ASK anyone in town where the old Observer building is and they’ll tell you – Cambridge Road, next to the Tubman pub. Its eye-catching facade, now grubby, faded and boarded up is a blight on the town and a real bugbear for many residents interested in planning and conservation issues.
But I’m talking about the other old Observer building, the original one. Situated in Claremont next to the library, it’s a startling looking Venetian gothic pile with a proud history, and now, thanks to two ambitious locals, a bright future.
Artist Lorna Lloyd was looking for a new studio when she was tipped off that there might be some space available in the building, after the closure of Pink’s Gym. She went to see it with her husband Brian Dyke and the pair fell in love with it.
“We had sold our house in the countryside outside Rye and we were looking for a new project. We knew straight away this was it,” Lorna said.
That was two years ago, and although the couple refuse to be drawn on how much they shelled out for the seven-floor property, they said they have spent the same again on the painstaking restoration.
“It was in a massive state of disrepair,” said Brian. “We had to remove all the guttering, do all the repointing, remove windows that were rotten, replace part of the roof, get rid of the pigeons. We knew it wouldn’t be a quick fix.”
“You have these plans and drawings then you remove something and realise they’re not possible,” Lorna said.
“It’s a constantly fluid process and the building dictates what you can do but we have kept original features wherever possible.”
The Grade II listed structure has certainly come on leaps and bounds in that time.
Originally built in 1876 it was a joint venture between F J Parsons the newspaper magnate and Thomas Brassey, the wealthy, well-travelled statesman and MP between 1868 and 1886.
The pair put aside their political differences to bankroll the building, modelled on St Marco’s Cathedral in Venice by top architect Vernon Liberty.
The Brassey Institute – the half of the building which is now the library – was given to the people of Hastings in 1887, the other half housed Parsons’s printing empire until it was closed in 1985.
Using only local firms and local materials, the outside has been completely restored, with St Leonards signwriter Peter Thompson’s glorious murals gracing the front.
The top two floors have been converted into stunning living quarters while the fourth floor has been turned into an open studio, which will be rented out to local artists, and the ground floor will become an interior design shop. Plans for the other floors include an arts club and possibly a gallery.
Throughout the work the family have turned up some fascinating artefacts – old newspapers from the 1870s, when the Observer billed itself as ‘the south coast advertiser and fashionable journal’, ink bottles, old drawings and the like. Huge steel beams and the foundations of the giant printing presses in the basement are still visible and you get the feeling the building has some more secrets it is yet to yield.
The work has certainly not gone unnoticed.
“We have people stopping all the time, taking photographs and telling us they used to work here,” Brian said.
“They are delighted it’s coming back into use. They tell us that it was the worst day of their lives when they left here.”
Son Ed, who has been helping out his parents, added: “It’s great watching them talk and they revert back to the age they were when they worked here, reminiscing about stealing apples or the skill of the delivery drivers who would swing their trucks round into the alleyway.”
A reunion is planned for September when everyone who worked at the building will be invited back and encouraged to bring any memorabilia.
“We are not trying to turn this into a museum but we do not want to lose that connection with the past,” Lorna said.
“That was a huge part of our motivation when we took this on.”
Lorna and Brian brim with passion and energy for the project and have little doubt what might have happened to the building if they had not stepped in.
“I think it would have got worse and worse,” said Brian.
“What happened to the pier was an absolute tragedy – whatever happens with the new one a massive part of our heritage has been lost forever. I think the same thing would have happened here.”
To find out more about the reunion, the artists’ space or the restoration email email@example.com.