Welcome to Manchester Confidential
Reset Password
The Confidential websites will be undergoing routine updates. This may cause the sites to go offline. We apologise in advance for any inconvenience.

You are here: Manchester ConfidentialCultureArchitecture.

The Good, The Standard, The Ugly: Dial House, Salford

Jonathan Schofield looks at the thinnest Roman temple in the world on the strangest of buildings

Published on December 11th 2012.


The Good, The Standard, The Ugly: Dial House, Salford

Category: Joyously, unforgiveably, charmingly ugly. And part of a magnificently ugly group of distinguished grimness. I sort of love them for that. 

So where is Dial House? 

It's on the Salford bank of the River Irwell between Victoria Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. It faces the Renaissance Hotel on the river side, and stands on Chapel Street, land side. 

Dial House - with temple atopDial House - with temple atop

When was it built and by whom? 

I really have no idea I'm afraid. The architectural guides I possess, and they are legion, ignore it. All I can say is that since I can see the ground cleared for the building in an aerial photograph of 1926 it must have been built sometime shortly after that date to the design of a child on a slate with a wonky piece of chalk. I reckon this child always came last in art class. 

Come on, seriously, who was the architect?

I really don't know. I need to spend hours digging away in a Post Office archive somewhere because all I know is it was built as an exchange for the Post Office. They needed a major new facility for the burgeoning telephone network. The name is a pun on its use.

That aside, Dial House is an un-building, a vampire on the city architectural scene. Nobody wants to know who designed it, no design practice wants to claim it. It is so beyond the pale there are no images on Google Images of this monster building. Can you imagine?

Describe it?  

It's huge, heroic in scale. It has one of the biggest foot plates of any central Manchester and Salford building, occupying an area bigger than House of Fraser/Kendals. 

What about the way it looks?

Ah it's wonderful, so mad and bad it makes me laugh everytime I see it.

There are ten storeys on the river side, at least eight on the Chapel Street side. The style at these two ends is mostly in the butch Classical style of the twenties and earlier thirties, but handled brutally, almost angrily, as though the architect wanted nothing to do with it, but his hand had been forced. Bizarrely there is a portico - more like an elevated Roman temple - on the river side at the ninth and tenth storeys.

Dial House, on each side of the temple bit is a cute suburban home tiled roofDial House, on each side of the temple bit is a cute tiled roof that you might find in any middle-class suburb

The architect even put little Queen Anne-style, tiled roofs on each side of the elevated Roman temple. Meanwhile on the north and south faces, which couldn't be seen when built originally as buildings masked those elevations, there's a grid of concrete and glass as functional as you like with glass bricks as well. Some parts of the walls are just sheer, blank painted concrete. The architect might as well have done the whole thing like that rather than messing about with those Classical details but then he was a victim of fashion. And he was clearly angry.

Nice gridNice grid

Anything else?

Oh yes, oh my yes. The very crescendo of craziness consists of mini-bits of Roman temple hoisted nine storeys up that are about half a metre thick and appear to do nothing at all. I love our anonymous architect for doing that. I want to thank him. To make matters worse someone more recently installed aircon that resembles a rocket-launcher - see the main picture at the top of this page.

The skin deep Roman temples on the side elevations. BlessThe skin deep Roman temples on the side elevations. Bless

Do you know anything else about the building?

It still hosts the Post Office's successor telephony company, British Telecom. The latter also owns the more modern seventies buildings, joined on to the south of Dial House. The footings by the river here support a pipe jumping from the wall with an endless stream of water flooding from it. Very nineteenth century. Very strange. Maybe, and I'm winging it here, it was an outflow pipe from a pump draining the Guardian Exchange Tunnels. Draining these into the River Irwell makes sense, the river is naturally the lowest point around the city centre. 

Dumping this into the river, is it legal? Or does hint at a deeper secret.Dumping this into the river, is it legal? Or does it hint at a deeper secret.

What are the Guardian Exchange Tunnels? 

They were the communications system built in the fifties in case of atomic attack by the Soviets. The Manchester and Salford network went as deep as 180ft and was controlled from the main exchange building on York Street (now New York Street). Dial House was the destination for an underground spur more than a mile long. Some tunnel. BT now use these redundant chambers for cabling. Almost as soon as they were built they were useless as they weren't deep enough for nuclear attack.

