I'm not going to pretend to even remember what the Primark building was before it transformed into a beacon of low-cost boob tubes and leather skirts that we see today.
But with the power of the Internet, and a quick browse around my Encarta 95 CD-ROM I’ve uncovered some pretty decent things about it.
Before it was a Primark, the site was occupied by a department store group called Lewis’s, which many people probably won’t remember or have blanked out of their mind. The heyday of Lewis’s was undoubtedly between the 20’s and the 50’s where they opened up stores all around the North and up into Scotland.
Manchester’s store was the second to open in 1877, with the flagship being based in Liverpool. The company was known for throwing large elaborate events, spending shit loads of till on promotions, sales and especially Christmas.
In 1951 the Lewis’s company bought up struggling department store Selfridges, as well as later becoming part of the US giant Sears and opening up Miss Selfridge in 1966. From here though it seemed to all go downhill, and by the early 90’s Lewis’s was pretty much on the scrap heap going the way of Woolworths, Zavvi and C&A to that big High Street in the sky. Shame.
When they occupied the building though, Lewis’s didn’t just put on the odd Blue X sale and chug along like stores do now, they were renowned for their extravagant events, promotions and displays – much to the amusement of many of the working class Mancs who would mostly prefer to head to the covered market down the bottom of Market Street.
Today, Lewis’s influence can still be seen on the building, most noticeably from the outside when you walk either past the Piccadilly Gardens Burger King or the Cafe Nero just around the corner. If you were to stop and look carefully at these two structures, you’ll notice glass-covered walkways that extend behind and towards the larger Primark building itself.
Now pretty much knackered, this walkway formed an L-shaped tunnel connecting Mosely Street and Market Street and would be used both as an entrance to the store and for the vast array of displays and clobber that they wanted to flog.
That’s why when you look at Cafe Nero straight on it looks like it’s just been plonked in between two buildings – because it has. If you get a job there, pass your probation and head out back you’ll find the original glass walkway in all it’ glory. To be fair though, it would probably just be easier to just zoom in on Google Maps.
As you’re zoomed in on Google Maps you’ll also notice a huge dome on top of the Primark building. Well, this is another rather impressive bit of hidden architecture that Lewis’s coveted, and one which is still pretty much still entirely intact today.
Up on the 5th floor of the building, behind a load of boxes of Harry Potter knickers you’ll find what was once a huge ballroom, that came complete with a sprung dancefloor and aforementioned glass dome. Unfortunately, the dome had to be covered up with a roof due to fire regulations but the room still manages to maintain a certain opulence.
As you can see from the pictures [below], it’s quite easy to imagine the ballroom in operation, hosting staff parties, summer balls and Christmas get-togethers, as well as being used as an exhibition hall for whatever random stuff was going on at the time.
Lewis’s would use the space outside of piss-ups to host exhibition events, football player autograph signings and as you would expect – talent and dance contests – making full use of the vast space and that brilliant bouncy dancefloor.
As you can probably guess, seeing as you’ve never been up there, it’s pretty much been left for ages now, mostly due to our old friend asbestos and also owing to the fact that nobody goes ballroom dancing anymore. There are rumours of it being turned into offices but there hasn’t been much movement on this in years.
So that’s up on the top floor, what about the basement? Well the floor in Primark where you’ll find all of your menswear and kidswear isn’t the real basement – the real basement is in fact one floor down and regrettably is in an even worse state than the ballroom.
From what Ask Jeeves has been saying, there was once a sub-basement floor which ended up getting flooded (and may still be that way today). The story goes that at one point in Lewis’s history there was a massive effort to convert the basement into a Venice themed area complete with elaborate window displays and of course – gondolas.
Some smart arse decided it would be a good idea to flood part of the basement with dirty ditch water, pop gondolas down there and charge the public a couple of quid to ride on them. As a low budget Las Vegas-style stunt, I’m sure that the people of Manchester were thrilled, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that it was around for long.
Adding to the problems, the basement was also the site of an IRA bomb in 1975, as the group targeted key points around Manchester and the rest of the UK during a vicious 3 week campaign. 19 people were injured by an incendiary device and so it wasn’t long until the sub-basement was boarded up and forgotten about forever. There’s not even any pictures of it – it just lives forever now in people’s memories. Memories which years of eating pork fat and powdered eggs are slowly diminishing.
There’s more though, I’ve not finished yet. In the 70’s, recently deceased leather-faced boglin Peter Stringfellow opened up Millionaire Club – a disco venue that was popular amongst all the flare wearing, flop haired Mancs that thought they were John Travolta but looked more like John Prescott.
The club was located in the basement of the building and just like its owner it developed a reputation for being rather risqué, with many remembering it to have regular strippers and topless staff – as well as one cracking story about a bloke who was refused entry and so decided to rob a Ford Fiesta and ram it through the entrance.
Said entrance is now a loading bay round the back of Primark, that manky bit at the top of Marble Street and West Mosely Street. There’s nothing there to show that it was once the pinnacle of Manchester sophistication; a discotheque with an excellent restaurant serving up traditional and continental cuisine while you have a dance and chat up some sorts.
So next time you need to head to Primark to grab some undies, think about what might be hiding behind the pictures of models on the walls; a cavernous maze of old stockrooms, ballrooms, gondola rides, night clubs, restaurants probably the odd wailing ghost. If you believe in that sort of stuff.