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.
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.”
A short visit home allows me a short paean to Peter Ellis.
Peter Ellis is one of the unsung heroes of architecture. In the 1860s, he practically invented the techniques for building the skyscraper, all on his own, in Liverpool, and got no thanks for his endeavours. Instead, he got the opposite.
His first commissioned building was Oriel Chambers, in 1864, on Water Street. Oriel windows are a type of window that stands out from the main wall of the building, and Ellis used the technique copiously. As a way to let the most light into the most space in an already built-up area, his trick was brilliant. Pevsner called Oriel Chambers “one of the most remarkable buildings of its date in Europe”.*
Not everyone agreed, however, and Ellis’s architectural career was probably blighted by unfavourable reviews. The edition of The Builder of 20 January 1866, for example, failed to note the brilliance of the design and described Oriel Chambers as a “vast abortion”. Ellis did get further commissions, but not many. His career is a sad branch on the architectural tree.