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Liverpool Buildings: Lewis’s Department Store

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It’s been two months since the news came that Lewis’s Department Store is to close. I thought I’d gather a few details about this historic building in one place for reference. Do let me know if I’ve missed anything!

A history of Lewis’s

The corner entrance of Lewis's Department Store, Ranelagh Street, Liverpool

The corner entrance of Lewis's Department Store, Ranelagh Street, Liverpool

David Lewis founded a small shop selling men’s and boy’s clothing in 1856. The sale of women’s clothes began in 1864 , and by the 1870s Lewis’s was a full department store, having added sections for shoes and tobacco.

Branches were opened in other cities, beginning with Manchester in 1877 and followed by Birmingham, Sheffield and Leicester.

The building burnt down in a famous fire of 1886, and was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. Nevertheless, it was rebuilt each time, and was refurbished in 1957, including the installation of the statue ‘Liverpool Resurgent’ to symbolise the city’s renewed vigour following the horrors of the recent conflict.

The fifth floor of Lewis’s has taken on an almost mythical status. In the store’s heyday, the 1950s, the fifth floor was the place to dine in the self-service cafeteria or the Red Rose restaurant, or to get your hair done in the salon. A large mural decorated the walls, but this and the other features were hidden from the public in the 1980s when the floor was closed. It’s now found a new burst of publicity as it becomes the focus of an exhibition at the National Conservation Centre.

Lewis’s went into administration in 1991, and all but the Liverpool store were sold off, the majority to competitor Owen Owen. The Liverpool store continued to trade though, until it went into liquidation in 2007. Having been bought by Vergo Retail Ltd in the same year it managed to soldier on until the lease on the iconic building came up for renewal. Due to development of the area, the company was no longer allowed to stay. Despite efforts at negotiation, it remains uncertain whether Lewis’s will have a place in the new Liverpool Central Village.

Trying to come to terms with the loss of an iconic Liverpool company, Susan Lee explained that Lewis’s ceased to be ‘a player’ in the city. Recent development meant that the focus shifted to the waterfront and Liverpool One. Also in recent years the Big Dig cut off Lewis’s from its customers, and was no longer the highly fashionable place – complete with a lady behind a lectern to welcome you – to shop.

40 Ranelagh Street

Drawing of Lewis's Original Department Store, 1869

Lewis's Original Department Store (1869), by Lewis's via Flickr

David Lewis opened his first small store on Ranelagh Street, Liverpool in 1856. It was a small, glass-fronted shop as shown in the image on the Lewis’s web site.

It expanded piece by piece between 1910-12 into much larger premises, which were gutted by fire in 1888. The building was once again heavily damaged, this time by German bombs, during the Second World War. It is the 1957 building, complete with ‘Dickie Lewis’, which remains standing today, and which will stay as part of the redevelopment of the area.

This latest Lewis’s store was designed in 1947 by Gerald de Courcy Fraser, and constructed by Fraser, Sons and Geary. It is built from a steel frame with a Portland stone façade.

There are several classical influences in the building. Red granite columns are topped with Ionic capitals, while the columns on the fourth floor are Tuscan in style. A two-storey collonade above the corner entrance have Doric-style half columns.

The statue Liverpool Resurgent is accompanied by relief panels depicting scenes of childhood, the figures in which are modelled on the sculptor Jacob Epstein’s own children and grandchildren. These represent the younger generation which Liverpool was being rebuilt for.

One of the most interesting features of the building are the lifts, of which some are still in place, but which are to be removed as part of the new Liverpool Central Village. These lifts are original features of the building, and were operated by a member of staff through use of a lever. There were no controls for the customers! Both the fold-down seats and the lever mechanism are currently still in the building, and are mentioned in the listing description. The passenger lifts at the south east of the building still have ‘clocks’ with coloured lights to indicate which member of staff was required on the shop floor.

In addition, parts of the original customer escalators survive to the fourth and fifth floors.

The rediscovered fifth floor has wood panelling, panelled doors and a tiled floor corridor. A ten foot high Festival of Britain mural on the eastern wall is made of hand painted and hand printed tiles. Another mural on the south wall shows geometric patterns and cutlery, probably designed by the same artist.


Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story by Stephen King (left)

Lewis’s closure brings end to colourful history (Liverpool Echo)

Susan Lee on the reasons why Lewis’s department store in Liverpool is facing closure (Liverpool Echo)

Oldest department store to close (BBC News)

Lewis’s closes down the shutters after 154 years (BBC News)

Lewis’s Liverpool, exterior, 1931 (Liverpool Museums)

Lewis’s Department Store (Listed Buildings Online)

Lewis’s (Wikipedia)

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