photo report: the morning after the majestic fireBack
The Majestic fire started very quietly, and I was wondering what the fuss was all about.
The sight of the Majestic roof ablaze grabbed the headlines later, but you probably missed the best part; the noirish view of a deserted Quebec Street, the Hollywood smoke effect making the great stone edifice of the Queens Hotel not so much tower as haunt. It would have been a great night to bump off a gangster rival in the alleys between Quebec Street and Wellington Street.
It didn’t look like much then. “I don’t know what’s going on inside,” I said in a text message around 8.30pm. “But it’s just a bit of smoke out here.” I walked around the building and, even with the police cordon in place, I could have reached out to touch the Majestic’s side, given it a reassuring pat. “It’ll be okay,” I didn’t say. “Nothing to worry about.”
It’s a good job I didn’t say that, because if those walls could have talked they would have said, “Are you bloody kidding?”
Once the fire had broken through the roof it was eerie to watch its slow progress. This was a blaze without any particular need to hurry. The fire in the roof steadily grew, and the cordon moved people steadily further away, and the fire brigade steadily fought back, and the Majestic was steadily destroyed.
I was joined for a while by a friend from the planning department. He’d worked on the conversion, back in the nineties, from bingo hall to nightclub; he’d worked more recently with Rushbond to find a new use for the building. “I’ve never experienced this before,” he said. “A building I’ve been intimately involved with, ending up like…”
We began listing all the things inside that could be burning. Built around an auditorium, much of the Majestic is a big void – how can a void be on fire? But then there are the back of house offices, the plant rooms, the balconies, the stairs, the decorations.
And the roof. The supporting structure didn’t quite collapse – I’m not sure if Mr P. J. Stienlet designed it to be steel or timber, but whatever it was it buckled and twisted but held as the slates were stripped away.
It was unspectacular. The flames gradually moved east, and the slates gradually disappeared. With no traffic and no crowds the night was oddly quiet, so much so that when one slate fell to the pavement rather than into the building, its shattering fall came as a shock.
That was an early sign that the long impasse, while the fire got no visibly worse but no visibly closer to being out, was about to be broken in the flames’ favour. Around 11pm the roof firmly took alight and for twenty minutes what had been sad and awful became spectacular and dangerous. The fire brigade’s aerial platforms and long ladders didn’t steadily move from spot to spot, but instead manoeuvred at pace while the flames out-manoeuvred them, rising to around thirty feet above the level of the roof as the fire raged out of control.
Try as they might, the firefighters couldn’t get to the source; the sheer stone walls of the Majestic withstood the heat, but they were also a barrier the brigade couldn’t break. Jets of water were concentrated on four top floor windows, but none would give; firefighters ascended ladders with hammers to have at them, but still none would give.
Above the hum of machinery and the fire’s crackle, it was their frustrated oaths that cut through the air, those and the announcements of a self-appointed town-crier who arrived around ten; “Excuse me!” he yelled at passers by; “The New Majestic’s burning! It’s gone, gone!”
It isn’t, not quite. But it’ll never again be what it was, as if it ever could have been. In City Square at the end of the night, a few young lads came over to me – “Was anybody hurt?” they asked, “Was there anybody inside?” No, I told them; it was an empty building, I’d seen no ambulances leaving. “Ah, that’s good,” they said, and there their interest ended. Which is probably right and proper; it’s a relief that nobody was hurt. But even so. The Majestic. The New Majestic.
Not everyone might share that feeling of regret at the damage done. It’s quite a modern worry. One of the surprising things I found out when researching the history of City Square for a feature on Leeds Art Crawl for The City Talking 15 was the callous attitude Colonel Thomas Harding took to the buildings his square replaced.
Near where the Majestic now – just – stands today, the Coloured Cloth Hall once stood, but it was bought by the city and swept away in the name of progress. In one of the many speeches Harding made to celebrate the opening of the new square in 1903, he referred to that old Cloth Hall – “regarding which we need not waste any artistic regrets” – to much laughter from the audience, laughter that we’d find hard to believe should someone suggest a similar demolition today. It was the largest damn building in Georgian Leeds, for crying out loud, the rival of any of its kind in Europe!
But if the Coloured Cloth Hall hadn’t been demolished, the Old Post Office wouldn’t have been built – although it’s worth noting that the Yorkshire Post’s editors hated that, too; an “inartistic building” that was “inflicted on the city.”
The Majestic would probably never have been built either, and nobody would have ever watched films there, danced there, fallen in love there, fallen out of love there, fought there or laughed there; or walked into City Square this morning and been struck into silence by the sight of the burned Majestic.
The Majestic fire started very quietly, and the building is very quiet again now. When things are quiet, though, is when you can hear your heartbeat; you hear a reminder to love.
Photos by Shang-Ting Peng // Words by Daniel Chapman