Inside Apple Birmingham: Preserving a 144-year-old building

Continuing the occasional series on notable Apple Stores, AppleInsider visits Apple Birmingham in England to see a magnificent example of the company’s architectural history being preserved.

Apple Birmingham, England

Apple has occupied the building on New Street, Birmingham since 2016, but it was first built in 1879. Back then, it was the imposing offices of Midland Bank, with a huge, open, opulent banking space.

Subsequent owners reduced that space and filled it with retail shelves, but Apple was eager to restore it. According to plans seen at the time by the local newspaper, the Birmingham Evening Mailthe architects were specific about returning the space to what it once was.

“Our intention is to restore the space to its uniquely generous volume and character when used as a bank room by Midland Bank,” the plans state. “Retail will be limited to the ground floor and ground floor, to enforce the public’s experience of the space as originally intended when used as a bank hall.”

birmingham new street

Even few local residents know about it, but the place where Apple Birmingham is located is strictly called Queen’s Corner. That name is written in stone atop one of the other buildings at the junction where New Street and Corporation Street meet.

Corporation Street then immediately becomes Navigation Street as, along with its new tram lines, it descends and loops behind Apple Birmingham to reach Birmingham New Street station. That is one of the busiest railway stations in the country, and yet New Street has gone through many years of declining traffic, brought on by the construction of the Bullring shopping center at the other end of the street.

When that was new in 2003, it so absorbed the life of New Street and the High Street that more people wondered if it was spelled “Bullring” or “Bull Ring” correctly than the old shops.

Apple also played its part in that, as in 2005, the Apple Bullring opened inside the mall. This store was heavily inspired by the original stores in the US, in a narrow space, albeit quite long.

Original Apple Store in Birmingham, UK

It was also a double-height store, but only one floor was used for retail. The rest may have included support and repair slots, but it was all headlined by a big, shiny Apple logo.

This store occupied its 4,000 square feet until the day Apple opened its 20,000 square foot Apple Birmingham store on New Street.

For many months, the Plaza de Toros could not fill the space left by Apple. So at that moment, instead of the glass doors of the small store, the space was boarded up, and Apple displayed a note.

“We would never leave them,” he began, before directing people to his new store.

Pass through the 19th century bank doors to the Apple Store

Outdoor Bank, Indoor Bookstore

Records are spotty about how often the Midland Bank building changed hands, but ask a local and they’ll tell you it went from bank to Waterstones bookstore and now to Apple. However, there may have briefly been some other bookstores there.

However, it was really Waterstone’s that turned the bank into retail space and, for most Birmingham residents and visitors, provided their first glimpse of the building.

Waterstone’s took it over in the 1990s and one estimate was that its shelves contained 100,000 books. Those racks were spread over five floors plus a two-level basement, and if that wasn’t enough, there was a second Waterstone store just off Bullring.

That other store remains open and busy to this day, but the huge one in the bank building is missed.

How it used to be View from the stairs of the Waterstones bookstore, shortly before it closed in 2015. (Source: Flickr)

Or rather, its cavernous size and its wide range of books are missed. There’s one thing about the bookstore that Waterstone management said it couldn’t do anything about, but Apple did it right away.

A large part of the main room used to be taken up by long, wide, wide and decidedly steep steps leading up to the next level. However, once he got over a certain height on the stairs, he could see the tops of the bookshelves lined up around the floor.

Compared to the very clean front and sides, the tops of the shelves were extremely dusty and even looked unpleasantly dirty.

However, once Waterstone closed the store and Apple bought the vacant space, those shelves were removed entirely. So was the stairwell.

Today, then, Birmingham residents used to wander through more than five levels and now they enter what appears to be just one.

On a dark day those chandeliers are necessary, but the huge windows make everything feel very light and airy.

busy, open space

When appleinsider visited on a sunday afternoon in early march 2023, the ceiling of the main entrance looked like a cathedral. And the floor seemed crowded.

Some 80 customers were being served by around 15 employees. On a cloudy day, the interior of the space was bright and welcoming.

Even with 90+ people in there, the space is still cavernous.

There are a number of ornate chandeliers that were lit, but the light also came from nine huge windows. Arranged around two walls, the nine start just above head height and then extend almost to the extra-high ceiling.

You might see this original skylight when it was a bookstore, but Apple has made it more of a feature

From the center of the retail floor, you can also see all the way to the top of the building and what appears to be a carefully restored and definitely crafted skylight.

basement area

While it initially appears that Apple occupies only the ground floor, it is noticeable that there are no shelves on the walls. This space is entirely dedicated to tables of products, and the walls that do not have large glass windows, instead have huge Apple posters.

Stone staircase looking up from the basement to the main floor

This is because all the accessories that are normally displayed on wall shelves are in a nearly hidden area of ​​the basement. The entrance consists of gray stone stairs that are wide and open, but because it’s right at the back of the store, it’s easy to miss until you walk up to it.

If you then go down the stone stairs into the basement, you come to a much smaller and darker area. It probably runs about a fifth of the same length as the main retail floor, but it seems narrower.

It is also interrupted by four large pillars, which roughly divide the space into areas for different products. Shelves contain the usual assortment of accessories and surround a series of tables.

It doesn’t quite show in the pictures, but the basement area is slightly darker than the main floor.

Most of those tables display the same lineup of MacBook Pro and iPad models as the main space, but this is also where Today at Apple happens.

Compared to stores like the one on London’s Brompton Road, Today at Apple’s space is small. It’s really a one-stop table with a mobile monitor at one end.

While appleinsider I was there, an Apple Genius was leading a Today at Apple session on using Procreate on the iPad. Although small, the space was packed and there were iPads, each with an Apple Pencil, to spare.

It’s definitely a downside that this area is so small, but the overall feeling is cozy, cozy even. It was also busy with around 30 customers working with around 9 employees, and the slight darkness made all the screens appear brighter.

outside the store

New Street Birmingham is typical of many English cities in that at eye level, everything is modern and new, with every shop window made of glass. But lift your head just a fraction, and almost all the buildings clearly date back at least decades.

Another angle from outside.

It’s all the buildings except the Apple one. Apple Birmingham looks its age, in all the good sense of the phrase, standing there looking as if it was designed in the 19th century, but so clean and fresh that it seems built today.

The street has yet to regain its position as the busiest in Birmingham, since the Bullring attracted customers and COVID had an impact. But it’s getting it back, and every December the whole run from the mall and past Apple to Birmingham City Hall is lined with Christmas market stalls.

Like many of Apple’s stores, Apple Birmingham is unique, even within the UK. Compare it to the newest store, Apple Brompton Road in London, and the radically different store at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.


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