The “wilful destruction” of a 400-year-old Jacobean ceiling in the heart of Bristol’s Old City has sparked calls for a planning loophole to be closed.
Developers intent on turning the historic Small Street building into student flats met with widespread condemnation this week after ripping out the ornate craftsmanship inside.
But the company has responded to criticism, saying it took action because the premises had become dangerous and it needed to “respect the safety” of the site.
“People may think that he has done something terrible, but all he has done is protect his property interests,” said Jim Tarzey, the executive director of Pegasus Group, who is acting as planning adviser to the developers and building’s owners, Midas Properties / G&E Baio Ltd.
He added that the company has done nothing illegal and stated that the ceiling’s destruction was part of planned refurbishment works.
Historic England was due to visit the former Small Horse bar after conservation officers lodged an urgent call for it to be listed, but the elaborate plaster ceiling and fixtures were ripped down before the Government-funded conservation body arrived to assess the site.
Legally, the developers are within their rights to alter the building, even if under assessment for listing, but the act has met with an outpouring of outrage that such “cynical destruction” should be allowed.
Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire expressed her anger, saying: “I am furious that this act of cultural vandalism took place before Historic England could inspect the building and could make a recommendation that it be a protected feature of the building.
“Development of property in the city must be done with sensitivity, and where possible, historical features of our buildings should be protected.
“I am tracking down the developer to demand an explanation, and will be contacting the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to find out how we can close this loophole so that we can protect our country’s heritage.”
Save Britain’s Heritage also condemned the “mutilation” of the ornate ceiling and claimed “it is yet another tragic example of the failure to provide interim protection for buildings being considered for listing”.
Unable to find a phone number for the applicant, Joe Baio of Midas Properties / G&E Baio Ltd, Bristol24/7 attempted to track him down on Friday to put his side of the story across.
He was not to be found at the site that sparked such controversy, 15 Small Street, which stood quietly, windows boarded up and not a soul in site.
On to the registered address on Whiteladies Road opposite BBC Broadcasting House. Here, two buzzers on the doorstep are labelled Midas Properties, but alas – no answer.
One man, who said he was nothing to do with the company, advised that Baio wouldn’t want to talk to journalists, before firmly shutting the door.
At another registered address on King’s Parade Avenue, a small cul-de-sac behind the NatWest on Whiteladies Road, a shiny sign confirming the name Midas Properties was to be found, but once again, ringing the bell proved fruitless.
A statement from Tarzey, sent soon before 5pm on Friday, said that Pegasus Group are working alongside BBA Architects of Bath on the application.
The statement said: “Pegasus Group are aware of the internal building works that been carried out to the ceiling this week, and the timing of these, and are content that the works needed to be carried out to respect the safety of the building, and were done so lawfully in association with ongoing refurbishment works, irrespective of the outcome of the submitted planning application.”
Commenting on the developers’ actions, conservation expert, broadcaster and author Jonathan Foyle told Bristol24/7: “It’s heartbreaking to see the wilful destruction of an historic work of art that survived four centuries of war and redevelopment.
“That such a fine set-piece has avoided statutory listing is surprising, and without legal protection, smashing ancient beauty to dust may have been lawful, but it was certainly unethical.
“So the cynical destruction of this Jacobean ceiling by developers pending an imminent visit for potential listing should not be accepted or rewarded. If it were possible, I suspect many would support the spot-listing of the remaining fragments, refusal of permission for internal subdivision and the eventual restoration of the ceiling within the historic space. Bristol deserves no less.”
Heritage expert Mark Small expressed his sadness as the loss of the beautiful ceiling and said he hopes the blanket condemnation will reignite the lobbyists to change the laws regarding buildings that are not yet listed.
The company registered to 30 Whiteladies Road goes by the name of Midas Properties / G&E Baio Ltd or Midas Property Solutions Limited and is not to be confused with others that have a similar name.