44 connection in Lewis’ building
As the digital team makes our Birmingham office its main base, Claudia discovered that one person in the team was not the first family member to grace the building…
What was it like to work at The Lewis Building before, well, it became The Lewis Building?
I didn’t need to go far to find out – as it turns out, our Digital Project Manager Jonny’s family has had close links with the building since the late ’50s.
The building used to be the Birmingham branch of ‘Lewis’s’, the famous department store chain founded by philanthropist and businessman David Lewis. Lewis opened the building in 1885, and by the 1920s Lewis’s was a supersized department store that became one of the most treasured landmarks in Birmingham.
Jonny’s great-aunt Phyllis Hooke worked in the Lewis’s haberdashery department throughout the ’60s, cutting and sizing curtain material.
His dad recalls many fond memories of visiting his aunt at the store. Every Saturday, Phyllis would give her nephew and his friend a sixpence each to spend on sweets, and he vividly remembers exploring the fifth floor of the huge store, where the sporting goods and toys were sold.
Jonny’s grandmother clearly recalls visiting the rooftop restaurant, which was apparently so high that you could see all the way to Barr Beacon in Walsall and beyond!
Lewis’s department stores were places of spectacle, stretching the imaginations of customers and employees alike, and the Birmingham branch was no exception.
Lewis introduced ‘Santa’s Grotto’ to the UK department store. This ingenious move led to children across Britain waiting eagerly in line to see Santa for over a century, bringing their parents’ purses with them. Jonny’s dad remembers ‘Uncle Holly’ dressing up as Santa and handing out presents in the Birmingham store every year, drawing massive crowds of families from around the city.
Forget teddy bears, if you had the money you could leave the Liverpool store with a living, breathing, and presumably scratching, bear or monkey. At one point, it’s said that there was even a zoo on the roof of the Birmingham Lewis’s. In Phyllis’ day, the roof was used as a pedal car track.
It wasn’t just promotional campaigns and exotic experiences that made Lewis’s stand out from other businesses. The lifts were manned by ex-servicemen who were often missing a limb, in a time when companies were not obliged by law to offer employment to people with disabilities.
Since the 1920s, the building on Bull Street has stood as a bustling hub for the people of Birmingham. Locals used to say that “if you stand outside Lewis’s on a Saturday you will see everyone you’ve ever known.”
Now that the building has been converted into a community of flexible office spaces, we’re excited about the opportunity of forging new connections, as well as meeting old.