The Observer Building in Hastings pictured on July 1 2024.The Observer Building in Hastings pictured on July 1 2024.
The Observer Building in Hastings pictured on July 1 2024.

In pictures: New era for old Observer building in Hastings

A major milestone has been reached in the restoration of a landmark building with the scaffolding finally removed from the Observer Building in Cambridge Road.

The imposing building, which took two years to construct celebrates its 100th birthday this year. In its day it was a powerhouse of the East Sussex newspaper industry.

In the Observer Building’s centenary year, works to restore the façade of the building are now complete. Staff at Hastings Commons, who are behind the restoration project celebrated the removal of scaffolding that had covered the front of the building for many years.

Designed by architect Henry Ward and built in 1924, the Observer Building is a historically important building that housed FJ Parsons’ printworks, home of the Hastings & St Leonards Observer. The printworks closed in 1984, leading to a cycle of dereliction with 13 different owners; most of whom did nothing to the building while it continued to decline. The Observer Building was opened temporarily in 2016 as a one-year creative arts venue, but it wasn’t until 2019 that it was purchased by Hastings Commons, where renovations began immediately.

Hastings Commons always aimed to restore the façade to its former glory after structural works to the building were complete. Scaffolding was erected in 2021 and Hastings Commons worked alongside conservation architects Donald Insall Associates and Observer Building architects IF_DO to come up with a plan with their building contractors 8Build. Funding for the renovation of the façade came from Historic England.

The many years of neglect meant that the distinctive terracotta-glaze faience façade had suffered as a result. Salty rainwater was allowed to get in behind the tiles which corroded the steel beams that supported the tiles above the windows, causing significant cracking and tile loss. As well as this, the windows had been boarded over throughout the years with low-quality screws being driven into the tiles and destroying them. Closer investigation revealed the condition of the façade was far worse than expected with thousands of holes, cracks and other defects, several loose stones and all but one steel beam above the windows beyond repair.

Working through tile by tile, inch by inch, a strategy was devised to save and repair as much as possible and replace what was beyond repair. The next challenge was finding a company able to make replacement tiles. Only two factories remain in the UK that can do this and competition for factory slots was fierce. After a year long wait for a slot, Darwen Terracotta finally started production and restoration could begin.

John Brunton, General Manager of Hastings Commons, said: “I'm so pleased to finally see the scaffolding down in the building’s centenary year. It's been a real labour of love to restore the historic facade and keep as much of the original as possible. Under the care of the Hastings Commons, I hope that the building approaches its 200th birthday in a much better condition than it approached its 100th”.

As the Observer Building celebrates its centenary year, more than half of the building has been reopened for use as affordable workspace, venue space, a creative technology hub and Crossfit Gym.

Work recently began on the roof which will be transformed into an accessible public roof terrace and bar by spring 2025. There will also be a new floor built on top of the bar area for ongoing youth work. It is hoped that by the following spring there will be 12 capped rent flats on the 2nd/3rd floors of the building for those in need of affordable housing. More information here.

Hastings Commons’ overall purpose is to tackle dereliction, protect the character and diversity of the neighbourhood and create an environment where people can shape their place and enhance their lives.

It does this by bringing difficult and derelict properties into community ownership in perpetuity and renovating them to a high standard to provide affordable homes and workspaces, and spaces for learning, enterprise, and wellbeing. They aim to build a sustainable portfolio of unique assets to bequeath to future generations, to create community benefits in every year along the way, and to demonstrate an alternative to traditional models of regeneration. More information here.

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