Sheffield's Heritage Open Days 2018: 175-year-old arts institute's revival of former postal HQ

Giving Sheffield's old main post office a new lease of life as an art school has a pleasing symmetry, thinks Roger Bateman.

Thursday, 16th August 2018, 12:37 pm
Updated Thursday, 30th August 2018, 18:21 pm
Sheffield Hallam University's Institute of Arts at the former Head Post Office. Picture: Dean Atkins

"The post office was about the idea of communication in transit," says the deputy head of Sheffield Hallam University's department of art and design.

"Somebody would write a letter, the mail would reside here for a day, a week or however long, and then it would be repackaged and sent. The students are not staying here - they're coming into the building, enriching the environment, exchanging stories and then they move on. And we're part of that process of putting them in the right place, like the letter gets sent to the right address."

Inside the old Head Post Office

The concept provided the basis for an exhibition by master's students in 2016, the year the Sheffield Institute of Arts moved into the Grade II listed former Head Post Office, which operated from 1910 to 1999 in Fitzalan Square.

"It's a lovely story, really," says Roger. "And if you're a student the sense of belonging is important."

The institute can trace its history in the city back to the founding of a School of Design in 1843, meaning this year is its 175th anniversary. Its past, and the landmark building's previous existence, will be celebrated on Friday and Saturday as part of Sheffield's Heritage Open Days, the annual festival that is offering more than 100 free events over two long weekends this month.

People will be able to see how the sorting offices, stores and telephone exchange, which lay empty for years, have been repurposed as workshops and studios, while the counter area has become a gallery and café which - the school's leaders are keen to point out - is completely open to the public.

The old Head Post Office, Fitzalan Square, Sheffield

Roger moved to Sheffield in 2010, and often thought about the building's potential while waiting to catch the bus nearby. "It was really sad. There were trees growing out of it, all the tiles were missing off parts of the roof, the windows were broken, it was spray painted... and then dreams came true, it became our building. Maybe I was willing it to happen."

Nearly £9 million was spent on the renovation, keeping original features such as a stunning spiral staircase, now lit up with an artwork consisting of illuminated rings that hangs down the steps' middle. Tiled walls, parquet flooring and heavy wooden doors were retained too. "It's sympathetically conserved," says Roger.

The university also invested more than £450,000 in new equipment, filling the site with everything necessary for an array of practices, from silversmithing and fashion to pottery and furniture-making. It is a very inspiring place, Roger agrees. "It's quirky and exciting."

But when the institute began, it had to make do with more bijou surroundings. The Sheffield School of Design was set up under the protection of the Board of Trade, to provide skilled designers to support Britain's industry, and lessons were initially given in a rented room to an average attendance of 32 in the Bath Saloon, above the baths on Glossop Road, now home to a pub.

The cafe at the Institute of Arts is open to the public. Picture: Dean Atkins

"It's really important to think about how design is linked to politics and society," says Roger. "Schools of art were set up as a way of increasing trade. It was taking art and making it into consumable things like ceramics, glass and silverware. Sheffield had a massive industry so it made sense. And we're still doing the same thing."

By the late 1850s the name had changed to the School of Art, then in the 1920s it became the Sheffield College of Arts and Crafts. City centre premises were used until it settled in the old Bluecoat School building on Psalter Lane in 1951 - a modernist, purpose-built block was added later, ready for the 1970s. The site's notable alumni included animator Nick Park, of Wallace and Gromit fame; it also played a part in music history, hosting the first gigs by The Human League and ABC. In 1969 the school merged with the Sheffield Technical College to become Sheffield Polytechnic and, subsequently, Hallam University.

The Psalter Lane campus was demolished in 2010 and the Bluecoat is now flats. The art department moved into the city centre again, dispersed because of a lack of space, but a single home was 'on the cards at some point', Roger says.

"Having a critical mass of art and design students gives a sense of edge and vibrancy and curiosity to a city. We offer the chance for research to be transferred into industry - if you're a design student and you're researching into the future of a particular kind of product, the end goal is that product is somehow realised through industrial production. Many of our students have left to set up the leading companies in the city."

The former post office is roughly split into two, he explains. "Upstairs is where they design, downstairs is where they make."

In the workshops - once used by couriers, telegram operators and the like - there are laser cutters, 3D printers, and an enormous cache of hammers and chisels reclaimed from closed metalworking companies.

Black post boxes have been installed around the corridors for students to leave suggestions in and, outside in the courtyard, an events space has been created incorporating a long bay where mail was processed. It is likely a proper launch for the café will be held when the council has finished its work to brighten up Fitzalan Square - part of the scheme to create a 'Knowledge Gateway' leading down to the Cultural Industries Quarter where the Showroom Cinema and the Site Gallery are.

"More people who have been in for things are now drifting in to use the cafe as members of the public," says project officer Hilary Pye. Seating for visitors could be provided outside in the revamped square, she adds. "It'll be fantastic."

This week behind the scenes tours will take place, led by lecturers. An exhibition called The Augmented House Museum will show researcher Caroline Claisse's work with volunteers in designing interactive installations at historic properties - Nick Roscoe, chair of the Friends of Bishops' House in Norton Lees, will introduce a public preview on Friday.

A display will focus on some of the prominent women who have studied and worked at the institute over 175 years, from Pre-Raphaelite Lizzie Sidal to the Sheffield Film Co-op, a pioneering feminist group. Without Brutality, a collection of films made by students from 1969 to 1993, will be screened and a walk looking at sites where bombs fell in the Sheffield Blitz is happening on Saturday at 11am. The Marples Hotel, yards away from the Head Post Office, was destroyed in the World War Two raids in December 1, killing at least 70.

Visit http://siagallery.eventbrite.co.uk for details. Activities run from 6pm to 8pm on Friday and 10am to 4pm on Saturday. Booking is required for tours and events, but not to visit exhibitions and the café. Heritage Open Days happen from September 6-9, and 13-16. Visit www.heritageopendays.org.uk for listings.

See The Star tomorrow for a feature on the Sheffield Hospitals Archive.