The Dingles building was designed by Thomas Tait, well known for his buildings of the 1930s such as St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, The Daily Telegraph office in London, and the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Dingles was one of the earliest post-war constructions in Plymouth, and the first building to mark the boundaries of Armada Way, Royal Parade and New George Street. It was also the first major post-war department store to open in Britain, and the first in the South West to be fitted with escalators. Dingles is important because it perhaps the perfect example of the fact that the architecture in Plymouth is neither classical nor modernist. While there are examples of the Beaux-arts training Tait received, the building also has a strong reference to the modernist movement and is often regarded as a modernist building.Dingles under construction

The construction of the building took place between 1949 and 1951 – the store actually opening on September 1st 1951. There were originally three storeys, with a four storey tower at the Royal Parade entrance to balance the tower of the Guildhall and the towers of the impending Civic Centre and Pearl Assurance House buildings. Portland stone was used to clad the exterior, with exception to the Ham Stone columns which can be seen on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd storeys.

The geometry of the Dingles building is relatively simple when compared to earlier Plymouth buildings (such as The Duke of Cornwall Hotel) and is quite typical of Tait’s modernist architecture. The continual lines that run the length of the building were intended to provide a referential point for the next buildings along each street, fitting in with Patrick Abercrombie’s idea in the 1943 Plan for Plymouth that blocks of buildings should be treated as a whole, rather than separate entities. There are features of the Beaux arts (or classical features) such as the Stone carvings on the Royal Parade elevations and in the shop interior (next to the escalators), and the round orb on the fourth storey, visible in New George street. A much unknown fact about Dingles is that there is an Edwardian management suite that was removed from an Edwardian house during the Blitz, put into storage, and replaced in to Dingles.

In 1960, another storey was added to the building (actually designed by Tait’s firm). It originally covered half of the floor space, but was expanded to cover all of the floor space in the mid 1960s (c. 1963-1964). Around this time, a glass restaurant was built in to extra space on the 3rd storey Armada Way-Royal Parade corner. Then, in 1975 (when House of Fraser took over the Dingles name), another complete storey was added, taking the total to 5. In December 1988, a serious fire completely destroyed the 4th and 5th storeys (they were made of wood and glass), and badly damaged the rest of the store. The store was refurbished, and top two floors rebuilt by 1989.

Unfortunately, the extensions, and their re-construction after the fire, have created a now awkward looking building, with juxtapositions of materials from the 1950s, 1960s, and late 1980s. The cream coloured panels and UPVC glazing of the 1980s detract from the Portland Stone and thin metal glazing of the 1950s, and the glass restaurant of the 1960s is noticeably incongruous, spoiling the continuity of the exterior geometry. Despite a recent interior refurbishment, the building exterior remains unchanged, and no attempt has been made to present the best of the building’s architecture.  However, the original intentions of Thomas Tait are still clear to see, and Dingles remains as one of the few 1950s buildings in Plymouth that is not under immediate threat of demolition.

Text and above picture by Graham Hobbins    click here to e-mail Graham