in all, despite the concrete, it was, architecturally, one of the more successful town centre redevelopment schemes of the time.
Commercially the centre was an immediate success. Together with the lower quality, local authority promoted Wulfrun Centre (to which the Mander centre linked), it changed the centre of gravity of shopping in Wolverhampton, pulling it away from Lichfield Street and Chapel Ash. The centre underwent a revamp (was it in the early 1990s?), which was another high quality piece of work and might have got another award had it been entered. The most spoken about feature of this revamp was the covering of the central court with a roof which could be moved aside in fine weather. Nobody can be found who has ever seen this happen.
The centre is no longer part of Manders and is now owned by some property company or other, who have drawn up plans for yet another revamp, perhaps because the refurb of the Wulfrun Centre, by yet another property company, has, surprisingly, made the Mander Centre look rather dowdy. The new plans will modify the main frontage onto Victoria Street and may soften its impact. The movable roof will become a fixed roof and the centre become fully enclosed and climate controlled. Doubtless that will see the end of the recorded public address announcement that let shoppers know that it was raining outside: "Because of the inclement weather, moisture is being brought onto the marble floors of the centre. Please take extra care". The plummy voice in which this is read slightly emphasis the word "marble", thereby drawing attention to the luxurious surroundings whilst glossing over the fact that installing a floor that is slippery when wet is not a good idea.