There's a good eyewitness account on the Mancubist blog from a man called Barry: 'I visited Guardian in the mid '70s when I was an apprentice in the GPO. We entered the tunnels via the cable chamber in Irwell (i.e. Dial) House, Chapel Street through a vertical shaft via staggered galvanised steel stair cases secured on criss-cross platforms of the same material. It seemed to take ages to get to the bottom and then we walked through signposted tunnels (tubular, about seven feet in diameter, with a flat bottom) with cable bearers on either side. We finally made it to Piccadilly and surfaced in the Telephone Buildings in York St. An exciting experience.'

Thanks Barry.

One last point.

You want to go down there?

Yes. I want to publish a polite request to BT about Dial House.

Dear BT, could I have a tour please? Dial House is one hell of a massive building and I would love to pry into its inner recesses, maybe take a sneak peak down into the Guardian Exchange Tunnels.

Oh and I reckon you should sell that top Roman Temple bit for a special discount to somebody who has at last pointed out your fine building in Manchester's finest magazine - could I have it way below market value, say, about £40.

Proper Gotham City that top Classical deck. It'd be great to sit on the roof there and plot against the inevitable return of that insufferable goody-two-shoes Batman.

Look at the sheer scale of the thing hereLook at the sheer scale of the thing here

Dial House's preposterous facade on Chapel StreetDial House's preposterous facade on Chapel Street

Dial House from the north showing how later demolition revealed its blank side

 

Dial House from the north showing how later demolition revealed its blank side, bizarrely as I took this picture a bus that could be from the 1930s was turning right

Dial House, and that overflow under the vicious seventies neighbourDial House, and that overflow under the vicious seventies neighbour

Like what you see? Enter your email to sign up for our newsletters which are chock-a-block with more great reviews, news, deals and savings.

33 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousAugust 7th 2012.

That water pipe has for years intrigued me... what's it for?

1 Response: Reply To This...
ConmanAugust 7th 2012.

I think its a water pipe.

AnonymousAugust 7th 2012.

Wow, brilliant. Always wondered what this mysterious building was - now I know. Never appreciated quite how big it is (its not at all obvious that it extends from Chapel St through to the Irwell), nor that it features classical detailing. I guess given the time and the right view to study it properly I might have realised these things. But tucked away, probably used by few people and overwhelmed by its big brutal neighbours, this building has remained a fleeting but persistent curiosity. A fascinating read and some really great photography. Thanks!

Look upAugust 8th 2012.

Amazing Jonathan - thank you! I encourage visitors and anyone who lives here to "look up" and see more when wandering around. And yet I have never even noticed this building!

You might ruffle a few feathers 'exposing' Dial House if this does have a connection to the guardian tunnel. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if you DON'T get the tour you're after. But if you do how about taking me along?!

I work near the ventilation shaft/entrance in China town (between St James Street and George Street) and always bore people with my explanations of the tunnels' history.

Here's a question, the chimney of the Old Police station on Lever St looks distinctly similar to the ventilation shaft, could there be a connection?? And what about the air raid shelters under Kendals, are they still there??(OK that's 2 questions).

Thanks again, brilliant article.

1 Response: Reply To This...
WessexJune 18th 2014.

One of the tunnels from Guardian runs West down to Dial House. Another runs East to a vent in Ancoats. This really was a massive underground project for the '50s

paulsouthernAugust 8th 2012.

The top of that portico was home to some very special birdies the last couple of years too!

2 Responses: Reply To This...
J BAugust 8th 2012.

Yep . here is a view from the roof
http://www.ustream.tv/channel/livenest

Calum McGSeptember 7th 2012.

They look like flying rats to me??

Marc DaleAugust 8th 2012.

You'd think some Manchester or Salford politician, would at some time have stood on Victoria Bridge, looked out onto that pipe and this whole ugly, city centre riverside aspect - and thought "hey we've got to do something about this"?
Where is our Boris?

8 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousAugust 8th 2012.

Good point. But the city is thoroughly agnostic about planning and good urban design in particular. The one shining exception to this was the post bomb masterplan. Everything prior to and since then has largely been left to the vagaries of the market, regardless of the social or economic consequences. Thus we end up with a small amount of good stuff outweighed by the bad and the ugly.

It will take one hell of a strong leader to overturn a culture as ingrained as 'lassez faire' is in Manchester.

Phil MurphyAugust 8th 2012.

It is an excellent point. It's not like they've got anything else to do. Pat K could be put in charge of the department of discharging pipes. A budget of a couple of million and they'd be able to thoroughly investigate every discharging pipe over the next ten years for a mere twenty million. Money well spent.

AnonymousAugust 8th 2012.

So what is it about Manchester then, that say unlike Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle & London - we produce no local politicians who ever seem to give a damn about good urban design?

We do produce politicians though who seem to think that only "middle class tossers from Cheshire" care about good architecture! (Mention no names, see above.)

