The (former) Eagle Insurance Buildings. Designed by W. R. Lethaby (1857-1931) carried out in collaboration with local architect Joseph Ball (1852-1933; later Director of the Birmingham School of Architecture). 1900. Built of stone, with reinforced concrete for floors and roofs, steel, and a small amount of brick. 122-24 Colmore Row, Birmingham. Unusually for an office building in a row like this, Grade I listed, one of only a few buildings of this grade in Birmingham (including the old Town Hall, St Philip's Cathedral, and so on). Text by Jacqueline Banerjee. Photographs by Brian Clift (whole building) and Tony Hisgett (photographs of door and eagle), who very kindly allow the reuse of these works from Flickr under the Creative Commons licence.
All the preliminary designs for this landmark 4-storey 5-bay building are Lethaby's (see Rubens 141). The two street numbers were planned as a unit with striking marble-lined metal doors in symmetrical doorways, inscription panels above the first storey (with the name of the company), pilasters to the windows of the second and third storeys, a frieze above the third floor, and an eagle depicted amid geometrical patterning at the very top. Trevor Garnham writes:
The kind of architecture Lethaby envisages might best be illustrated by his only commercial building.... it has, for its time, a rather severe façade which makes a gesture towards expressing its post-and-lintel steel-frame construction.... Instead of conventional ornament Lethaby advocated the use of incidents of fine hand-work. (28)
Interestingly, Garnham suggests that the two entrances were inspired by Buddhist gateways illustrated by Lethaby in Architecture, Mysticism and Myth; eagles get a number of mentions in the book too, and of course this one is entirely appropriate here. It may seem odd to find this kind of symbolic language in an office building, especially one that in its structural expressionism stands on the threshold of a new age in architecture. But Garnham's points have been plausibly developed in another account, which finds that the building rises through stages from the earth to the heavens, concluding, "Lethaby's Eagle Insurance building represents one of the few attempts to reconcile Arts and Crafts theory with an industrial urban context, craft with the machine, hand-carved stonework with reinforced concrete floors" (Hart 156). All in all, this is a building that repays considerable study.
122 and 124, Colmore Row B3, Birmingham." British Listed Buildings. 6 October 2013.
Garnham, Trevor. "William Lethaby and the Two Ways of Building." Architectural Association Files. No. 10 (Autumn 1985): 27-43. Accessed via JSTOR. Web. 6 October 2013.
Hart, Vaughan. "William Richard Lethaby and the 'Holy Spirit': A Reappraissal of the Eagle Insurance Company Building, Birmingham." Architectural History. Vol. 46 (2003): 145-158. Accessed via JSTOR. Web. 6 October 2003.
Rubens, Godfrey. William Richard Lethaby: His Life and Work. 1857-1931. London: The Architectural Press, 1986. Print.
Last modified 6 October 2013