Cottonopolis: Sunlight in the Rain
Joseph Sunlight was born in Russia but came to Manchester with his family in pursuit of a fortune wrapped in cotton, and Joseph grew up to become a prolific architect, soon becoming one of the city’s wealthiest citizens. When he died in 1979 he was the city’s biggest taxpayer. By proxy we owe a lot to Joseph Sunlight, but it’s likely that most residents don’t know who he is.
Joseph Sunlight had a vision for Manchester, one that’s evident in his art deco creation Sunlight House, on Quay Street (see the image above by Stephen Richards). The white Portland stone building stands proud on a street of unremarkable neighbours.
In 1932, at the time of being built, Sunlight House was the tallest building in the city and the first skyscraper in the North of England. Erected during the ’30s depression, when the city seemed to be set in aspic, when nothing changed, and the machinery of the industrial boom had rusted itself a place in the present. This great white hope of a building wasn’t a municipal location but merely the office of Sunlight’s property business. What’s so appealing about this place is how it’s something of an anomaly in Sunlight’s catalogue. He designed houses, and he built the elegant Sunlight House simply as a place to continue his practice of house design. This office – optimism in Portland stone – was intelligent and inspired, but in Sunlight’s mind it wasn’t complete.
The awe inspiring design stands at 14 storeys, but the architect had intended for its original reach to be more like 30. Walk down Quay Street sometime, head away from the city, in the direction of the Irwell, and take a look at this marvellous chunk of stone. It’s so permanent seeming, as if a naturally occurring monolith. Now, look up to its beautiful row of windows high above the street, see if you can spot the art deco eagles on each corner. Now consider the height and double it. Just imagine what an impact something of such size and stature could have had on Manchester.
Inside of Sunlight House a unique vacuum system was in operation that made the task of maintaining the building more manageable. A similar one can be found in Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre in which a central vacuum is plugged into by a hose via periodic holes in the skirting boards of the building. The cleaners only need carry a light, flexible hose with them and not an entire vacuuming contraption. Nothing at Sunlight House was about showing off, yet in its competence it did just that.
From all accounts is seems as though Joseph Sunlight was something of an eccentric. In in his lunch hour, in place of an attendant he would operate the high-speed lifts himself, and his wish was to be buried in a mausoleum on the roof of the building. Sadly, stories dictate that this was a wish Sunlight went to his death bed believing would be honoured, but it was never to be. Perhaps, then, it’s Joseph who is the ghost said to haunt the building – ghosting the lift shafts, traversing the floors in search of a burial place never built.
Now recall that Sunlight House of earlier, the one that’s double the height of the building we know today, and then consider this – a proposal for an extension to Sunlight House was reported in The Manchester Eyewitness on 15 August 1948, and it read:
‘Manchester Skyscraper Proposed! Plans for a Manchester skyscraper, an extension to Sunlight House, Quay Street, are to be presented to the Draft Schemes Sub-Committee. It will be twice the height of the present building, and will be built between Sunlight House and the Opera House. It will be surmounted with a large clock tower. The £1m, 35-storey, 360ft building has been designed by Mr Joseph Sunlight.’
Sunlight took his inspiration from the solid, ornate skyscrapers that dominated the Chicago skyline. Few buildings adopted this style, but, if they had, Manchester might have been a very different city. If we’d had the bravery back in the ’40s to go ahead with Sunlight’s vision, if we could alter history and reverse what is perhaps one of the city’s worst planning decisions of the time, then we might have an ultimately more gothic and intriguing city; a city unrecognisable as British, but instead a city straight off the pages of a noir fantasy – solid and white, as if furniture draped in Manchester cotton.