Hundreds of former students of Newcastle University gathered in the city last weekend for a reunion, with a programme of happenings laid on.
But the Rev John Latham, who studied at Newcastle from 1968-71, had lined up a particular event of his own.
He was given access to a building where he attended his archaeology lectures for a memory-evoking private tour.
It must have been an effort to maintain his concentration on the lecturer, for the interior of the Bruce building has not been described as “monumental” for nothing.
“It is a superb building, and I remembered its grandeur. I wanted to see it again for nostalgia’s sake,” said the Rev Latham, who lives in Birmingham.
The building on Percy Street, overlooking the Haymarket, was previously owned by Newcastle University and a 999-year lease was sold a year ago to Michigan Investments Limited, who organised the tour for John Latham. The developer plans a sympathetic conversion of part of the building into 60 student apartments.
In the latter years of the 19th Century, Newcastle Breweries decided on a headquarters which would reflect the company’s standing in the city and the wider region. The result was the Bruce building, constructed between 1896 and 1900.
It is composed of three blocks, one of which is listed, with the other two on the city council’s Local List of structures of interest.
Heritage documents describe it as having “stunning interiors with much of the original ornate faience tiling, decorative plaster ceilings, carved oak panels, stained glass and marble fireplaces still being intact”.
The Rev Latham and his fellow archaeology students attended lectures in rooms on the first floor which were originally the Newcastle Breweries chairman’s domain and the board room.
He recalls using “a fantastic Edwardian Bathroom on the first floor – fitted with tiles, ceramics, bath and shower”.
Coincidentally, the university’s Structural Images of the North East (SINE) project, which produced a comprehensive archive of images celebrating the structural heritage of the North East, was based in the Bruce Building.
Its description of the Bruce building talks about an “imposing” three-storey building constructed of red Dumfriesshire sandstone and red bricks from Commondale, North Yorkshire, on a grey granite plinth, with much Jacobean carved ornament and a corbelled turret with copper fishscale dome.
If that made for an impressive exterior, then the interior went one better.
It is described as having a “bold neo-Baroque style with stunning faience tiling throughout the ground and first floor”.
Decorative plaster ceilings are in all rooms and carved mahogany panelling and doors line managers’ offices and the first-floor board room.
Most principal rooms have magnificent stained-glass windows, incorporating depictions of hops within the design.
In the entrance foyer, a grand marble staircase with wrought iron handrails, leads upstairs from elaborate mosaic-tiled floors.
The entrance hall, the arcaded clerks’ and accountant’s offices and the first-floor corridor, with other ancillary rooms, are all faced in faience tiles supplied by Burmantofts, mainly in turquoise, buff and pale yellow, with a fine Newcastle Breweries logo panel.
It wasn’t just the bosses who worked in grand surroundings. So did the clerks. The clerks’ office contains several elaborately decorated fireplaces and three impressive tiled archways which open on to the main body of the room.
The tile work in this room is more art nouveau in style than that within the entrance hall area. English Heritage note this type of interior tile scheme, often included in late 19th Century bank, insurance company and utilities offices, is a unique survival in a brewery context.
The building’s interior also includes oak floors and mahogany doors and panelling.
As well as housing offices, the Bruce Building and surrounding brewery complex contained a mineral water works, beer-bottling plant and wine and spirit stores in the basement. There was also a stable for 36 horses, a blacksmith’s forge, coopers’ and joiners’ shops.
An engine and boiler house provided enough current to light the entire premises, work the hoists, operate ventilators and run all the equipment in the mineral water factory.
Under the stable yard were cellars, which were reached via the brewery’s bonded warehouse in nearby St Thomas’s Street.
Even at the rear of the building the surprises continue, as there is a small external cylindrical tower siting on a plinth at first-floor level in the back yard, which is believed to be a rare Second World War firewatcher’s post.
Commercial uses, including the Hotspur pub – which will remain – have occupied the ground floor for more than 100 years.
The proposal is to convert the first, second and loft levels of two of the blocks and the second level of the third into studio student apartments.
The new uses proposed for the listed part of the building will involve the minimal amount of intrusion to the existing internal fabric of the building, while restoring parts that have been damaged due to the introduction of modern services before the building was listed in 1987.
Director of Newcastle-based Michigan Investments Mark Walton is also managing director of Walton Robinson lettings and estate agency.
He says: “Michigan Investments have acquired an exceptional historic building which is under utilised and requires sympathetic refurbishment to bring it back to its former glory.
“The project will transform the exterior and interior producing an exciting mixed-use development. We are looking forward to seeing the finished article vastly improve the landscape at this end of the city.”