Take the tram into Oldham today and just as you get to the Oldham Central stop, you’ll notice a big Sainsburys on one side and a true architectural gem on the other – the Prudential Assurance Building.
An absolutely stunning building, I’ve been walking (and tramming) past this place for my entire life, and it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t (sadly) rotting away before my very eyes.
It’s a huge shame, and in fact the building has been in the Top 10 ‘Most Endangered Buildings of its Era‘ for a few years now, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be moving out of it for some time yet.
The old Prudential Assurance Company Offices, also known as ‘The Pru‘ to anyone in the UK during the 70s and 80s, was actually designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architectural powerhouse who is best known for designing Manchester’s Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London.
Oldham’s company offices continued his well-known penchant for the Victorian Gothic Revival style, built in red brick and terracotta, and featuring a lavishly tiled interior which was designed to impress any potential insurance customers.
Looking at it now in 2021, you’d be forgiven for not seeing the potential opulence of the place, with shrubs and weeds growing out of almost every orifice, and manky wooden chipboard covering up the windows.
A band of intrepid urban explorers have managed to get inside over the years though and provided us with an interesting glimpse at what was once a magnificent and beautiful interior.
With terracotta tiles, wood panelling, opulent fireplaces, this place must have been a sight to behold during its heyday, and makes it even more of a shame when you see the state that it’s in nowadays.
Unbeknown to me too, a man who genuinely thinks he knows everything about Oldham, the building was also once home to a basement club, the last iteration of which was called ‘Holy City Zoo’.
I’m struggling to find much information on the place, and I’d never even bloody heard of it until this morning, so I can’t provide you with much more on what it was like, and indeed what sort of music they did.
Before it was a club though, the basement was home to a ‘Berni Inn’ – which was a chain of steakhouses that popped up on British high streets in the mid-50s. I believe the owners modelled them on Arby’s or Appleby’s in America – and by the 70s had become the largest food chain outside the USA with 147 hotels and restaurants across the globe.
I never went to one, but I can imagine the excitement on the people of Oldham’s faces when they went downstairs, sat down in the mock-Tudor themed restaurant and were shown a menu featuring such exotic delights as ‘Prawn Cocktail‘, ‘Gammon, Chips and Peas‘ and best of all – ‘Black Forest Gateaux‘.
I’m sure that my mum probably went inside this Berni Inn at some point – I’ll ask her about it next time that I see her. It sounds great to be fair, such a shame that by the 80s, they’d pretty much all disappeared and/or been turned into Beefeater restaurants.
Back to the Pru building, and what’s in store for this architectural gem?
Well, first of all, it’s not exactly located in the best of places, as Union Street has suffered from dwindling returns for many years now in the town, with a lot of empty units and subsequently demolished buildings.
There is some light at the end of that tunnel though, although it might be the flame from a lighter as opposed to full rays of sunshine.
Oldham has seen some considerable development and renovation over the last couple of years, with the conversion of the Old Town Hall into a cinema and leisure space, and the creation of the brand-new Parliament Square which is a literal stone’s throw from the Pru building.
With the arrival of the Metrolink to the town, the Council have been hoping that this would “kick-start heritage-based regeneration in Oldham” and although that has been the case somewhat, there’s still A LOT to be done in a town that’s suffered greatly with a lack of investment and poverty in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Oldham Council have said in the past that they’ve been in discussions with the owners of the Pru building about repairing it, but there’s not been much of any movement on that front for a couple of years.
It would be fantastic to see this true architectural gem fully restored to it’s former glory, but I wouldn’t hold your breath just yet.