Showroom Workstation

We all know this art-deco building as the Showroom Workstation, but to an older generation this was once called Kenning House. It was designed in 1936 by Frederick William Tempest, a Mansfield architect, as a garage and showroom for Kennings Ltd.

The building was officially opened in December 1937 by William Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield, the millionaire founder of Morris Motors, and a friend of George Kenning (1880-1956), a Clay Cross businessman who started by hawking paraffin in Derbyshire villages, progressing by way of bicycles, motor-cycles and motor cars.

By the time this Sheffield garage was built, George Kenning was head of thirty companies, which owned between 30 and 40 garages, and was the biggest distributor of Morris Cars in the provinces.

The Sheffield Independent reported that Kenning House was “an imposing structure which struck a pleasing modern note with its cream faience intersected with black faience dressings.”

It was called Sheffield’s ‘wonder garage,’ designed “to show London, Paris, New York – the whole world, the way in garage development.”

The building was the brainchild of George’s son, Frank Kenning, built on three floors with frontages on two main thoroughfares. Two street levels had to be overcome in construction – the ground floor approached from Leadmill Road, the middle and upper storeys from Paternoster Row.

Kenning House had equipment never equalled at any garage in the British Isles. In addition to state of art repair bays, the ground floor contained a 126-foot long chain-driven car valeting line, manned by a squad of thirty men, washing and lubricating at a rate of one car every eight minutes. (A massive 5,000-gallon water tank was installed to service the plant).

“The businessman has no time or inclination to wash his own car and give it the attention by which alone he can expect a long life from it,” said George Kenning. “By this new equipment he can have his car serviced while he smokes a cigarette.”

At the end of the conveyor, a three and a half ton lubricating unit and flush-fitting lift was installed, while a covered petrol pump station was built near the main entrance.

Built at a cost of £100,000, this was undoubtedly Kennings flagship garage and showroom.

The huge structure, using 650 tons of steel, was designed, fabricated and erected by Plowright Brothers of Chesterfield. Construction was by C.H. Hill and Sons of Mansfield, while bricks were provided by the Woodside Brick Company on Chesterfield Road.

Hodkin and Jones supplied 20,000 pre-cast terrazzo tiles and the metal windows, ‘Eclipse’ patent roof glazing and lantern lights were provided by Mellowes & Co of Sheffield. Industrial lighting was installed by the General Electric Company.

In the 1960s a roof extension was added, but the garage closed in the 1970s, overtaken by out of town developments. It stood empty before Sheffield City Council bought the property in 1983, intending to develop the site as a long-term replacement for the Anvil Municipal Cinema at Charter Row.

In 1989, the ‘Showroom Project’ was launched by Sir Richard Attenborough, initial structural work starting the following year, with plans devised by Allen Tod and Tatlow Stancer.

Screens one and two were opened by Sir Sydney Samuelson, the first British Film Commissioner, in 1995, and two more screens launched by actor Pete Postlethwaite three years later.

The entrance foyer from Sheaf Square leads into an atrium created from the original vehicle lift to the first-floor repair shop.

Nearly a quarter century later, the Showroom Workstation continues to be an independent cinema, café bar and creative workspace, central to Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter.