Custom House

Custom House, Queen Sq, Bristol

The Custom House, in the centre of the north side of Queen Square, was completed in 1837, designed by Sidney Smirke to replace the earlier Custom House of 1711 which was destroyed in the Bristol Reform Riots of 1831. The building is listed Grade II*. Use as the Custom House continued until 1974. It was then taken over by the City of Bristol College for YTS Training, who then vacated the premises at the end of the 20th century. The building remained empty for nearly 10 years as nobody could find a viable use for it.

The impressive classical façade to Queen Square appears to present a two-storey building. The grand central entrance consists of paired pilasters each side of the doorway to an entablature which supports a stone carving of the royal coat of arms. However the building actually has a basement and the left-hand half of the building has an additional storey with the floor levels cutting across the arched sash windows.

The principal feature of the interior is the ‘Long Room ‘, which occupies the whole of the right-hand side of the first floor, rising to a very high ceiling. Due to the lack of maintenance and repair, rainwater had penetrated the roof and ceilings from the central lightwell, plasterwork had been severely damaged, and decay had occurred in woodwork.

Fortunately EF required a premises for a language school in Bristol and commissioned us to refurbish and convert the building for their use. The school required a large number of relatively small rooms for tuition of groups of student, which made this building ideal. In the basement the rooms which did not benefit from a high level of natural light were used for the cafeteria and for classrooms where studies were carried out with computers and headphones. The ground floor contains the reception, staff offices and further classrooms. The balustrade to the grand staircase from ground floor to first floor had been encased in concrete, presumably for safety reasons, as the uprights were further apart than current regulations allow. The concrete was broken away revealing the decorative cast iron balustrading up the stairs and across the first-floor landing. In order to ensure safety, toughened glass panels were clamped to the side of the balustrade using fixings which can be removed at a later date if required.

Maximum use was made of the enormous Long Room by inserting an additional floor. The mezzanine floor is kept away from three of the walls including the windows to the front and rear and is only attached to the blank side wall. The whole of the structure of the mezzanine floor is supported on only two steel posts which resemble masts in the middle of the room. The three classrooms underneath the mezzanine are separated by double-glazed glass partitions and the upper level is entirely occupied by rows of computers for private study by the students.

This impressive building, which was in a parlous state of repair, is now full of activity, with students in and out of the front doors and playing table tennis in the rear courtyard.