Park Hill flats behind Sheffield station are Britain’s biggest Grade II* listed building. They’ve been called a crumbling eyesore, streets in the sky and the most ambitious inner city development of their time. This is their history.
Park Hill is the area from Park Square roundabout, up Duke Street and on the hill behind Sheffield station.
Cholera, typhus, no sewerage system, one standpipe per hundred people… the Park area of Sheffield had the worst slums in Sheffield in the 19th century.
The area consisted of old quarries, waste ground, steep alleyways and back-to-back terraces around courtyards, but 19th century public health acts called for Britain’s slums to be cleared.
Slum clearance resumed was paused during World War Two and restarted afterwards. Park Hill was the first successful slum clearance scheme of an entire community in Britain after the war.
Construction started in 1957 and when the flats were completed in 1961 they were hailed as the most ambitious inner city development of their time.
Their ultra-modern design was inspired by French architect Le Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation – similar ‘streets in the sky’ in Marseille.
To maintain the strong sense of community, neighbours were re-homed next door to each other, old street names were re-used (Gilbert Row, Long Henry Now, Norfolk Row and so on) and cobbles from the terraced streets were used to surround the flats and pave the pathways down the hill to Sheffield station and tramlines.
The flats also employed an early example of recyclable energy when they were built back in the 1960s. A district heating system was installed whereby almost all rubbish could be put down a chute in the sink for it to be mashed up and converted to electricity in the bowels of the flats!
Butcher, baker and candlestick maker
The original Park Hill development consisted of nearly 1000 flats as well as four pubs, plenty of shops (butcher, baker, bookie, laundrette, upholsterer, hardware shop, wallpaper shop, off licence, newsagent, fish & chip shop, gents & ladies hairdresser) as well as a nursery, primary school, community centre, garages, doctor’s surgery, pharmacy and dentist’s.
Built on one of Sheffield’s seven hills, the flats were designed so that the roof line remains level despite the steeply sloping site. At the highest point of Park Hill (by Talbot Street), the flats are four stories high – but at the bottom north end by Park Square roundabout, they’re pretty high-rise at 13 stories.
A team of 12 caretakers employed by the council lived on-site until 2003, on-call 24 hours a day to look after the building, pick up litter, collect rubbish, mend, fix, mow and more.
‘Like being in heaven’
Lots of people loved living in Park Hill; “it’s like being in heaven” said one early resident, while another said, “people look at us up here and think we live in a slum. They don’t realise that I live in a penthouse looking out over the city.”
And Park Hill certainly has amazing views. You can see everything from Bramall Lane and Abbeydale Rd mosque to the Arts Tower and the Hallamshire Hospital, to the ski village. And beyond all that, the Peak District and Derbyshire Hills.
Or a bit hellish?
But by the 1980s Park Hill had become dilapidated and was no longer a popular place to live. Poor noise insulation, badly lit walkways and plenty of passages and alleys made perfect getaways for muggers.
Horror stories abounded: tales of drugs and muggings galore and even sniper-style air-gun shootings of children in their primary school playground.
But residents and caretakers, in particular Grenville Squires, believe that Park Hill had bad press and that many of the things it was accused of were actually stories from other notorious Sheffield estates like Hyde Park and Kelvin.
“It was an easy scapegoat”, said Grenville. “People can see it from town and so attribute all that bad stuff to Park Hill.”
Grenville’s ‘grand old lady’
To Grenville, Park Hill is a grand old lady who has “come on hard times. She just wants to wash her face and put on a new frock, and she’ll be out there!”
He affectionately calls the place his mistress: “She’s the only lady that’s called me from the marital bed at two in the morning and made demands,” he says.
Famed for his poetry, tv and radio appearances, and recently immortalised in a portrait by Urban Splash’s resident artist Gary Hindley, Grenville lived on the estate as a resident caretaker for 22 years and brought up his family there.
He retired as caretaker in January 2010 after 28 years service, and has many anecdotes – including saving the life of a resident who had collapsed against the inside of his front door and catching an escaped parakeet by climbing through the toilet window of a vacant flat.
Now settled in Manor Park, Grenville will not be saying goodbye completely to the Park Hill he loves.
“I’ll come down and see the old girl because she’s a lovely old lass. I think the community spirit will come back because of the way the flats are built, with the decked access. Sheffield people will talk to someone at a bus stop who they’ve never seen before in their life.”
Demolition v resurrection
The flats were Grade II* listed in 1998 so they cannot be demolished. Development company Urban Splash won the contract to return the estate to its former glory over the next few years. They say they wouldn’t want it to be knocked down even if it could be:
“What would we put in its place? We accept that Park Hill has its flaws but we believe, warts and all, it’s better than a lot of the mediocrity that is defining our cities.
“And it’s actually cheaper to keep Park Hill and refurbish it than if we built it new, by a good margin. If you demolished Park Hill you’d have enough landfill to fill four football stadia.
“Besides, getting rid of it is not a ‘sustainable’ solution, when it can be saved, repaired and made good again. All it needs is to be loved.”