Students are now settling into the flats built within the restored Unitarian Chapel on Upper Brook Street, after a project which developer Simon Linford of Czero described as “the most difficult I have ever been involved with”, and included the relocation of 93 bodies found in the churchyard.
Birmingham-based Czero Developments acquired the derelict chapel and surrounding land in 2015 from Manchester City Council, and recently completed the conversion of the building into 87 student rooms, funded by Empiric Student Property. Empiric has now taken over as operator.
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The grade tw0-listed neo-gothic chapel was built in the 1830s by architect Charles Barry, who later designed the Palace of Westminster. After being vacated by the Unitarians, the building was used by different religious groups including the Welsh Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Islamic Academy of Manchester.
The chapel fell into serious disrepair in the 1970s and in 2006 its roof was removed on safety grounds. Since 2010, it has been listed as one of the 10 most threatened buildings in England and Wales, and spent several years on Historic England’s ‘at risk’ register.
“When we took over the building, there was pigeon faeces a foot deep in some areas, and it was like a forest inside,” said Linford. HH Smith & Sons was the contractor, on a fixed contract basis, and Buttress was the architect for the £6m project.
Clearing the land around the chapel revealed a crypt, made up of 35 deep vault shafts stacked with lead-lined coffins. Inside there were the remains of 93 wealthy Unitarians, buried between 1850 and 1870, including members of the McConnel family, Ancoats mill owners at the forefront of Manchester’s cotton-spinning boom.
HH Smith and specialist exhumation company Phoenix used a vacuum suction system to lift off the 35 one-tonne tomb stones on the surface of the crypts. The resting place of the McConnels still attracts tourists, and descendents of the family, now based in America, requested that their ancestors be reburied on the site. The other remains were relocated to a cemetery in Loughborough.
A residents’ lounge, gym and cinema room have been installed in the cavity left by the crypt.
Work on the chapel involved rebuilding parts of the structure to return the crumbling building to its original form, before constructing a steel structure inside to allow for the creation of the student flats without putting weight on the stone walls.
Overall the conversion of the chapel and its neighbouring Sunday School has delivered 87 bedrooms, alongside a new-build element with nine one-bedroom maisonettes in the churchyard. Empiric is charging around £165/a week for a studio room.
Features such as the chapel’s corbels and vaulted springers have been repaired and retained in their original location. The chapel’s rose window has also undergone a restoration while surviving timbers have been saved to showcase the detailed woodwork that once existed within the original building. Internally, a second set of windows has been built into the student rooms to prevent occupiers from having direct access to the historic windows.
Samantha Gill, architect at Buttress, said: “The Unitarian Chapel represents an important part of Manchester’s architectural history, yet had faced an uncertain future for some time. It has been truly rewarding to have been involved in its restoration, and see it evolve from a dilapidated shell into a building with a renewed, modern purpose.”
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