As we near the grand opening of The Gresham, Leicester’s new aparthotel, bar and restaurant development, what better time to look back at the history of the building, and examine how it earned its iconic place in the hearts of Leicester’s population. The Gresham has been home to two Leicester institutions, beloved by their communities. The new Aparthotel aims to build on this legacy, and begin a new chapter in a storied history of the building and its surrounding area.
Joseph Johnson’s was founded in 1869 on Market Street. A draper by trade, Johnson struck out on his having served his apprenticeship at Adderley’s store in Leicester Market. Forming a partnership with a Mr. Halsall, they opened a modest store on Market Street.
Johnson proved a savvy businessman, and by 1871 was the sole proprietor of the store. By 1884, he had become so successful that he commissioned Isaac Barradale to design the now-iconic Gresham building, moving into the five-berth frontage at the top of Market Street.
The building’s name, however, came from another investor in the new development, a businessman called Richard Allen. Allen, according to the Victorian Society, “wanted to make a bold statement,” and so commissioned the Gothic corner archways, curved two-storey window and canopied roofline which gives the building its unique appearance. Though the nature of Allen’s business at ‘Gresham Buildings’ remains unclear, he took on three shop frontages on Belvoir Street, with showrooms above.
Sadly for Mr Allen, his boldness was not matched by success, and in 1900 he sold Gresham Buildings to Joseph Jonson. The ever-ambitious Johnson also incorporated a hosiery factory into his store, and continued to modify the interior of the building to incorporate it as one contiguous unit.
By 1926, the footprint that would be familiar to Fenwick shoppers in 2017 was almost complete, As Johnson commissioned the Leicester architects Fosbrooke and Bedingfield to create links between the remaining small units. This evolution of the interior architecture of The Gresham remains evident to this day, and means that every suite in the new aparthotel has its own unique character.
Throughout this period, Johnson “lived above the shop,” devoting his life to his business and building it to the status of a Leicester institution. Johnson’s Stores evolved to become the type of department store that we would recognise today. He insisted upon exacting standards for his staff, and ran an unabashedly “high-class” establishment.
By the time of its 1962 takeover by Fenwick of Newcastle, Johnson’s Stores was as iconic in its community as Fenwick’s would become to the next generation.