C&A Modes Part II: Toying with a House Style

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C&A, Oldham Street, Manchester. (Shaws of Darwen)

The first completely new store to be designed by North, Robin & Wilsdon for C&A occupied a corner site on Oldham Street in Manchester (1928). This was faced in cream-coloured faience (glazed terracotta) and adopted a simplified classicism with art deco touches, such as chevron decoration at the top of the piers and on the panels beneath the windows. This was an early appearance of art deco on the British high street. As elsewhere, C&A’s sales departments spread over three floors, with staff rooms above.

The most admired feature inside C&A’s Manchester branch was the oak staircase. The lighting for the stair was attached to newel posts which rose through the building. Glass screens separated the stair compartment from the showrooms on each floor. ‘Modern French glass of an attractive design’ was used for the sliding doors of the lifts and for the top lighting. While the woodwork throughout the store was of oak, the walls were given a rough lining of a ‘new material of a very pleasing texture’ called ‘Marb-L-Cote’.

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C&A’s store in Peckham, photographed in 2009. (K. Morrison)

The notion of adopting a uniform house style for stores seems to have been under consideration by C&A in the years around 1930. Three stores were erected according to one pattern, in Peckham (1930), Lewisham (1931) and Southampton (1936). These were of red brick, with pre-cast stone dressings and geometric art deco ornamentation. The company cannot have been entirely happy with the results, since a different design was produced – as ever, by North, Robin & Wilsdon – for the stores in Sheffield and Newcastle (both 1932). Stylistically, with their central towers, neon lettering, vertical emphasis and faience cladding, these looked across the Atlantic to America rather than to continental Europe. They clearly derived from North, Robin & Wilsdon’s office building at 2-4 Dean Street, London, built c.1929-30.


The Sheffield branch of C&A, which was bombed during the Second World War. (K. Morrison)

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C&A, Birmingham, in December 1999 (K. Morrison)

Other new C&A buildings of the 1930s were very different in concept, suggesting that the company was content to settle for a heterogeneous approach to architecture.

Kensington (1932), for example, was neo-Georgian. The Portsmouth store (1938) had a convex frontage in Portland stone, with fluted aprons and fins. An extension to the rear of the Birmingham store (1937), in Union Passage, was given full blown streamline moderne treatment, with recessed upper storeys and horizontal bands of windows inviting the inevitable (if rather clichéd) comparison with an ocean-going liner.

The Nottingham store opened just after the outbreak of war in autumn 1939. Like Portsmouth it had a solid canopy over the shopfronts: now de rigeur to reduce reflections on glass and shelter window-shoppers. At Nottingham, however, the usual plate glass was substituted with smaller panes: presumably in anticipation of the Blitz.

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C&A, Oxford Street, c.2000

Not all of C&A’s pre-war stores were purpose built. Amongst older buildings acquired by the firm were Renton’s on Princes Street in Edinburgh (1936) and the former Gamage’s building at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street (1939). The Marble Arch building served as C&A’s UK headquarters until 2001.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Jonathan Clarke for providing me with information about the interior of C&A in Manchester.
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