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No-one called this triumvirate of stone-clad, iron-skeletoned buildings The Three Graces until sometime around the turn of the 20th century, when a rash of millennium building projects started to line the pockets of Britain’s ‘starchitects’, and poke their ungainly way above the skylines of our provincial cities.

Whether the Greek goddesses of charm, beauty and creativity are chuffed that their name has been given to a curious group of early 20th century office blocks is a moot point, but the city’s certainly taken to the Three Graces: and, for a while, excitedly voted for a winning ‘fourth grace’ (Will Alsop’s ill-fated ‘Cloud’.)

The Cloud might have evaporated (to be replaced with a more demure arrival – the low-slung crosshairs of the Museum of Liverpool), but this trio of civic and commercial buildings still rise from the former site of the infilled George’s Dock.

The Royal Liver Building was, for a short time, the tallest building in Europe – when its 90 metre height was reached in 1911.

Once the home to the Royal Liver Assurance group, now a half-empty huddle of disparate companies, the building was received a mixed welcome from the city. Its design – by the Dale Street practice of Walter Aubrey Thomas – grabbed inspiration from Baroque, Art Nouveau and Byzantine schools, creating a stylistically bizarre silhouette of rusticated bays, domes and turrets (and the biggest clock face in England – bigger even than that on Big Ben’s tower). It was inspired by the Chicago skyscrapers and, in turn, inspired a similar structure to rise from the Shanghai waterfront, so enmeshed were the two city’s trading links a century ago.

The Copper Liver Birds (best guess = cormorants) on top, by George Cowper and the Bromsgrove Guild face outwards to the river and inwards to the city – and rise to 18 feet. Should they leave their perch, it’s said, the city will fall. They’ll certainly leave a nasty gash in the pavement.

Next along the line is the squat and restrained ex-offices of the Cunard Line – now largely empty office space. The building’s simple outline owes much to the grand Italian palazzos lining the Venitian waterfront (suitably enough, for a shipping line), and is the work of Willink and Thicknesse, with Arthur Davis (of Mewes and Davis) as consultant.

However, in common with much of Liverpool’s turn of the century architectural gold-rush, the Cunard’s s elevations, decorated with French classical details point towards the American beaux-arts buildings of McKim Mead and White in New York and Chicago.

Within, the grand wood-panelled board rooms, the Corinthian columns and the marble-lined toilets (they’re something else, we can tell you) and elegant proportions were supposed to provide a glimpse of life aboard one of Cunard’s sleek liners. On the ground floor, the first class passenger waiting room – recently used as an art gallery for the Biennial – is a jaw-dropping example of early 20th century corporate muscle; all fluted columns, stone panelled reveals and stone coffered ceilings.

Dazzling after a recent close encounter with a sand-blasting crew, the Port of Liverpool building offer a pleasing counterpoint to the lavish excesses of the Liver builings, with its cooper dome. Built to house the HQ of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the classically proportioned pile is the work of Briggs, Wolstenholme and Thorneley (the practice won an open competition in 1901).

Eight octagonal towers surround a dome once destined for an ambitious Catholic cathedral (one of many designs destined never to leave the drawing board). The dome, in fact, was never part of the original design, but was added when the board requested that the building should ‘stand out’ more!

Within, the dome rises above a full height octagonal hall, with a mosaic paving depicting the points of the compass and around the frieze between ground and first floor in gilt letters is Psalm 107:

“They that go down to the sea in ships that do business in great waters these see the works of the Lord and his wonders of the deep. Anno Domini MCMVII”

The ground floor is connected to upper floors by lifts incorporating gilt maritime emblems of sea-horses, the globe and anchors, the hall and staircase windows have stained glass, with maritime images of Poseidon, anchors, ships bells and shells, and dedications to countries of the British Empire: Singapore, British Honduras, British Guiana, Jamaica, Ceylon, New Zealand, South Africa, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, South and North Rhodesia, Canada, Australia, Gold Coast, Gibralta, Aden, Cyprus and Malta.

Occasional tours. Phone ahead for details.

Image: Peter Tarleton