Last edited 31 Dec 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Douglas Sea Terminal Building

Douglas Sea Terminal Building.png
The much-loved Sea Terminal Building in Douglas, built in the 1960s at an important turning point in Manx history, is one of the island’s best buildings from that period.

The Isle of Man became a tourist destination in the 19th century, when in the summer months the island prospered and the port was busy with trippers. By the mid-1950s visitor numbers were declining, the Lancashire textile factories were closing and the traditional trip to the holiday island had competition from Europe. The government invested in a new airport terminal in Douglas in 1950, and in 1956 the Harbour Board began an ambitious scheme to revamp the Victorian dock facilities with an airport-style reception building. The first published scheme had many features we would recognise as being of that period, but the final building has a character of its own and was very much home grown.

The design was developed by Davidson Marsh, a local firm established by Alex Davidson in 1928, with Robert Bruce as the job architect. The brief was for a building to be developed around the present facility in stages, so that sections of the old building could be demolished as new facilities were provided. The work was to be carried out mainly in the winter months over a period of four years.

The design incorporated the Three Legs of Man symbol, dividing the narrow pier into three distinct areas: a covered waiting area (completed first, in 1962), a dockside reception area where the horse trams and foot passengers arrived, and a new entrance with parking for six double-decker buses where the two legs were curved in a continuous canopy, linking a covered way to the King Edward pier (the only public structure in Britain named after Edward VIII) to the sweep of the promenade.

Externally the building has a continuous wide canopy cantilevered out from the concrete portals. It is punctuated by porthole-like circular roof lights. Similar portholes are incorporated in the roof of the Crow’s Nest restaurant on the top floor, giving views of the spire from its base.

The building is a celebration of concrete in its many forms. All the flat roofs were formed using Omnia beams, then a very new product. These were formed using a simple, lightweight, steel-lattice reinforced beam placed across the span, infilled with lightweight blocks and then infilled in situ with concrete to make a structural unit. The overall design was overseen by Gifford and Partners, a UK engineering practice, with all the components produced on the island.

A terminal building by definition – be it an airport, bus station or seaport – provides an opportunity for the designer to produce a memorable building with a celebration of arrival, here expressed by the flowing sinuous curves of the main building (inside, all the corridors lead you to your destination on a constant bend). There is even a circular staircase to the upper floors and an eccentric round lift shaft encased in concrete panels.

There have been a few changes to the building over the years. A row of shops along the main concourse has been swept away and replaced by Costa and WH Smith. The left-luggage office which occupied the whole of one of the legs has become a tourist information bureau, and the large waiting hall has been reduced in size to provide a booking office and check-in area for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. The first floor, which at one time housed the kitchen for the Crow’s Nest Restaurant, the offices of the Isle of Man Harbour Board and a large observation area, is now entirely office accommodation. The Crow’s Nest was given over to Harbour Control many years ago and the floor beneath that which was originally recessed to emphasise the overhang of the Crow’s Nest was filled in and made flush in 1979. Externally roll-on, roll-off facilities and marshalling areas have been created along with a high-level link between the two piers.

In 2016 the island embarked on a Year of Architecture, sponsored by Manx National Heritage, Culture Vannin and SoFA, the local architects group. One aim was to raise the profile of the island architecture, including drawing attention to some 20th-century buildings worthy of registration (equivalent to UK listing). The Sea Terminal quickly became an icon. Two years previously, when a master plan for Douglas had proposed sweeping the present Sea Terminal away in favour of a new deep-water dock suitable for cruise ships, many of us had rallied in support of this much-loved building (known by many as the Lemon Squeezer, from the serrated roof edge to the Crow’s Nest coupled with the ‘spire’ rising out of it). The Isle of Architecture ran a blog ‘Why I love this building’. The post by Janet Lees summarises the importance of this building. ‘Every summer throughout the 70s, me and my sisters would compete to be first to spot the spike of the Sea Terminal building as we chugged into Douglas on one of the old steam-packet boats. For us, it didn’t just point upwards to the sky. It pointed towards Fairy Bridge, towards Perwick, Silverdale, Bradda Glen, the limpet cities sprawling across the flat rocks of The Point. When our two weeks with Grandma were up, we’d watch the spike shrink down to nothing, blending into the horizon and blurred by tears, because we could hardly bear to leave the island that had our hearts. This is why I love this building. Not only is it an iconic part of our heritage, but also because it’s part of my family’s history, woven into our visual DNA through layers of memories you can’t put a price on.’

An early photograph shows the transport hub, with three steamers docked at Victoria Pier and another just visible on Edward Pier. The horse tram has pulled away from a new, rather grand, covered terminus. These trams were clearly still important, delivering holiday makers to their hotels along the promenade, and were an efficient way of dealing with the huge numbers arriving by steamer needing help to find their lodgings. The terminus has long since been demolished to provide additional car parking, but the horse trams still operate in the centre of the road along the promenade in the summer. They have seen a recent resurgence as a must-do experience for trippers on coach holidays or cruises, or as part of a historic transport weekend along with the steam railway and electric trams up the mountain.

The building was completed in 1964. It may never really have had the visitor numbers it was designed for, although at peak times, such as TT fortnight, it is a hub of activity. The building has been altered many times to accommodate new working systems, including the roll-on, roll-off ferry docks, where many of the passengers now arrive directly without passing through the building. The restaurant closed in 2008 and the building has been divided into offices for government departments, including until recently the island planning policy team, empowered with producing the plan for the east of the island, including Douglas. Their offices looked out across the bay, providing plenty of opportunity for blue-sky thinking, but the team has now been moved and is hidden away in central government offices.

The whole complex is ripe for reassessment. The main building is not protected by registration or on an UK listing. While there is still access to records and to some of the staff who built and managed the early building, a conservation plan should be produced and options to reopen the upper floors assessed. The complex is cut off from the town by the road serving the dock, and the major route north and south, but it is close in many other ways, and as the only entry and exit from the island by car, it has been visited by every resident at some point.

The terminal has been the starting point for many adventures, and the meeting point for friends and families returning to the island. It was built at an important turning point in Manx history and there are few buildings of this quality from that period. The port is a vital link to the neighbouring islands and this building should be maintained as a flagship.

This article originally appeared as ‘Celebrating the Sea Terminal Building’ in IHBC’s Context 153, published in March 2018. It was written by Ashley Pettit, an architect practicing in Douglas, who represents the Isle of Man on the IHBC north west committee and the IHBC on the Isle of Man conservation forum.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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