Plans to turn Georgian York townhouse into a 21st century civic hub

Every day Andrew Morrison cycles a different route to his office in the heart of York. As the newly appointed chief executive of York Civic Trust he was keen to find a way of exploring every corner of the city and his daily commute seemed a good place to start.

Andrew Morrison, new chief executive for York Civic Trust, pictured at Fairfax House. Picture by James Hardisty.
Andrew Morrison, new chief executive for York Civic Trust, pictured at Fairfax House. Picture by James Hardisty.

Highlights have so far included a visit to Dick Turpin’s grave next to St George’s Church, a stop-off at Barnitts hardware and homeware shop - something of a York institution - and a water trough on Lawrence Street.

He said: “I went via the cemetery in Dringhouses this morning where three members of the Terry chocolate family are buried. Honestly, it is the best way of discovering nooks and crannies you never knew existed before.”

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While his two-wheeled fact-finding mission has proved useful, Mr Morrison already knew the city well. Before taking roles with the National Trust and Leeds Library, Mr Morrison worked for the York Museums Trust and the city has been his home for more than a decade.

However, in his new role he is keen to ensure that the whole of York benefits from the trust’s support, not just the more obvious heritage sites in the centre.

He said: “Liverpool might have the Beatles and Manchester might have its football clubs and the music of the 90s, but what I love about York is that it has been home to so many people who have had an impact on so many different aspects of life.

“Some, like the 19th century painter William Etty established quite a grand reputation, but we should be just as proud of the man who made the rivets for one of the steam locomotives which pulled out of the city.

“This is a place of real innovation. From the building of the Minster, through to the launch of the chocolate factories, York has always been cutting edge. Today with Science City York and our UNESCO City of Media Arts status, it continues to make its mark and as a trust we have to find ways of supporting that forward-looking philosophy.”

Entirely independent from the local authority or government, the trust enjoys more autonomy than similar organisations.

It means Mr Morrison has a chance to plough his own furrow and in the coming months the focus will be on the trust’s City Enhancement Project, which has previously restored the statue of Emperor Constantine outside York Minster and more recently erected a monument to a family who drowned in a boating accident on the River Ouse in the 1830s.

He will also have one eye on 2022, when the trust celebrates its 75th anniversary at the same time the city’s Philosophical Society and York Archaeological Trust are also marking landmark anniversaries.

As part of the lead up, next year Fairfax House will stage a Makers and Shapers exhibition dedicated to those who have already contributed to York’s rich history. The Georgian townhouse was restored by the trust in the 1980s and Mr Morrison is keen to see it established as a civic hub.

“I want to use the house to explore bigger social issues. I think we can create a real salon environment here which would give Fairfax House the same relevance today as it did in its Georgian heyday. As part of that, in June we will be holding a series of lecture looking at migration and the different cultures who have left an imprint on the city.”

While the trust still has its offices above the grand rooms of the Georgian property, Mr Morrison knows that just a stone’s throw from Fairfax House many of York’s shop units are empty and the trust is one of a number of organisations trying to write a better future.

“We need to ask people what they want and then devise schemes to match. Some will fail, but those that work might just deliver a better blueprint. We need to be brave. Of course the first time people visit York, go to the Minster and Jorvik, but each time they come back they want to see something new. Our job is to lead them into those forgotten corners.”