Stella Maris / from the archive / issue 2

Is a piece of Salford’s maritime heritage about to be scuppered or can we find a new use for our brilliant ‘Star of the Sea’?

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Whilst London swung and Bobby Moore polished his boots, Harold Wilson won the general election and Britain launched its first Polaris submarine, Salford and her docks were still more likely to be associated with the kitchen sink drama of ‘A Taste of Honey’, in which the schoolgirl played by Rita Tushingham, becomes pregnant by a young black sailor. The slums are grim, the rent is unpaid and the children are manky.

Yet, in the 1960’s, to be modern was cool, Apollo was fab, the Post Office Tower was a groovy place to hang out and, odd as it might seem, the Catholic Church was hip to this modernist vibe. Liverpool’s new Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King is a supreme example of the Church’s approval of the architecturally new. Also, in 1966 the final touches were being added to one of Salford’s most unique and yet discrete modern building, the Stella Maris, a pristine new Seaman’s Mission, built by the Diocese of Salford, to serve the sailors who came and went through the mighty Salford Docks. In June 1966 Father Keegan proudly opened the Stella Maris as a residential and recreational club for seamen, situated at the corner of Oldfield Road and Chapel Street.

Built to replace a decrepit older building in Ordsall, and so unlike the shabby world of A Taste of Honey, this new Mission was, in the spirit of the times, a modern, bright social centre with a bar and a heated swimming pool, topped by twenty four new individual residential rooms to accommodate the transient seafarers. So modern and well equipped was it, that soon after opening, it boasted colour television, something for which most of us waited until the mid ‘70s or longer. The Stella Maris offered a library, dancing and cabaret; the amenities were “at the disposal of ALL seafarers without distinction”, and it was advertised that the “hostesses will do their best to make the seafarer’s stay in the Port of Manchester a happy one”. It was an unusually international centre for an inland port in the south east of Lancashire.

The architect appointed was Desmond Williams.  Desmond was no stranger to the Catholic Church and many of our schools and churches have come to life off Desmond’s drawing board, not least the Grade II listed St. Augustine’s Church at All Saints in Manchester.

The Stella Maris took inspiration from the occupation of its ocean going residents and is designed to resemble the bridge of a ship, an inspiration also taken up by the Manchester Liners’ HQ, on Trafford Road.

With the decline and eventual closure of the Salford’s Docks in the 1980s, the need for the Stella Maris centre disappeared and in June 1981 the mission was closed. Thankfully, a new use was found, with the building being recycled into the St. James Street Salvation Army Centre, offering a support and a home for another itinerant group of men. However, twenty years on, times have changed and the Salvation Army has moved on from the provision of ‘hostels’ in favour of a more independent mode of living, and once again the building’s future is threatened, as the Salvation Army prepare to move to new premises.

Much of the heritage of Salford Docks is now history, the ships, sailors and dockers are long gone, the dock buildings have been flattened and only the dock gates and Dock Office remain. Yet, out on the corner of Oldfield Road, there is a half forgotten piece of Salford’s Maritime heritage - if the Stella Maris had been built closer to the docks, it too might have already been demolished.

In 2009 with £700,000 provided by the now defunct North West Development Agency, Salford City Council bought the Salvation Army Centre with a view to the redevelopment of the site – that is to say, to demolish the building.

Not only is it ecologically bonkers to tear down a perfectly sound building, it is economic madness to use public money to pay for the demolition of this rare piece of Salford’s seafaring heritage, built by a ‘listed’ architect. The Urban Regeneration Company and Council have ‘retained’ other buildings on Chapel Street that are burned out, roofless and derelict, yet the structurally sound Stella Maris has been declared ‘unfit for purpose’ despite not considering any future alternative use.

A local collective of artists, community groups, tenants association and architects have suggested an creative future for the Centre, as an artists’ ‘hostel’ - a cultural home from home in which international and local artists can live, work and experiment. However, the council states that it is ‘locked in’ to a financial agreement, in which the only possible outcome is the building’s demise.

The Stella Maris is located within minutes of a dynamic local neighbourhood, a major university and a vibrant creative arts community yet by the end of March 2012 Salford City Council intend to demolish the building. In an area already saturated with vacant lots, and with no definite proposals to redevelop this site, can there instead be a serious re-consideration to re-launch our Star of the Sea?

© Jack Hale

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.

Post script: Stella Maris was subsequently demolished and replaced with housing named Carpino Place after the Archbishop that formally opened the Stella Maris in 1966.