Just three years after the opening of the Streamline Moderne terminal building at Shoreham Airport in Sussex, another terminal in the same style opened at Speke, in Liverpool. Testament to the fast developing industry of commercial aviation it was, however, significantly larger.
Speke opened in 1930 with flights to Manchester and London, but wasn’t officially opened until 1933. Before long, flights were available to other destinations including Shoreham, but it was the cross-Irish Sea route to Ireland that really boosted Speke’s popularity at the end of the 1930s. The airport was built in the grounds of Speke Hall, a Tudor manor house (now in the care of the National Trust), because what else would you want in the grounds of a 1500s building but the most modern transport facility you could possibly imagine?
The airport’s popularity meant that a suitable terminal building became an urgent priority, and it opened in two stages. A new control tower, vital for overseeing flights and movements around the airfield, opened in 1937, looking like nothing so much as a 1930s interpretation of a lighthouse (see it on this webpage). It has an interesting shape, with a circular base and an octagonal cross-section further up, finishing with the fully glazed control room behind a balcony at the top. On the roof is a smaller octagonal lantern-like structure, the purpose of which I haven’t yet established. The airside elevation of the control tower includes a lovely Modernist clock.
It was another two years before the completion of the terminal building, but it was worth the wait. Statutory heritage organisation Historic England calls it “the most ambitious municipal airport project of the inter-War period”. The control tower was incorporated into the rest of the terminal as a central focal point on the airside of the building. In typical Streamline Moderne style, it was flanked by symmetrical wings. Behind the tower is a five-storey building which features the main entrance, on the landside, flanked by two circular stair towers (a drawing of this part of the terminal in its original configuration can be found here). The wings are gently curved in plan, and step down from this central building, three storeys tall near the tower, dropping down to two storeys and then one at the outer ends. Open staircases at the far ends give access to galleries on the roofs of the wings. The ground floor of the building projects forward, so its roof gives plenty of space for viewing arriving or departing flights, but further stairs also give access to the roofs of the two- and three-storey sections of the terminal.
This is a design hangover from the days of ferry and liner terminals which featured similar galleries so that families could welcome, or more often wave off in the case of Liverpool, friends and family members. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Liverpool docks saw the departure of large numbers of emigrants seeking a new life in America, and you can find plenty of pictures on the internet of liner terminals with viewing galleries crowded by those remaining behind.
Though the rooftop viewing galleries of Speke Airport terminal weren’t used for quite the same purpose, they were thronged on occasion for the departure or arrival of some of Liverpool’s favorite sons, pop stars The Beatles (who wrote the odd song about transport themselves). You can see what it was like at this webpage.
The outer ends of the terminal building’s wings, at ground and first floor level, feature smashing curved corners. They complement the area in front of the control tower on the airside, where the ground floor projects forward further than it does along the wings. It again has beautiful curved sides with similarly curved canopies providing weather protection; there were no enclosed bridges giving access to aircraft when Speke Airport opened – you had to walk from the terminal to a set of steps leading up into the aircraft.
The external finish of Speke Airport terminal is in plain brick, rather than the white-painted render more commonly found on Streamline Moderne buildings, though it’s not a unique finish for such buildings. Horizontal concrete bands demarcate storeys of the building and also run above and below the long runs of glazing.
The terminal building was the work of E.H. Bloomfield of the Liverpool Corporation’s Land Steward and Surveyor’s office, for those were the days when local councils had their own architects, and such offices sometimes produced exquisite public buildings. They were every bit a match for anything from the private sector, as Liverpool itself evidences. Speke Airport Terminal can stand proudly alongside the Littlewoods Pools building a few miles away in Wavertree, another striking Modernist building with a central tower and lower flanking wings (which stands, coincidentally, by the park where I used to play as a pre-schooler).
Speke Airport terminal represents one of the high points of British municipal in-house transport infrastructure. These days, local authorities buy in expertise from architects if they want buildings designing. Off the top of my head I can’t think of a local council that retains an architects office, though I’m less familiar with those outside the south-east.
Before building the terminal, Liverpool Corporation (what we would now call the City Council) looked internationally for inspiration, and settled on the ultra-modern (built 1931) terminal building at Hamburg Fuhlsbüttel Flughafen. Speke Airport terminal strongly resembles it in terms of the curved wings, and twin staircases either side of the main entrance, but Speke’s wings are longer and lower, while Fuhlsbüttel lacked the striking control tower integrated into the terminal building that lends such drama to Speke.
Speke Airport was also the home of an RAF squadron from 1936, and no sooner had the terminal building been completed than the whole airport was requisitioned for use as an RAF base on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Although it was returned to civilian use afterwards, it continued to be operated by the government’s Air Ministry, and was not transferred to Liverpool Corporation’s control until 1961, by which time Manchester’s Ringway had become the most significant airport in the area; the latter didn’t (and doesn’t) look nearly as appealing though.
The corporation’s first move to improve Speke Airport was to build a new, longer, runway immediately to the east, which opened in 1966. This marked the beginning of the end for Speke’s 1939 terminal building. The focus of the airport slowly shifted eastwards to the new runway, and in 1986 a new terminal building opened there, rendering the 1939 building redundant. The airport is now known as John Lennon Airport, gaining that name in 2002.
Although the 1939 terminal stood derelict for several years, it eventually reopened as a hotel in 2001. Conversion required the addition of two wings of accommodation, which branch out from the original main entrance building, partially obscuring the curved stairwell towers, and hiding the original landside elevation of the terminal. The airside elevation, however, remains essentially unchanged from its days as a working airport terminal. The interior has been remodelled to suit its new role, though original features remain including some of the staircases.
Hamburg Fuhlsbüttel’s terminal, meanwhile, was demolished. So, if you can wangle a trip to Liverpool, you can stay in this fantastic piece of transport architecture, and realise how lucky we are that it’s survived. The building and two associated hangars were listed at Grade II* in 1985.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Historic England citation for Speke Airport Terminal and Control Tower, here
Forgotten Airfields’ page on Speke Airport, here
Crowne Plaza Liverpool John Lennon Airport’s homepage, here
How to find Speke Airport terminal
It’s now the Crowne Plaza Liverpool John Lennon Airport Hotel, and it’s on The Beauty of Transport‘s map, here