Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Swansea is a city full of fascinating, beautiful and iconic buildings. The architecture of Wales' second city varies from medieval to Georgian, from Victorian to some post-war creations. The oldest buildings in the city are Swansea Castle, of which the current site is from around 1290, and the Cross Keys Pub, which is from the 1330s. Of course, new buildings are being erected in the city all the time today, be it the latest student accommodation tower block on Kingsway, or the new arena being built in the city centre.
Many of the city's most stunning buildings, however, come from the glory age of Swansea, the time of Copperopolis when the town was the centre of the world's copper industry, across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries up until the First World War. That also happens to be the same window of time from which the following five buildings come from. So, in no particular order, here are five of Swansea's must beautiful buildings.
The Adelphi, Wind St (now Brewdog)
Swansea’s Wind St is full of beautiful Georgian and Victorian buildings, but perhaps the most unique is the old Adelphi Hotel, which is now a Brewdog as of late 2019. Wind St has more listed buildings than any other road in the city, and it is the street of the city centre that received the least amount of damage during the second world war, which has allowed for all of the stunning architecture to remain.
Wind St was already a stand-out street of the city anyway prior to the blitz of February 1941. The street was one of the first to develop beyond the castle's grounds during medieval times, and was always associated with businesses, trade and ale houses. With the rise of the copper smelting industry in the city from the late eighteenth century, Wind St became the business centre of the area, dominated by banks, hotels, train companies and offices. It's only as of the 20th century that it has become the nightlife centre of the city, featuring plenty of bars, restaurants and takeaways.
Despite all of that, The Adelphi is still distinctive, due to its stepped gable architecture, which makes it seem like something that should be sitting next to an Amsterdam canal. The date of its creation is not specifically known, but it was known to house a tea-dealer and grocer in 1854. It was granted a public house license though, in 1865, and underwent a heavy refurbishment by 1971 ahead of a marketing push. The venue would become synonymous with karaoke later into the twentieth century and was always a popular establishment in the city.
By now the bar has had a few different names, such as The Rat and Carrot, The Bucket List for most of the last decade, and now it is Swansea’s first Brewdog, but to many locals it will always be The Adelphi.
The bar is also famous for a story involving former undefeated World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano. The American boxer spent time in Swansea as a GI during the Second World War and he got involved in an argument at The Adelphi. Supposedly an Australian taunted him for drinking milk rather than alcohol and Rocky responded by knocking him out! He took up boxing only after the war, before becoming one of the most well known athletes in the world.
Swansea Museum is the oldest museum in the city, having originally opened in 1841, and is one of its most prominent and iconic buildings. For anyone arriving into the city from Fabian Way, you can’t help but notice its imposing, neoclassical architecture that stands out prominently in its surroundings.
The Museum was founded by the Royal Institute of South Wales (RISW), which was established in 1835. They were an outstanding group of scientists, technologists, historians and art-enthusiasts who wanted to share and extend their knowledge to the public. The building was designed to house the RISW’s array of collections as well as provide research and learning facilities. Queen Victoria was even a patroness and the RISW is still one of Wales’s oldest and most remarkable organisations today. However, the museum has changed hands in the intervening time.)
Since 1990 the museum has been under the guardianship of the City & County of Swansea, and it is a Grade-2* listed building. Swansea Museum now provides free access to six galleries with a variety of exhibits from an ancient mummy’s tomb to local pottery and temporary exhibitions on current issues and modern interests. The Museum also has a historic library relating to the collections with books and ephemera dating back to the 19th century.
Carlton Cinema, Oxford St (now Waterstones)
As mentioned, Swansea city centre was heavily bombed during World War 2, especially on the nights of 19-21 February 1941 during the Swansea Blitz. Most of Oxford St was damaged and destroyed across those days, including, for example, Swansea Market. A couple of buildings remain though, whose facades still stand proudly and elegantly along the main shopping street of the city. They include what is now Bonmarche today, and what was formerly the Carlton Cinema.
The Carlton Cinema in Oxford Street was opened on January 31st, 1914. Carlton Thea owned it when it opened, and it changed hands in 1925 to South Wales Cinemas Ltd, to Jackson Withers in 1955 and finally to Rank Organisation in 1976. However, it closed on October 29th, 1977. It remained derelict for the following two decades and was finally sold and converted into the Waterstones bookshop of today in 1996, and is now Grade II listed.
