Former Unitarian Chapel in Manchester, after repairs by Butress Architects
Former Unitarian Chapel in Manchester, after repairs © Butress
Former Unitarian Chapel in Manchester, after repairs © Butress

The Upper Brook Street Chapel, Manchester

A decade ago, this former Grade II* listed Unitarian Chapel was in need of divine intervention. It lay abandoned and unloved and had been on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register since its inception in 1998.

Few realised that this roofless ruin was actually a pioneering building. Designed in 1837, it was England’s first purpose-built Unitarian chapel. It was one of the earliest non-conformist chapels to be built in the Gothic Revival style. It was also one of only a handful of collaborations between two of the country’s most revered 19th century architects, Sir Charles Barry and AWN Pugin.  This was the same partnership that created the Houses of Parliament. 

The way the building had been used was equally intriguing. It was originally built as a home to Manchester’s burgeoning Unitarian community. In the 20th century it was used by the Welsh Baptists, before being sold to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was then occupied by the Islamic Academy of Manchester as a mosque and teaching centre, before being vacated in 2005 due to serious structural concerns.

The Upper Brook Street Chapel by 2014

In 2006, Manchester City Council undertook emergency repairs, removing the roof to prevent catastrophic collapse. This stabilised the structure but left it exposed to the elements for a number of years. Fortunately, a developer - Czero - saw the potential offered by its location close to Manchester’s university campuses. In 2014, Listed Building Consent and Planning Permission were granted to convert the former chapel into 73 student apartments.

Successful revival in 2018

The developer, working in partnership with Buttress (architects) and HH Smith (contractors), spent in excess of £7 million bringing the building back into use. Significant costs related to conservation work, including restoration of the glorious rose window to the rear gable. The first students moved in at the end of 2017, 180 years after the foundation stone was laid.

The former chapel illustrates how the survival of historic buildings is often dependent on adapting uses to reflect evolving contexts. Having now entered a new phase of life as a place of study rather than worship, the phoenix rises from the rubble!