Thursday, 16 June 2011

Possibly A Church... St Stephen's, Brighton

This was once a ballroom in the middle of Brighton town centre. Today it is a homeless shelter in a polite regency suburb. Confusing!

Brighton in the 1740s was a small fishing village. Then, a doctor from nearby Lewes started promoting seawater as a cure for all manner of ills. This quickly became very popular with the upper classes, and Brighton became the hedonistic paradise we know today. The Castle Inn, on The Steine, was one of the most fashionable places to be seen in Brighton's regency glory days. Right next to the Prince's fashionable residence, and with an enormous ballroom built in 1766.
But, all good things must come to an end. By the 19th century it was a bit old fashioned. The napoleonic wars had reduced the nation's wealth and people's leisure time. Brighton started to decline. The Prince bought the Castle Inn, and demolished most of it. But he saved the ballroom to become his private chapel within the Royal Pavilion. It was consecrated on 1st January 1822. To this day, Brighton has a "Castle Square" where the Inn stood, not a mediaeval fortress.

However, when Victoria came to the throne, she was not a fan of Brighton. She preferred the sedate Isle of Wight, or Balmoral. She sold the Pavilion to the Town Commissioners, and it was expected to be demolished. So the Diocese of Chichester had the chapel demolished brick-by-brick, and reassembled in the suburb of Montpelier, close the the border with Hove. In 1851, with a striking new facade, it reopened as St Stephens.


The decision to move it raises the question of why? Was it a cheaper alternative than building a whole new church? Was it considered, even then, to be part of Brighton's heritage? 

It was already in need of restoration, possibly due to the move, in 1908, and it was closed by 1939. Since then, it spent 40 years serving the deaf, and now 30 years serving the homeless. It was looking a bit tatty, but it was recently renovated, and looking lovely again.

Let's start with the exterior. It's stark classicism, to say the least. In the 1860s, a porch was added, and it finally had some windows. The enormous cream pilasters which face Montpelier Terrace suggest nonconformism, at best. Not 19th century anglicanism! 

The main interior space, a miraculous survival, is beautiful. I've only peered in through building work, or seen photos, but it is the epitome of restrained. What struck me was the light. Despite having no south facing windows, the cool, and somewhat overshadowed east and west windows let light fill the gentle vaulted ceiling. This building is not OTT, ornate plasterwork, gaudy detailing of 1820s Brighton- this is 1760s Bath-style, Jane Austin elegance.

In many ways, this is a fall from grace. Aristocrats, monarchs, centre of the most exciting place to be in early 19th century England. Lavish balls, God and Jesus. Today, relegated to a back street homeless centre. 

Well, that's not how I see it. This room has gone from being about showing off wealth, to offering genuine succour. It shows a remarkably enlightened attitude to both building preservation and reuse. Each incarnation it has fulfilled a need by one section of society, but always retained its interior. When so many old buildings have been reduced to facades or fragments, it is great to see the interior as the feature that lives on. But is it really a church?

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