RETRO: Working history of an iconic city landmark

Kennings car dealership, 1936
Kennings car dealership, 1936
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It is an iconic Sheffield building which started life almost 80 years ago as a car showroom. Now in its current guise as a creative and digital hub, it is still motoring along nicely.

The Workstation, in Paternoster Row, celebrates the 20th anniversary of its transformation and rebirth this week. The building opened in its present format as a complex offering studio and office space to more than 50 city businesses on July 27, 1993.

The Workstation before it was converted - a derelict building arround 1988

The Workstation before it was converted - a derelict building arround 1988

The redevelopment of the art deco site is largely credited with helping establish Sheffield’s reputation as a creative city and diversifying its economy after the collapse of the steel industry. Photographers, film producers, web designers and a community radio station all now call the space home. An early Arctic Monkeys video was recorded there while The Human League used to rehearse in the basement.

Now to celebrate the anniversary of the overhaul, Midweek Retro brings you these pictures from the archives.

They chart the art deco complex from its original incarnation as Kennings car dealership in 1936 (a time when trams still ran past the building) through to its opening as The Workstation in 1993 (a time when computers couldn’t be carried under arm and men were still proud to wear braces at work).

“Sheffield has a very proud tradition of taking its great old buildings and making use of them,” says Ian Wild, chief executive of The Workstation and one of the original people behind its development. “That’s what we did. It would have been such a shame to see this go but at the same time the city did need to move on”

The building had been derelict for more than a decade by the late Eighties. Kennings, despite adding two extra floors to the original site in the Sixties, had left it empty by the mid-Seventies. At one point, the favoured course of action was to demolish it and build a car park.

“There was a growing belief and evidence that declining cities could regenerate through industries like film and music,” says Ian. “The council weren’t convinced – there were no other provincial cities doing this – but it seemed obvious to a group of us that this could work.”

Ian and several other like-minded Sheffielders – including academics like Professor Sylvia Harvey, film producer Colin Pons (who still takes space in the building) and development expert Matthew Conduit – campaigned for the building to be saved and turned into a hub of such industries. The council eventually backed the project.

Phase one saw a handful of businesses move in after four years’ work in 1993. Several more phases since have seen more studio space created, a bar and restaurant added, and the on-site Showroom cinema opened. There’s even a rooftop herb garden these days.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved,” says Ian. “We estimate the businesses based here create 50 jobs every year. That has to be a good thing.”