Wolverhampton's Listed Buildings

The Molineux Hotel

Molineux Street

The Molineux Hotel at its lowest ebb.

Listing:  Grade II*. c.1720 with mid C18 additions and C19 additions. For Benjamin Molineux, ironmaster. The grounds were open to the public in 1857 to become Wolverhampton's first public park.

Pevsner:  the facade to the ring road is of c.1740-50. ... five bays, three storeys, characteristic ensemble. A Georgian 'S' wing and a Victorian turret complete the loose composition.

Literature:  English Heritage, Constructive Conservation in Practice, 2008.  Amidst the praise of their own contribution to the restoration, English Heritage say:  "The beautiful, but badly damaged, interiors of the Rococo and oak rooms were restored using fragments of the original interiors.  A less historically significant Victorian extension was demolished to make way for the state-of-the-art archive, without which the entire project could not have been feasible. ... Life has been extended for one of Wolverhampton's best-loved landmarks; one that was at serious risk of being lost"". 

Comment:   First built around 1720, possibly by its first recorded owner, John Rotton. The house and 8 acres of land were acquired in 1744 by Benjamin Molineux, a rich ironmaster and banker.  It was then just on the outskirts of the built up area and is a typical example of what the new rich of Wolverhampton were providing for themselves at a time when they still lived in the town centre. At the front it had a good view to St. Peter's church; at the back it had fine views of what was then considered to be some of the best and most picturesque countryside in England, with the views extending into Wales.  It had extensive walled gardens running down the hill to where the Molineux football ground now is. Benjamin Molineux and his family greatly extended the building and the rear elevation and return are, if anything, richer than the front with two elaborate venetian windows. The interior was once splendid, noted particularly for its fine central staircase, wood panelled rooms and fine plasterwork.

The building was known as Molineux House until in 1871, after becoming a hotel.  The extensive grounds at the rear were not simply available as a park, but were used for anything which might entertain, and turn a profit. Even the Exhibition of Staffordshire Arts and Industry, 1869 was held in its grounds. It became particularly well known for sporting events, especially bicycle races, which were attended by vast numbers of people.  Several of the local competitors made their own bikes, then started making them for others.  Arguably this was the start of the Wolverhampton cycle industry and, from that, the car and motorbike industry. When Wolverhampton Wanderers started to get aspirations they created their ground behind the hotel and partly on the hotel's grounds; the ground is, of course, still known as the Molineux.

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The rear of the building before its major deterioration and restoration. Photo: David Clare.
In 1901 the hotel was acquired by the local brewery, William Butler & Co. 

It was, for long, much used for businessmen's lunches and for functions of all sorts. 

Much of the hotel's land at the rear was sold off and then the hotel became cut off by the building of the ring road past its front door in 1969 and it eventually closed in 1979.

What happened thereafter is a bit of a saga. 

Numerous proposals were cast around for its re-use, including at one point the headquarters of the Professional Footballers' Association.

The later owners included Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, who applied for permission to demolish it; Tarmac, the construction company; then at least one other development company. 

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The building in the early 1970s. Photo: David Clare.

But nothing ever happened and the whole building became more and more derelict. The then Borough Council took a lot of flak for not doing something about it. But they did use the somewhat clumsy and limited powers available to them under listed building legislation and spent considerable sums in trying to keep it weather proof.  Doing more was difficult in a time of severe economic depression, when the council had no money and there was no private money for practically any sort of development.  In any event the building seemed to be under attack by vandals; for example, a large hole mysteriously appeared in the roof immediately above the fine wooden central staircase.

Then Peter Maddox, the Wolverhampton developer, acquired the premises and tried many ways to put together a deal which would save the building and provide a return.  In November 1999 a deal was achieved which included the Borough Council's agreeing to underwrite the restoration of this landmark with £200,000 of the public's money. That would cover any shortfall after taking into account the contributions made by Advantage West Midlands and English Heritage - and maybe anyone else who could be persuaded to contribute to a total cost estimated at £2.2 million. The plan was to turn the building into offices. 

That deal failed when the proposed tenant of the new offices backed out and a new one could not be found.  At that stage the West Midlands Historic Buildings Trust carried out a  feasibility study to see if another financial package could be put together.  The building gradually got worse and worse, with the clock tower leaning over more and more.  Peter Maddox had agreed to sell the property to what was now the city council when, in June 2003, a fire broke out inside the building and it was gutted.

Peter Maddox could then see nothing for it but to demolish the building.

The council thought it could still be saved.

They did a deal with Peter Maddox and the sale went ahead, the council relying on promises of money from Advantage West Midlands and others. 

The upshot of all this is that by mid-2004 (when the photo above was taken)  the building was shrouded in scaffolding and orange safety nets, while people were beavering away to restore the shell and at least some elements of the interior.

The cranes, shown above, were used to let people down into the shell, in a cage, from which they darted out to remove the debris left from the fire.

When that dangerous task was finished work on the shell started.

The contractors were Sapcotes, which seems to have been a good thing.  But the company failed and the contracting work was carried on and completed by Linfords - which also seems to have been a good thing. In 2005 the wraps and scaffolding came off, the clock turret  was popped back on and the bare shell of the interior was revealed to public inspection.

The rear, garden side of the building during
Inside, one room still carried some very good plaster work and such bits of the staircase and the wood panelling as had survived were brought back to be re-installed. 

The city council decided to apply for National Lottery Heritage funding to demolish the Victorian wing, turn the whole into the City Archives and build an archive store roughly where the Victorian wing had been.  At the same time they started marketing the building generally - presumably in case the archives scheme failed.