AnonymousAugust 8th 2012.

The answer, anonymous #2 is that few cities are as starkly segregated as Manchester, economically and socially speaking. Those that have the time and resources to give a toss about abstract stuff like good urban design are Manchester's disposa; those that now inhabit the outer reaches of Greater Manchester and Cheshire but whose ancestors made their money from the industry and commerce from the less salubrious environs of inner city Manchester; and whose prosperity now depends the city's ability to continue to attract creative, talented and entrepreneurial people rather than merely cheap labour alone.

The city needs to re-connect with its hinterland as a matter of priority... for the continuing benefit of the whole city-region. And planning has a massive role to play if only the upper echelons in the city would wake up and realise this.

AnonymousAugust 8th 2012.

*dispora rather than disposa! Not a Freudian mistake, I promise!

AnonymousAugust 9th 2012.

To be fair, you might also add the Hulme design guidelines to the very short list of enlightened design-led planning initiatives in the city. Highly successful they were too for as long as they lasted. No surprise they were eventually abandoned, not followed through anywhere else and learning never embedded - total anathema to the Bernsteinian model of development.

SmittyAugust 9th 2012.

All these anonymous commentators who seem to know so much...

But in answer to Marc Dale's original point:

http://www.irwellriverpark.com/

Calum McGSeptember 7th 2012.

Marc, good point well raised. We seemingly have few or dare I say no high-profile design champions in our city. Ken (I think he had a '100 parks' scheme and Boris both did/do care. Perhaps Richard Leese should shout louder or perhaps we should have an elected major (an idea sadly rejected only in May...).

NeilAugust 8th 2012.

My mum used to work here in the 50s and early 60s when she was in her early 20s. She was a telephonist putting calls through. She remembers taking the first calls about the Munich air disaster.

Whenever we drove past this building we'd always here another story about running for the bus after work or going out to dance at lunch time. She used to talk about a tunnel under the building - I will press her for more info.

Phil MurphyAugust 8th 2012.

JS - that missile launcher looks suspiciously like the exhaust pipe of a back up generator - comms places tend to need fairly chunky ones.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousAugust 9th 2012.

Spot on! It is one of 6 exhausts on the top of the building. I've worked here every day for the last 9 years, was a surprise seeing this article! It was right in saying that the water pipe is a pump from the Guardian tunnels. I went down there about 5 years ago. Nothing much to see now except cables and 2 defunct diesel generators, you could still see scorch marks on the walls from the fire in 2004 though. Unfortunately I didn't have a camera with me at the time!

WessexJune 17th 2014.

There were/are 4 x 12 cylinder diesel engine in the basement. That massive exhaust silencer is still in view if you go to google maps satellite view.

AnonymousAugust 10th 2012.

My dad worked there until a few years ago. I've been inside the building as a child. It is enormous. My dad never said anything about the tunnels until a few months ago. I will quiz him about their cold war purpose at some point. Intriguing!

1 Response: Reply To This...
WessexJune 17th 2014.

Built to withstand A Bomb attack, but whilst being built the H Bomb was created. The A bomb would flatten structures above ground but the H Bomb would also cause massive craters rendering Guardian useless in an H Bomb attack. 10 years after completion it was declassified. One of the worse kept secrets in Manchester.

Mrs DAugust 11th 2012.

A brilliant rant.

To save you the bother of long hours in the Post Office archives I add the following -

Built by J Gerrard and Sons of Swinton and deemed the world’s largest Telephone Exchange when it became operational early in 1930, Dial House was designed to house Manchester’s new automatic telephone equipment. With a frontage of 110 feet to the river, a depth of 265 feet from the river to the Chapel Street front, the Exchange occupies a total site area of 3,250 square yards. The building rises nine storeys above the basement. reaching 162 feet above the normal river level on one side and 138 feet above street level on the other. (By comparison, Ship Canal House reaches 141 feet above King Street). Its space content - five acres of floor space and 3,382,137 cubic feet content - far exceeded that of any similar city building at the time.

Nominally, the architect was Sir Richard John Allison, chief architect, HM Office of Works, London, although it was no doubt designed by members of his staff. Being a Crown Building (as were all Post Offices and GPO Telephone Exchanges up to at least the 1960's), it was never subject to local planning regulations, the Commissioners of H M Office of Works, being answerable only to Parliament.

The exchange towered above its Chapel Street neighbours - a mere two storeys on the right and a four or five storey block on the left. Most of the side elevations were therefore exposed from the outset, and it is curious that these should have been given so different an elevational treatment to those of the Chapel Street and river frontages..