Despite changing hands many times over the year, its architectural integrity has been maintained and you can feel its history on entry to the building. It still looks like it was once a cinema, has a beautiful spiral staircase rising through the centre of the building, and contains great views of Oxford St from the cafe on the first floor.
On its exterior, the building boasts bay glass windows and ornate stonework on the first and second floors. The interior cinema auditorium was demolished and replaced by the bookstore, but it is still an impressive structure inside and out.
The old Swansea Central Library, Alexandra Road (now The Alex)
Alexandra Road was built in late Victorian times following the demolition of an area of slums in the late 1870s. One of its flagship buildings was the library and art school that was designed by Henry Holtom and opened in 1887.
Alexandra road is an often overlooked street of Swansea city centre. For many it is a route to the Swansea High St Station more than anything else, a driving street more than a walking street. However, it is one of the nicest roads in the city on its day, with BBC Cymru and the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery on one side of the street, the Student’s Union of University of Wales Trinity St. David (UWTSD) and the old Swansea Central Library building (or The Alex) on the other side.
The old Swansea Central Library is a Grade II listed building, and a florid Baroque pile of red and white stones, much like that of what is now Morgans Hotel. The magnificent Victorian structure, of the Italian classical style, contains an iconic circular reference library with a huge domed reading room, which is 7.6m tall and 26m in diameter, which still stands beautifully today. The collections provided a repository of source material for research on Swansea in particular and Wales in general.
The library was closed on November 6th 2007 and the city’s central library is now by the waterfront in the Civic Centre. Swansea Metropolitan University bought the building and with funding from the EU gave it a £9.69 million renovation, almost £5 million over the budget, in 2015. A glass, Louvre-like, wing was also added on its right hand side, which is now the main entrance where students can often be seen sitting on the steps. It is now the Swansea College of Art of UWTSD.
During the period of its closure, the building was still put to good use. The interior of the library, including the domed reading room, was used extensively by BBC Wales as a location for the Doctor Who episodes ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘Forest of the Dead’, portraying a 51st century, planet-sized data repository complex. Incidentally, they two episodes that are very much fan favourites. The titular library was portrayed by two buildings in Swansea; the old Central Library, as well as another iconic structure, Swansea Guildhall, which brings us on to our last entry, kind of...
Dylan Thomas Centre, Cambrian Place, Swansea Marina
The building we now call the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea Marina was once the main Guildhall in the city. The Guildhall today is, of course, the building which contains the Brangwyn Hall on St. Helen’s Road (which is the one that has featured in a few episodes of Doctor Who).
This building, however, was built in the 1820s once the town corporation set about creating a new Guildhall. The neighbourhood had already become quite fashionable and up-market by the early nineteenth century anyway, full of Georgian houses (some of which remain on Cambrian Place and Gloucester Place), and home to the Asssembly Rooms, a venue for high society to congregate.
When initially completed it was an elegant-looking building with a well-proportioned facade. A grand double flight of steps led to the main entrance which was at first floor level. Inside there were two court rooms, along with various smaller rooms.
As has been the case with the building for most of its life, it soon became clear that it was not big enough. Swansea had grown exponentially in the first half of the 1800s due to its prominence in heavy-industry, railways and exports, and in 1848 the decision was taken to enlarge the building and give it a new facade. When it was finished, the building looked quite different, with classical columns and increased accommodation space. Later in the nineteenth century it was embellished further with the addition of a statue of John Henry Vivian (which is now sat among the apartments of Swansea Marina opposite the National Waterfront Museum) and two Russian canons that had been captured during the Crimean War.
Eventually, a new Guildhall was created on St. Helen’s Road, and the original old building was been used for various other purposes in the twentieth century; it served as a juvenile employment centre and then as a technical college, subsequently evolving into a college of further education.
Most recently it was refurbished and christened Ty Llên when Swansea hosted the UK Year of Literature and Writing in 1995 and is now the Dylan Thomas Centre as of that same year. It is managed by the University of Wales, which has offices in the building.
There you have it, that is just five examples of Swansea's finest architecture. There were many more to choose from, and this list could easily have been longer. It was difficult to leave out buildings like the old Castle Cinema (now Lazer Zone) and Palace Theatre (now derelict), as well as the current Guildhall itself or Morgans Hotel, which were only briefly mentioned. It just goes to show how many stunning buildings have been under our noses all along.
What's your favourite building in Swansea? If you have any interesting examples, please don’t hesitate to comment below. Thanks for reading.
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