Newcastle’s ‘stately’ department store described as ‘a palace of commerce’

It was 1932 – a time marked by the Great Depression, mass unemployment and widespread hardship.

But unhappiness and sadness were not universal. In popular culture, Hollywood was booming with the emergence of new stars such as John Wayne, Bette Davis, Bing Crosby and Jean Harlow. (Indeed, Newcastle’s Odeon Cinema – the region’s finest cinema – had opened a year earlier in 1931 and many more would soon follow in the North East). In football, Newcastle United won the FA Cup for the third time, beating Arsenal at Wembley Stadium. And shopping was on the rise with a host of new department stores opening in Newcastle city centre.

Despite the prevailing economic difficulties, Northumberland Street saw Marks & Spencer, British Home Stores and C&A unveil new outlets in 1932, while just across town on Newgate Street the Co-operative opened a huge department store in the same year.

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90 years ago local newspapers described it as ‘stately’ and ‘a palace of commerce’ – adding that ‘Newcastle Co-operative Society’s new skyscraper’ was being built in two stages. Hundreds of company members attended the first opening in early September 1932, and by Christmas shoppers flocked to the store’s various departments which included “Grocery and Provisions”, “Butcher Shop”, ” confectionery” and “drugs”.

The co-op is still with us today, but by the 20th century most cities and towns in the northeast had their own co-op outlet or “store” selling every conceivable good and service. Newgate Street had housed co-op premises since 1902 and the early days of the movement, but despite the emergence of Northumberland Street as Newcastle’s main shopping area in the 1920s and 30s, the co-op decided to stay on Newgate Street.

The new Premier Inn opened in the former Co-op building on Newgate Street, Newcastle in 2016

The co-op’s in-house architect, LG Ekins, designed the new store, using many of the internal and external Art Deco features that characterized the interwar period. Classical and Egyptian styles also appeared in design. With its twin towers, soaring curves and huge windows offering city views, the now-iconic building was considered Newcastle’s most elegant shopping centre. At 170,000 square feet and spread over six floors connected by marble-lined staircases, it was the ultimate retail experience.

But over time, as tastes and fashions changed, shoppers increasingly moved to Northumberland Street and, later, to the new shopping centers at Eldon Square and the Metrocentre in Gateshead. In 1998, the Rainbow Rooms nightclub, located on the third floor of the Co-op building, closed after more than 30 years. Then in 2007 the store itself – except for the ground floor food hall – closed after 75 years.

Finally, in 2011, this final section of the once imperious Co-op store at 117 Newgate Street closed. It was the end of an era. Today the building is home to a Premier Inn which opened in 2016 after a five-year, £17million redesign. Some of the Co-op’s original architectural features live on in the popular hotel.