By September 2006, when the building was opened to the public again for viewing progress, the NHL funding had been approved, planning permission and listed building permission had been given for the archives extension, the scaffolding was off and the basic work on the interior was practically finished.

The completion of the new storage extension and of the restoration of the interior and of installing the city archives, took until March 2009, when the building re-opened, under the name of the Molineux Hotel Building, as the City Archives.

What was to become the Search Room, during restoration.

The main front in February 2009, shortly before the re-opening of the Archives.  Work on the gardens was under way at the time.
The archives extension is designed as a state of the art archives store, with enough space to gather in existing records and those that will accumulate over the next fifty years. 

The design problem was to get something big enough, that somehow fitted in with the Molineux Hotel and did not dominate it - and which had no windows.  This was tricky and the first design was altered when black slate vertical panels  between the pillars were objected to as visually intrusive and likely to cause the extension to dominate the original building. 

The outcome is very satisfactory.

Internally the staircase and two other rooms have been restored to their original condition.  The rest of the building maintains the original layout of the rooms, including odd changes in floor levels, and the woodwork has been largely created to match the period.  All the glass in the windows is hand made glass, adding greatly to the appearance both from within and without. 

One of the rooms almost completed.  In this area the rooms had to be stripped back to the bare brick and everything else replaced in a sympathetic style.
About 25% of the wood panelling in a small room to the front survived the vicissitudes of the building's recent life and the rest has been completely replaced. It is now known as the Oak Room.  It looks great and the finish to the wood is particularly good.

Some of the main staircase survived, enough to enable this beautifully finished restoration to be made.  Modern requirements meant that the upper levels had to be adjusted somewhat but the principle of the staircase becoming less elaborate as higher floors were reached, has been maintained.  Likewise, the skirting boards in the rooms get shorter as you ascend to the servant's quarters. 

This staircase was put back in place as almost the last operation in the restoration. 

Somehow at least 75% of the plasterwork, in the room at the back with the two venetian windows, also survived.  This has been splendidly restored and the room, now known as the Rococo Room, is probably the best room in Wolverhampton.  

Surviving plasterwork in the Rococo Room, seen during restoration work.

The same area of plasterwork after restoration.

The original restoration contractors, William Sapcote and Sons, seemed to know what they were doing when it came to restoration and so handed over the restoration of the plasterwork to Trumpers Ltd., a specialist plastering company from Birmingham, who had done much restoration work for the National Trust and others.  (In due course Trumpers became incorporated into Sapcotes and then the whole firm failed). 

It must be difficult to attribute stucco work in the absence of documentary evidence.  Often enough the plasterwork was designed by an architect and those designs might leave either no room, or quite a bit of room, for the craftsman's own ideas to come into play and thereby act as identifiers.  But Trumpers identified the work here as that of an Italian plasterer, Francesco Vassalli and their attribution is as good as you are going to get.

Vassalli came from a family of stuccatori in the Lugano district of Italy and is known to have worked in England from 1724 to 1763.  He worked almost exclusively in the north and midlands and his work is known at, for example, Castle Howard and the Music Room in Lancaster in the north, and at Sutton Scarsdale, Hagley Hall, Chillington Hall and Patshull Hall in the Midlands.  This sort of plasterwork was almost unknown in this country before 1700 so there was a great reliance on Italian craftsmen.  Francesco Vassalli was far from the only one.

There is a number of other possible candidates as Italian stuccoists were not uncommon: the Atari brothers,  Fancesco Serena and Bagutti were some of the busiest and best known.  By the mid-18th century there were also many skilled English stuccoists.  On large commissions they worked together in partnership and Italians and English worked together in these arrangements.  But it is interesting that Vassalli, Serena and the two Ataris worked together on the plasterwork for Ditchley House, Oxfordshire, where the architect was Smith of Warwick.  And Smith of Warwick probably built Giffard House in 1727-29.  So might there be some connection? 

In any event Trumpers' identification of the work as being by Vassalli - and they were in no doubt about it - is as reliable as we are likely to get.

It seems (mainly from the archaeological evidence from the building itself) that what is now the front of the Hotel was built first (c.1720) and the part to the rear was added later (1740 - 50).  It is in that later part that the plasterwork is situated.  Italian plasterwork was also present in Giffard House in North Street, which was owned by the Giffards of Chillington.  If we date Giffard House to 1727-29 (which we can do with some certainty) then the ten year gap militates against the idea of the workmen at one place packing up their bags and moving on to the next (but the nice idea has been put forward of Molineux asking Giffard if he knew of any good plasterers and then acting on the recommendation).

In the deep mid-winter of as long ago as January 2009 the building looked like this and was ready, we trust, for all that the weather could throw at it. 

On the left is the newly built storage unit which, if perhaps a little too high, does well as a modern addition to an old building.

By the time the city council took over the property the once extensive gardens had gone and there was not much more than small strips of land surrounding the building.  This area has been turned into a garden of a delightful design which manages to capture the spirit of Georgian-Victorian gardens and to set off the restored building whilst being an entirely modern garden.   It was designed by Nikki Hills, landscape architect with the city council.
The rear of the Molineux Hotel building after restoration, but before the gardens were planted. The two Venetian windows are part of the Rococo Room. On the far right is the new storage extension.

After much strenuous and well-directed effort by the City Archivist and his staff, the city's archives were moved in, apparently without a hitch, and this excellent facility re-opened on 10th March 2009. The building is now open to anyone using the Archives, though the Rococo Room will not usually be open.