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In-depth plans for new art gallery and conference centre at Harris Institute

Posted on - 30th June, 2024 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Arts, Avenham, Business, Politics, Preston City Centre, Preston Council, Preston News, Redevelopment
Harris Institute plans by Studio John Bridge
Harris Institute plans by Studio John Bridge

Plans have been unveiled to revive one of Preston’s architectural gems by turning it into a new art gallery and conference centre.

The blueprint for the Harris Institute, on Avenham Lane, would see the 175-year-old, Grade II-listed building brought back into use for the first time in almost 10 years.

A planning application lodged with Preston City Council reveals that the proposal for the repair and refurbishment of the one-time art school also includes the creation of exhibition facilities, a co-working space, an art shop and a cafe.

Read more: ‘Deliberate’ damage to Collins Road pavement in Bamber Bridge means more work needed

Meanwhile, the neighbouring Regent House building would be converted into nine holiday lets, if the plans get the go-ahead – with a new courtyard area being developed between the two premises.

The Institute has fallen into a state of disrepair since its last use as the Darul Aloom Islamic Institution – and is now on Historic England’s at-risk register.

Harris Institute plans by Studio John Bridge
Harris Institute plans by Studio John Bridge

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) first revealed, a cannabis factory was discovered in the building early last year.  Following a subsequent break-in in February 2023,  the much-loved piece of Preston history was left unsecured overnight, sparking fears that it could have been set alight.

A design document submitted to town hall planners states that the aim of the project – spearheaded by the Bolton-based Harris Investment Group Ltd. – is to enable “local businesses, artists and creatives to work in collaboration and enjoy this amazing building once more”.

It is hoped that the rental apartments within Regent House – which the LDRS understands was once the school headmaster’s residence – will generate the income needed to maintain and sustain the rest of the new venture.

The vision has got the thumbs up from the Friends of the Harris School of Art, a group which itself tried, but failed, to find funding to purchase the building and secure its future.

John Turner, head of the Friends association, told the LDRS that the plans are not only “amazing” for the Institute itself, but will also bring to Preston many facilities the city is currently “lacking”.

“It will also generate tourism and be a real asset to Preston – and the mixed-use that is being proposed is essential to generate revenue.

Harris Institute plans by Studio John Bridge
Harris Institute plans by Studio John Bridge

“It has the potential to be a creative hub and also a place for start-up businesses to be based – everything that is being proposed is spot on,” John said.

The new owners are already seeking potential future occupiers for the site who would “honour the building’s legacy”, they say.

Externally, repairs – some of which are urgent – and cleaning are being carried out. If permission is granted, a new side platform lift would ensure that the main floors are fully accessible to all visitors.

Internally, the space will be largely unchanged and architectural details will be “kept and restored as much as possible, making these spaces usable and celebrated again”, according to the design statement.

John Bridge, from Studio John Bridge, the architect behind the scheme, said a public consultation last year showed that there was “a significant amount of interest across the city in the building’s restoration”.

“As a Prestonian myself, I’m proud to be working with The Harris Investment Group on this exciting project. The site in its current form is very much a blank canvas and we are still open to new and fresh ideas about the building’s future.

“We look forward to the application being considered by Preston City Council.”

Anybody interested in acquiring space within the refurbished building – should the plans be approved – is asked to contact John Bridge by email at john@studiojohnbridge.co.uk.

What’s the plan?

In the basement, new facilities would be introduced across the 10 existing rooms and spaces – including five spacious rooms for meetings, co-working and small conferences, plus toilets and storage.

A new cafe, and shop/gallery space would be added to the main front rooms at the ground floor level, close to the main entrance. These spaces would be accessed by the new platform lift. On the lower ground floor would be the existing amphitheatre and refurbished toilets.

Harris Institute plans by Studio John Bridge
Harris Institute plans by Studio John Bridge

Meanwhile, the existing large rooms on the first floor are proposed to be renovated to enable one to house a dance studio, while another- which has no windows, only skylights – is being eyed as a space for events.   The ambition, however, is to install a projector to mimic an outdoor window, with a view to the tree promenade at the front of the Institute building.

As part of the development, a possible refurbishment of the balcony from the existing roof, will be assessed for its viability.

Regent House will be given over to the nine proposed holiday lets across two floors – with six single and three duplex apartments being created.

The existing private side entrance from Regent Street would be maintained and the planned new courtyard created with a new access from the main entrance to Regent House.

The new courtyard would be accessed from the Harris Institute’s lower basement floor and the Regent House ground floor. It would provide an outdoor space for all users of the premises, potentially with new paved areas, green walls and small trees – as well as a separate entrance for the new duplex apartments.

Harris history

Work on the John Welch-designed Harris Institute began in 1846 and the building was opened in 1849 as the Preston Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It was later extended in 1883 and funded by benefactor Edmund Robert Harris on the stipulation that it would be used for educational purposes. More recently, it became the Harris School of Art and then the Darul Aloom Islamic Institution.

Plans to convert the striking building into a dozen flats were turned down by the then Preston Borough Council in 1998. The University of Central Lancashire operated the facility for a time as its Department of Performing Arts, but put it up for sale in 2009 after it moved into a new £15m development on the main campus. The building was eventually bought, but has lain used since 2014.

The Historic England listing for the property says that “there is a risk that dry rot (which was previously eradicated) could re-establish as the building is unventilated and suffering from water ingress”.

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