Corsets and codes at Spirella in Letchworth
PUBLISHED: 17:01 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013
Louise McEvoy takes a look at Letchworth's magnificent Spirella Building through the decades
THE imposing Spirella Building on Bridge Road in Letchworth Garden City was built in three phases between 1912 and 1920 as the famous Spirella Corset Company's factory.
Its founder, American entrepreneur William Wallace Kincaid, commissioned architect Cecil Hignett to design a state-of-the-art factory which provided a great environment in which his workers could be happy and productive and it became known as The Factory of Beauty. Although an extension and outbuildings were built in 1939, it was not to the same standard of Hignett's original design.
The company was one of the town's biggest and most influential employers, with about 2,000 people working there up until the 1950s, and it was extremely important to the town's economy.
Shirley Green, who now lives in Bishop's Stortford, worked for the Spirella Corset Company from 1954 to 1963. She says, 'They were the best years of my life. Everybody was so friendly. We all helped each other and if we had a difficult job others would lend a hand. In the main, we were very, very happy and Letchworth was a lovely area to live in.' Mrs Green, who also modelled the corsets, remembers, 'It was a massive place so it was thriving with noise when the machines were going. We used to have the radio on and we would all sing along.'
Only customised corsets were made by the company and corsetieres were sent to customers' homes to take measurements and specific order requirements. Mrs Green explains, 'Being made-to-measure, the corsets were rather expensive but you couldn't have had anything more perfect. I couldn't afford to buy one because it would have cost me two weeks wages.'
The company made garments for the rich and famous, including Marilyn Monroe and Mae West, and Mrs Green remembers being shown three finished corsets for Marilyn - a black, a white and a peach one - and thinks she wore the black one in The Prince and the Showgirl.
During World War II the Irving Airchute Company, in addition to its factory on Icknield Way in Letchworth, moved its production of parachutes to the Spirella because the demand was so great.
Also at the Spirella during WWII, women working for the Letchworth-based British Tabulating Machine Company produced components to make decoding machines called Bombes, which deciphered the Enigma machine developed and patented by German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of World War I to send messages in Morse Code.
In the 1960s there was less demand for corsets as fashions changed and during the 1970s staff numbers decreased until the company left Letchworth in the early 1980s.
In 1979 the Spirella had become a Grade II listed building but between 1980 and 1994 it changed hands a number of times and none of these landlords invested in the building. By 1994 it had fallen into such disrepair that less than 20 per cent of the floor space was fit for occupation and that year the Letchworth Garden City Corporation, the predecessor to Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, purchased the building. The following year the Heritage Foundation took over ownership and management of the Letchworth Estate and in 1997 started work on an 11m restoration of the Spirella.
The construction of the main building was completed in the autumn of 1998 and in 1999 HRH the Prince of Wales formally reopened the building, which comprised more than 80,000 sq ft of office space, leading edge IT facilities, conference rooms, a caf and a gymnasium. The project went on to win the UK Property Innovation of the Year award at the Property Week Oscars. Land beyond the car park was cleared for a second office building, Spirella 2, which was completed in the spring of 2000 and the following year the front gardens were redesigned, providing disabled access at the front of the building for the first time.
Stuart Kenny, director general of the Heritage Foundation, says, 'Let's be clear, the Spirella redevelopment was very high risk. There didn't seem to be a surveyor in Hertfordshire, indeed beyond, who thought that we were other than barking mad for bringing over 80,000 sq ft of office space onto the market in a 'non-office' town.
'From the outset, we knew we had to make the building very special and we achieved that through its unique IT offer. Essentially, tenants could 'plug in and play', and pay on a per sq ft basis with the total comfort of service level agreements which passed the responsibility for solving any problems squarely to the Foundation.
'The building has proved to be a huge success in lettings investment and regeneration terms, and the Spirella is also used by the public, who can hire the ballroom.'
The Spirella today is home to about 20 thriving businesses.