The heart of the community - The Reader at Calderstones Mansion
Blog by Mike Yates, Director, Austin-Smith:Lord
The new International Centre for Shared Reading was completed in Summer 2019 in the newly refurbished Calderstones Mansion, where The Reader have been building the foundations of a community hub since 2013.
Jane Davis, Founder and Director of The Reader, explains: “What makes people happy, above all, is a network of supportive fellow creatures, a sense of purpose, challenge and meaningful occupation.
“Shared Reading can provide all this, but we know that many of the people we reach need more than a couple of hours Shared Reading each week. Even for the most obsessive readers, life is not only books and reading: we need other creative and happiness-inducing activities.
“This is why we have created The Reader at Calderstones – a place open to all and full of possibilities, all held together by a golden thread of literature.”
The project’s story is one of rediscovering a Georgian Mansion House with its roots in the Cunard Line and Liverpool’s merchant past, creating a proper setting for and conserving the Neolithic Calder Stones and bringing back to life a post war outdoor Art Deco Theatre in a secret garden.
The Calder Stones from which the park takes its name are six pre-historic stones thought to be from a chambered burial mound on a nearby site. They were languishing in the old vestibule to the now demolished Harthill Greenhouses within the park. The stones were poorly displayed and difficult to access. Repositioning the Calder Stones to a more accessible location was a significant objective, reconnecting the park with its history.
The capital works include reading rooms, library, a period room, a function suite including bar, café, offices, tenant spaces, workshops, shop, exhibition space, gallery and outdoor theatre, which was jointly funded by the NLHF and Liverpool City Council.
The project is the next phase of a masterplan which began with The Reader Ice Cream Parlour (2015) and The Storybarn (2016) in the stable block courtyard and future phases that include the conversion of the stable block into residential accommodation.
The Calderstones community, volunteers, group members, staff, visitors, customers and local residents are at the heart of what the Reader do, they are immensely proud of the community and consider themselves fully accountable to it.
During the design period The Reader held regular meetings with the Friends of Harthill and Calderstones Park and regularly sought feedback from the community through customer surveys, social media, notice boards and by staff being visible and approachable on site. This served to provide continual feedback during the design stages as the plans developed.
Substantial community consultation and engagement took place with 1,400 people attending Open Days and dozens more attending public meetings during which the plans were shared.
Comments were taken on board and incorporated into the brief and design development. Typical feedback was:
“What will be on at the Mansion House?”
“Will there be a bar?”
“What about the Park toilets?”
“Will the building be fully accessible?”
“Can I bring my dog into the Mansion House?”
“What is happening with the Calder Stones and the glasshouse?”
Consultation endorsed the vision and the facilities to be provided. It also informed the detailed briefing such as: a temporary café being provided in the stable courtyard during construction and the new café being dog friendly.
Typically feedback was positive such as the following comment on the proposals for the Calder Stones:
“Very nostalgic! I grew up passing the Calder stones which originally stood outside the park gates every day as I lived across the road. Glad they will have a lovely new home where they can be appreciated.”
The mansion house with its associated stables, coach house and walled garden at the heart of the former estate, now Calderstones Park, is an important historical relationship which had arguably become more tenuous over the years. The reconnection of the house and its outbuildings with the park was an important part of the design concept.
The project reunited the house and its outbuildings under one ownership enabling the community to access both the house and park much as family and friends of the mansion’s owner would have done in earlier times, giving visitors an insight into the history of the estate while providing a sustainable contemporary use for the mansion house.
The grand original house largely accommodates public and events spaces such as the café, function space and bar. The existing character of the original mansion house creates a “boutique hotel” feel for special events such as weddings and festivals with the restrained classical façade and portico providing an impressive setting and entrance. To the rear the mature “secret” garden” is the perfect outdoor auditorium for the theatre and backdrop for weddings and festivals.
The Calder Stones are positioned in the courtyard between the “secret garden” and the interpretation space. They are arranged in two rows and covered by a domed green roof to recreate a sense of their association with the structure of a prehistoric chambered burial mound
The former service wing of the house primarily accommodates The Reader facilities including reading rooms, library, volunteers welfare facilities, tenant spaces and The Reader’s offices.
The interpretation room is also in this part of the house which recreates a Victorian sitting room furnished as it might have during the ownership of the McIver family. Next to the interpretation room is a gallery space for sale of artwork by local artists.
“Every building must have… its own soul.”
The soul of a building can depart if it is not loved and cherished by its occupants and community. At Calderstones Mansion its soul had long since left when The Reader came to the rescue of the badly neglected building.
From the outset we developed an approach with the Reader to strip away the inappropriate layers to reveal the original character and history of the Mansion House and its Art Deco theatre and place the Calder Stones at the heart of the park. From this starting point we were able to reach back into the past to reignite the soul of the building with the spirit of its new owner and a sense of continuity.
Key to this approach has been the rediscovery and opening up of the grand entrance hall which had been destroyed as a space with inappropriate internal partitions and the careful insertion of new elements such as the café and bar in a contemporary style that establishes the personality of The Reader while articulating old from new.
The Reader have fully realised their vision by adding to the interior design with an eclectic mix of period furniture, chandeliers and signage artwork. The partnership between The Reader, the community and the architectural team has been a great success. The resulting rich architectural mix and vibrant community carry the torch of the new soul of the Mansion House.
The Covid 19 pandemic has caused The Reader to close its facilities in Calderstones Park, but the community continues to meet virtually while the kitchens have been providing an essential service for the local vulnerable community. The café has now re-opened beginning the road to reclaiming the vision. As with many other community services the future will undoubtedly incorporate innovations in the virtual world, but the joy and benefits of a physical community that underpins this project is its strength and can never be replaced.