They could be scenes straight out of the American TV show Mad Men.
But these extraordinary black and white photographs don’t show the high-flying world of advertising executives in 1960s New York. Instead they feature the creative genius behind Staying Cool’s iconic Rotunda home, James A. Roberts, redefining Birmingham at the height of the Swinging Sixties.
The rare photographs of the architect James A. Roberts and his stunning penthouse office on the top two floors of Rotunda were discovered after we delved into the city’s photography archives.
They’re part of a treasure trove of images unearthed while carrying out research at the Library of Birmingham for Creative Heights II, our year-long celebration to mark Staying Cool’s 15 years in the city. It’s designed to showcase Birmingham’s wealth of creative talent in the arts, literature, food and drink through a series of special events and a limited edition Rotunda Pale Ale.
James A. Roberts (aka Jim) was one of the city’s foremost post-war architects and a leading light in the city’s regeneration during the 1960s.
Born in 1922 in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath, Roberts went to Stanley House School in Edgbaston. He left at 14 to work for his father, the architect Ernest S Roberts, who designed several of the city’s well-known cinemas including the Art Deco Danilo in Quinton. Determined to succeed, Roberts also went to night school in order to gain the qualifications he needed to study at the Birmingham School of Architecture.
During the Second World War he served in the Home Guard and was responsible for looking out for enemy bombers from a tiny shed on top of the Council House clock tower. It’s an experience which is supposed to have inspired his bold idea for the Grade II-listed Rotunda.
After qualifying as an architect the talented designer set up his own business at his mother’s home. The practice, known as James A. Roberts Associates, was so successful he eventually needed somewhere bigger. And where better than the top two floors of the Rotunda which Roberts had designed and where he and his team could enjoy stunning views of the city skyline they were helping to change?
That office, where so many of his creative ideas would have taken shape, is now one of the stunning penthouses in our aparthotel.
As well as creating one of Birmingham’s best-loved landmarks Roberts also designed The Sentinels on Holloway head, 43 Temple Row and the Ringway Centre in Smallbrook Queensway. The Ringway Centre is now under threat of demolition to make way for new homes. But in a sign of respect for Roberts’ legacy a campaign has been set up to save the 230 metres long office and retail building. Four groups, Brutiful Birmingham, Birmingham Modernists, the 20th Century Society and Zero Carbon House are fighting to preserve his work for future generations and an alternative scheme, which keeps Roberts’ building, has been drawn up. You can sign the petition to Preserve The Ringway Centre here.
The architect’s work can also be seen at The Belfry Hotel near Coleshill, Wolverhampton’s Mander Centre and in St John’s Beacon in Liverpool – also known as Radio City Tower.
Despite being known for his ground-breaking designs Roberts, who died in 2019 aged 97, was not just a Modernist.
He was also known for conservation projects including Soho House, the Grade II listed home of pioneering Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton and the 13th Century West Bromwich Manor House. It led to him being made an honorary member of the Ancient Monuments Society.
The fascinating photographs we’ve discovered of Roberts and his team at the Rotunda capture the city at the height of creative 1960s cool and show a man who was instrumental in redefining Birmingham after the devastation of the Second World War.
He personified the city’s Forward motto with his visionary ideas, which helped transform Birmingham into a modern, futuristic-looking, city.
The idea of building an office block which was cylindrical and taller than anything else in 1960s Birmingham was “audacious” at that time, according to his daughter Alice.
The photographs show designers, architects and their assistants busy in a stylish office filled with the kind of mid-century designer furniture we love.
If you look closely at the architect’s office you can even see Rotunda’s famous curves.
We love the shot of the Rotunda reception where a receptionist with a beehive sits in front of a spiral staircase while a guest in a smart suit sits waiting with a pipe and newspaper.
And the mini dresses, Mary Quant-style bobs, beehives and stunning 1960s furniture make us want to join the team and work there!
One of the reasons we love Rotunda is because of its iconic 1960s design. Our stylish serviced apartments and studios pay homage to its heritage by featuring cool sixties-style furniture and wall art.
It’s a place where Mad Men’s charismatic lead man Donald Draper would look right at home. Thank you Urban Splash and Glenn Howells architects for conserving and redeveloping this much loved Birmingham icon.