Oriel Chambers, Water Street

16 Cook Street

Cook Street staircase

Peter Ellis is a great enigma. Little is known about him but he is regarded as one of the great architects of the modern movement, his Oriel Chambers accredited as being the blueprint for the skyscraper. Built in 1864, it outraged architectural critics at the time who compared it to a greenhouse. Ellis’s radical rejection of traditional styles and materials were an attempt to resolve the problem of lighting in offices. The prevailing Gothic style allowed for fairly meagre windows which resulted in dark and oppressive interiors. Even as late as 1931, Professor Charles Reilly was deriding the building as “a cellular habitation for the human insect”, although he hoped that it would survive as a humorous asset to Liverpool.
American architects took a different view. Quentin Hughes in Liverpool: City of Architecture describes it as the “most significant office building in Liverpool and one of the most important buildings in the world because, stylistically and structurally, it foreshadows by many years the work of the Modern Movement in architecture.”
16 Cook Street is a lesser building but no less interesting in its expansive use of glass and, particularly, the magnificent glazed cast-iron staircase in its courtyard, an idea successfully exported to Chicago and used in early skyscrapers.
I started to research Ellis because no other work by him is known to survive. It is said he was so hurt by the criticism of his two buildings that he never designed another and continued with his other job as a surveyor. I am not convinced the story ends there. I have discovered that a Peter Ellis of Liverpool had applied for patents for lift designs at about the same time. Perhaps he found a more elevated career with ever-upward prospects.

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