‘Defiant’ hidden treasure is building’s salvation

Doncaster's St James Leisure Centre the home of a listed Turkish baths the swimming pool
Doncaster's St James Leisure Centre the home of a listed Turkish baths the swimming pool
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IN recent decades, hundreds of historic buildings across Yorkshire have been swept away in the name of regeneration, their demise often unnoticed until it is too late.

During 2012, new glass and steel blocks have sprung up in Doncaster’s Waterdale, and initial blueprints had condemned an unprepossessing red brick building on the corner of the site for demolition.

The St James’ Leisure Centre was set to be flattened in 2013 as part of the town’s £300m Civic and Cultural Quarter (CCQ) project, decades of neglect meant many would never have mourned its passing.

But behind its crumbling brickwork lies what experts have described as a “rare survival” from the period between the two World Wars – a suite of Turkish and Russian baths still in use.

Their unlikely presence has now saved the centre from the bulldozers, meaning it will stand defiant next to Doncaster Council’s gleaming new offices and a “new performance venue”.

According to English Heritage – the body which maintains sites and advises the Government – which has granted the St James’ Centre grade II listed status, there are just three other examples of similar Turkish baths in the country, – in Newcastle, Westminster and Islington.

Although council chiefs were initially keen to see the building razed, they have now been forced to welcome its listing and write it into their plans for the town’s cultural and sporting future.

Doncaster Council’s head of development Peter Dale had initially wanted to see the baths pulled down and a new complex built in their place because the current building, which also has a fully equipped fitness studio, “did not meet 21st century demands”.

He said: “A swimming pool and leisure centre was always part of the Civic and Cultural Quarter masterplan so we will look at incorporating the St James’ pool and health club into the scheme.”

The building was designed by the Doncaster borough’s then estates surveyor Mr RE Ford,

As well as the Turkish and Russian baths, English Heritage experts also pointed to the St James’ swimming pool, which many of the town’s older residents can remember being boarded over with a sprung maple wood floor for films and dances.

In their assessment of the building they said: “The St James’ Street Baths, is an inter-war public baths built in 1932.

“It retains much of its original plan, which clearly indicates that it was carefully designed as a multi-purpose recreational building to be used year-round.

“The swimming pool and associated areas such as the slipper baths and changing rooms, together with the basement Turkish and Russian baths suite, were accessed from the entrance on Waterdale.

“Additional interest is provided by the provision of facilities for winter time activities when the pool was boarded over.

“A completely separate entrance opened into a crush hall giving access to the pool hall for activities such as dances concerts and films. It had a stage and projector room, both of which survive.”

Doncaster’s elected mayor, Peter Davies, who is 68, and grew up in a village near the town, said he clearly remembered attending cinema shows in the pool hall and hearing others talking about going to events there.

Mr Davies added: “St James’ Pool and Health Club and its rare Turkish and Russian baths are being incorporated into a major regeneration scheme which is driving Doncaster forward but at the same time recognises our historical assets.

“The town is establishing itself as a hotspot for new investment and development and is becoming one of the most desirable places to live, work and visit.

“The Civic and Cultural Quarter is rejuvenating a large part of Doncaster’s town centre.

“New, 21st century landmarks are transforming the skyline in Waterdale but our proud heritage is also being preserved.

“Sir Nigel Gresley Square, named after one of our most influential historical figures, the new Civic Office and the state
-of-the art performance venue will help bring the vibrancy 
back.

Mr Davies added: “While the plans will see the imposing façade of the former girls’ school on the other side of the CCQ site restored with this wonderful frontage and prime site being perfect for a charming hotel.”

Baths become hot property

DONCASTER’S Civic and Cultural Quarter scheme is being built on the site of the town’s former Waterdale surface car park and further education college which relocated to new buildings several years ago.

It includes a £22m civic building, which includes a new council chamber and offices, which council workers are currently moving into.

The St James’ Baths is not the only historical building to survive, and there are plans to save at least the facade of Doncaster’s former Girls’ School, which stands on the opposite corner of the CCQ site.

The baths, which reach temperatures of close to 100F “survive largely intact, retaining mosaic floor, wall tiling and the original drinking fountain” according to English Heritage.