March 1, 2024

artfcity

Art Shines Through

Take a trip back to glory days of Plymouth’s faded Art Deco gem

It’s been looking rather jaded and forlorn in recent times, so the news that Plymouth city centre’s grand dame of Art Deco design – Colin Campbell House – is at last to have a makeover has delighted fans of this unique historic building.

With its mix of curves and clean straight lines, 1930s ocean liner windows and simple but stylish decorative embellishments, it looks like it’s stepped straight out of an episode of TV’s Poirot.

It’s now reached the grand age of 84 and has for some years been a furniture store. In the intervening decades you might have known it as the city’s Habitat shop, a branch of Mothercare, an Asian foods mart or as a rather sad version of its glorious former self with boarded-up windows, peeling paint and crumbling plaster.

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When the photograph above was taken in the 1950s or early 1960s – note the classic “bubble” car – the AC Turner motor company was in residence at what we now know as Colin Campbell House.

It was originally built as a car showroom and garage just before the Second World War back in 1938, when Agatha Christie’s fictional detective was, indeed, busy exercising his little grey cells.

It’s uncertain which company owned the building initially, but it was a time when motor car sales were booming and local agents for all the big manufacturers had been opening up in different areas around the city.



Colin Campbell House looking faded in 2016
Colin Campbell House looking faded in 2016

One of the largest was AC Turner, the Austin dealer. According to historian Chris Robinson in his book Plymouth in the Age of the Petrol Motor Car 1896-1939, by 1935 Mr Turner employed 25 people full-time, had a contract to sell more than 600 cars a year, and had eight Austin landaulets (old style convertibles) on constant hire. His distribution patch stretched over to Tavistock and over into Cornwall as far as St Austell and Wadebridge.

The company had opened a light-filled and classy new triangular-shaped showroom called Austin House at Tavistock Road and they also kept a service depot and a second-hand sales department nearby.

By the 1950s, the Austin and Morris companies had merged to become the BMC or British Motor Corporation and the business was now selling both brands, so would have needed to expand its operations.

Having survived the Blitz intact, unlike much of Plymouth’s historic heart, the Art Deco building offered an ideal location at the bottom of town.

It was spacious enough to be a one-stop shop with a showroom on the ground floor as well as admin, parts, service and body repair departments on the upper three floors, linked by ramps. It also operated a six-pump filling station selling Shell petrol to all comers.



Colin Campbell House in the 1950s or 60s - note the 'bubble car' in the petrol station forecourt
Colin Campbell House in the 1950s or 60s – note the ‘bubble car’ in the petrol station forecourt

With the names Austin House and AC Turner Ltd, proudly displayed on the pristine white painted facade, this really was the landmark building in its heyday.

It was renamed Colin Campbell – along with the courtyard of buildings around it – in honour of Plymouth’s former town clerk who guided the city through its difficult years of post-war rebuilding from 1945 to 1943. He was knighted for his services in 1952.

What are your memories of Austin House? Did you buy a car, have your motor serviced or fill up your petrol tank there? Do you have an old photographs of the building in its heyday? Do let us know in the comments below.

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