If you’ve ever gone past the old Wickhams department store (now home to the Foxcroft & Ginger café) on Mile End Road, you’ve probably noticed that it looks a bit wonky. Well, the story behind the weird gap in the middle is pretty incredible. When the Wickham family planned their grand stone façade in 1927, it was supposed to rival Selfridges – but their neighbours, the family who owned the Spiegelhalters jewellery shop at Number 81, refused to sell up and move. The Wickhams superstore was built anyway, but Spiegelhalters stayed put in the middle of the façade, knocking the main tower off-centre and leaving a great big gap in the Wickhams’ grand design.
Spiegelhalters finally closed in the ’80s, outliving Wickhams by two full decades, but the shop is still there. The much-missed architectural writer Ian Nairn called it ‘one of the best visual jokes in London’, and it provides a vivid glimpse into the East End’s Jewish history as well as a reminder that occasionally rich property developers don’t get everything they want.
That could change soon, though, as the owners of the site (Resolution Property) are planning to demolish what’s left of Spiegelhalters after years of deliberate neglect, and to replace it with – no joke – an empty space. This little shop, which has survived against the odds for over a century, is due to become a metal-and-glass gap in a rejuvenated Wickhams – a ‘homage to the Spiegelhalter story’, apparently, consisting of ‘sculptural shards’ and ‘a bold, new public entrance’. Hmm.
While we’re not at all opposed to what Resolution are planning to do with the rest of the building (a ‘mixed-used media hub’ is better than an old building sitting empty), we think it’d be a scandal if what’s left of Spiegelhalters wasn’t preserved as part of the plans. Writing about the building in 1967, Ian Nairn called it ‘a perennial triumph for the little man, the bloke who won’t conform. May he stay there till the Bomb falls.’ Sign the petition to save Spiegelhalters, and maybe that spirit will stay in the East End a while longer.