Perhaps the success of Dial House should be measured by its unobtrusiveness; that so large a building has existed almost unnoticed by the vast majority for over 80 years.

Look upAugust 13th 2012.

Great point.

"Perhaps the success of Dial House should be measured by its unobtrusiveness; that so large a building has existed almost unnoticed by the vast majority for over 80 years."

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousAugust 14th 2012.

Well I suppose "unobtrusive" is at least better than "plain ugly", but shouldn't Manchester/Salford be a little bit more aspirational than that? (And especially for a city centre riverside setting!)

AnonymousSeptember 22nd 2012.

does anyone know what this building is for?

http://goo.gl/maps/I1jR7

Anony MouseJanuary 12th 2013.

Don't think the draining of the guardian exchange can be the right explanation for that pipe. Take a look at this picture from before guadian exchange or Dial House were built:

www.prints-online.com/…/river_irwell_583447.jpg…

AnonymousSeptember 15th 2013.

I worked in this building as a GPO telephonist from 1971 Until 1976. I worked in Chapelgate exchange which I think was on the 5th floor and Cathedral exchange 2 floors higher and the dining room in between. The locker / shower rooms were on the 4th and were at the back of the building overlooking the river irwell. The floors below were for the engineers. The upper floors were for the unseen higher management who as in my role as advance staffing clerk I had the privilege of speaking with! The interior was a sideways layout with two lift shafts one being to the front of the building near chapel st and the other at the river end. I remember talk about the tunnels. There was a beautiful wooden reception area. Loved the place.. Happy days

WessexJune 17th 2014.

I started work at the GPO in 1966 as a Trainee Technician Apprentice. I was trained mainly as an engineer in the EL&P department which was responsible for building and power maintenance. I qualified in 1969 and became a Technical Officer in 1971 when the new Irwell House was built next to Dial House. I specialised in Lift Maintenance initially and then spent three years at York Street Exchange responsible for the maintenance of the electrical supplies and power for the telephone equipment. I returned to Dial house in 1976 and during one night shift when I couldn't get to sleep (everyone slept on nights in them days) I decided to look for another job. I left in 1977 to work as an Engineer Surveyor for MMI and later Zurich Insurance. I left Zurich in 2001 and started my own Driving School and later specialised in Automatic Tuition which is thriving. I met and married my first wife whilst we worked at Dial House. The 4th floor telephonists worked in Millgate exchange on the 4th floor, at the River end and the Power Room and Television control room was on the Street end of the building. The 5th floor housed the canteen and the 6th floor housed the EL&P workshop and mess room. The 7th floor housed Chapelgate telephonists at the River side of the building and Cathedral telephonists at the Street side. I divorced and remarried in the early '90s and moved to Dorset where I still live. I have fond memories of Manchester and the GPO Dial House and Guardian Exchange. I still have a couple of photographs I took of the engine room. It had it's own artesian well although it used to silt up regularly so it was not used much to obtain water for the bunker relying on MCC mains fed water.

WessexJune 17th 2014.

The huge size of the building housed the old Strauger mechanical switch gear for routing and connecting telephone calls. Now the exchanges are electronic a fraction of the space is needed to house the equipment but hundreds of miles of cable is still used and the thought of pulling down the building is a non starter because of the total and utter disruption of the telecoms. Cheaper to pay rates and maintenance on the building rather than start afresh.

AnonymousDecember 1st 2014.

Margaret - my father was working at Dial House during the war when it was hit and he went up to the roof to try to put out the fire. Later on he was in charge of Prestwich Telephone Exhange in Sedgley Park where he took me inside when I was a young girl (the noise was deafening). I went inside Dial House last week and saw the central staircase and reminisced about Manchester in general with the concierge who was more than helpful and very obliging

AnonymousJanuary 20th.

I started work at Dial House in 1946, as a trainee telephonist . Did any body else work at the telephone exchange in the 40s/50s

To post this comment, you need to login.Please complete your login information.
OR CREATE AN ACCOUNT HERE..
Or you can login using Facebook.

Latest Rants

Anonymous

I started work at Dial House in 1946, as a trainee telephonist . Did any body else work at the…

 Read more
Anonymous

I'm sure it will happen over time, the sprawling suburbs will start to creep back towards the city…

 Read more
Anonymous

To digress a little but in a similar mindset,why has nobody done anything about regenerating…

 Read more
James Smith

I'm basically saying that 2 peters square is set to be an equivalent North tower. But at least that…

 Read more

Explore The Site

© Mark Garner t/a Confidential Direct 2017

Privacy | Careers | Website by: Planet Code | SEO by The eWord