You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, the old saying goes.
That’s why one of the most ambitious regeneration projects in Middlesbrough’s recent history is firmly focused on the town’s Historic Quarter.
Cranes, scaffolding and workers in high-vis have become a familiar sight as a series of connected landmarks – from the historic rail station and Zetland Hotel to Commerce House and Exchange Square – are transformed and refurbished for the 21st Century.
They form the backbone of one of the key gateways to the town, and are the first views to greet those arriving by rail.
Venues including Bloom and Chequers Nightclub & Bar, both on Albert Road, have already benefited from High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) grants, and other major projects are gathering momentum.
One of the first sights awaiting the traveller alighting from their train is the imposing façade of Commerce House, once a Victorian bank and latterly home to the North East Chamber of Commerce.
Since 2015 it’s been home to premium business and office space administered by Commerce Chambers Limited, and thanks to funding from the four-year High Street Heritage Action Zone project the building’s full potential will be unleashed over the coming months.
The £2.3 million partnership between Middlesbrough Council and Historic England is due for completion in 2024.
The former banking hall and adjoining Kalinka bar will be opened up to create a spacious dining room for The Muddler, with a kitchen created in the basement vaults and strong rooms which retain many of their original features.
Star of the show will be the suite of private fine dining rooms on the upper floor, offering stunning views from distinctive round windows, with the stunning green roof-top dome as their centrepiece.
Three floors of office space are also being developed above the former Kalinka bar to meet a rising demand for flexible office space.
Commerce House Facilities Manger Christine Huntington said anticipation was mounting: “It’s so exciting to be able to bring this amazing historic building back into use, as part of an incredible community with a warm, welcoming vibe.
“We love transforming old buildings into impressive spaces that will level up this important area and create a completely different feel and first impression.
“The exterior works are coming along nicely and we can’t wait for the internal works to commence – the views of the station are just fantastic.
“Our plan is to have each floor offering something different in size to all types of businesses, while restoring and preserving this incredible architecture.
“There are very exciting times ahead, with a group of businesses in the Historic Quarter working really hard to bring more great venues and opportunities to the area, creating more jobs and encouraging people to visit Middlesbrough.”
Commerce House looks onto the recently revamped Exchange Square, another beneficiary of High Street HAZ funding and once home to the grand Royal Exchange building, echoes of which remain in the salvaged stone carvings displayed on the site.
The restored Square now has new paving, seating and planting areas, while the Grade ll-listed statue of Middlesbrough founding father Henry Bolckow has been fully restored.
A stone’s throw away on Zetland Road, almost opposite the main entrance to the rail station, is Christie’s Brasserie at The Zetland.
Already established as a firm foodie-favourite, the eatery is spreading its wings under the watchful gaze of husband and wife team Philip and Joanne Christie, and with a major injection of HAZ funding.
Scaffolding now covers the front and rear of the building with HAZ grants helping with a range of restoration works including roof, guttering and stonework repairs, window replacement and the reinstatement of historic features.
Improvements will also be made to Zetland Road to create a better setting for the station and new businesses.
Philip, who bought the rundown former pub in 2017, said the project had been delayed by Covid, but that the whole area was finally starting to reveal its full potential.
“It’s not been easy, it’s been hard work and getting things over the line takes time, but now we’re right on the cusp of something special,” he said.
“After creating the bar and brasserie, it was important for us to be able to get the rest of the building to look after itself.”
Work is now well under way to create a first floor conference, meeting and function room, while the two upper floors will be converted into four two-bed serviced apartments.
Future plans include the possible creation of a micro-brewery in the cellar.
Philip added: “It’s not about us – it’s all about securing the building’s future because it’s an important part of Middlesbrough’s heritage and history, and a national asset in its own right.
“Historic England and Middlesbrough Council have taken a leap of faith and it’s really paying off – the evidence is all around us.
“This is the first impression many people get when they come into town, and these works are helping to restore it to what it once was.
“It’s just fantastic for Middlesbrough.”