Inspired by the heroism of the Greek War of Independence early in the 19th century and the writings and work of visitors to the sites of Ancient Greece, there was a great revival of interest in Greek architecture.
As part of this movement, Liverpool architects set themselves the task of creating a modern northern Athens. Their influence in the city was perhaps greater than others elsewhere as they coincided with a period of massive and rapid re-development in the city’s architectural history. In 1848, ‘The Builder’ reported the architect and local historian J. A. Picton as saying ‘perhaps no town in the world, except London after the Great Fire, has undergone so active a renovation as Liverpool in the last sixty years. The commerce, and consequently the requirements of the place, had so outgrown the contracted ideas of its aboriginal inhabitants, that a complete demolition and reconstruction its main thoroughfares became absolutely necessary.’
Buildings modelled on ancient Greek temples began to appear throughout the city. Two architects who worked in Liverpool stand out. John Foster Junior (c. 1786 - 1846), second son of John Foster, an architect and Surveyor to the Corporation, was seen as a rather indolent young man with an eye for the ladies. On the ‘Grand Tour’ in 1810, however, he met Charles Robert Cockerell (1788 - 1863), a young architect who was to enthuse him with a love of Greek architecture. Cockerell, who described his new friend as a ‘most amusing youth but too idle to be anything more than a dinner companion’, was the more serious and talented and was to have a great influence nationally.
On his return, Foster Junior was to belie Cockerell’s description. He produced some 20 buildings in the Liverpool area and succeeded his father as Surveyor to the Corporation. His buildings included St Andrew’s Church of Scotland (1823, now decaying in Rodney Street); the Mortuary Chapel (1829, a miniature Greek Temple in the Doric style at the entrance to St James Cemetery); the Custom House (1828 – 39, Canning Place. Demolished after bomb damage during the war).
Cockerell also came to work in Liverpool where he designed, among other buildings, the Branch Bank of England (1845 – 48, Castle Street) in the Greek style. After the death of Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, he was responsible for the completion of St George's Hall for which he designed the small concert hall with its Greek caryatids supporting the balconies. This room is considered by many to be the best in the building.
The Greek movement in Liverpool reached its height with the building of Harvey Lonsdale Elmes' design for St George's Hall. Elmes was only 23 when won separate competitions to design a concert hall and an assize court. These he was later to turn into one design serving both functions. St George’s Hall. Building was started in 1842 and completed in 1847. Although the interior of the Great Hall is of Roman design, based on a reconstruction of the baths of Caracalla in Rome, the exterior is that of a Greek temple. It is not only one the great buildings of this country but also of the world. Nicholas Pevsner, in his ‘Buildings of England, South Lancashire’, described it the ‘freest neo-Grecian building in England and one the finest in the world’.
Other examples of buildings in Liverpool showing the influence of the Greek Revival movement are:
The Lyceum in Bold Street (Thomas Harrison of Chester)
Royal Institution in Colquitt Street (Edmond Aikin 1814 – 1817)
Wellington Rooms on Mount Pleasant (Edmond Aikin 1815)
Roman Catholic Church of St Patrick, Park Place (1821 – 1827, John Slater)
Church of St Bride, Percy Street (1830, Samuel Rowland)
Liverpool Institute School (LIPA), Mount Street (1837 – 1837, A. H. Holme)
Medical Institution, Mount Pleasant (1836 – 1837, Clark Rampling)
Such was the strength of the Greek influence in Liverpool that there was to be a late flowering due to the enthusiasm of men like Professor Sir Charles Reilly (1874-1948) at the School of Architecture and to the city’s close connection with America where a similar revival occurred. The Students Union Building (1910 – 12, University Precinct, Bedford Street North), the extension to the College of Art (1910, Hope Street), the Empire Theatre (192? Lime Street) and the Bank of West Africa (1923, Water Street) are good examples in which all the details are pure Greek.