16 Cook Street: Unremarkable address; remarkable architecture

From the outside, 16 Cook Street is an unremarkable building perhaps. When I was growing up in Liverpool, its doors were shut: an ordinary shop-and-office block. You would never guess what’s inside. More genius by the architect Peter Ellis, in fact.

These days, I am delighted to see, they keep the main door to 16 Cook Street open so you can go in. What’s more, they know they have a Peter Ellis building in plain sight and have put up fancy posters and all, advertising its heritage come-hither.

Notice at the top of the public stairs at 16 Cook Street

Come inside and see…

The star of this 1866 building is its spiral staircase, cantilevered out from the main building and covered with sheets of glass. It’s a typical Peter-Ellis moment of “let in the light”.  He did. “You want a staircase? I’ll build you one you never dreamed of.”

Cantilevered staircase at 16 Cook Street

The swirls of the iron against the glass

I’ve written elsewhere about the reasons why Peter Ellis’s blossoming career withered on the vine. However, his brilliance was noticed by someone who would later put his techniques to good use. In a coincidence so unlikely that you would not believe it if it featured in a novel, Peter Ellis was aided in his work on 16 Cook Street by John Wellborn Root, at that time a 16-year-old boy, later an architect in his own right. Root’s family sent him to Liverpool to escape the uncertainties of the American Civil War. He learned from Peter Ellis on the making of 16 Cook Street and, when he got back to America, he put what he had learned into practice.

Root was one of the founders of the Chicago School architectural style, which created the world’s first proper skyscrapers. Root relied on metal frames (like those Ellis had pioneered) to create a foundation for tall buildings that would not sink in the soggy soil of Chicago. One of Root’s triumphs, Chicago’s Rookery Building, completed in 1888, was dizzyingly tall for its time: twelve-storeys! The building makes fantastic use of light both in its “light court” (atrium) and its Oriel staircase. (Oriel? Where have I heard that before?) Its cantilevered staircase looks impressively familiar to anyone who has visited Cook Street.

My photographic skills are limited to my phone, but I hope the pictures I did manage to get give you an insight into a man whose reputation deserves to be more widely known.

The blue plaque commemorating Peter Ellis on the house he designed and built in Falkner Square, Liverpool

The blue plaque commemorating Peter Ellis on the house he designed and built in Falkner Square, Liverpool

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