High hopes for the Wish Tower site’s future

Wish Tower Cafe plan SUS-140923-100524001
Wish Tower Cafe plan SUS-140923-100524001

Eastbourne’s Wish Tower cafe has long been a seafront landmark and work is in progress to create a prestigious new facility at the site.

The old cafe, which was built in memory of those in Eastbourne who suffered in World War Two, was once very popular with residents and holidaymakers alike but had become run down and in need of repair.

It had received some negative reviews but other Eastbourne people felt the building should remain.

There were also mixed opinions among councillors in the town. Many called it an out-of-date eyesore that should be destroyed and rebuilt and others wanted the former building restored.

It was demolished in 2012 when a structural survey revealed it would not be viable to refurbish the building and after a heated council meeting.

At that meeting, John Foyle – whose father helped pay for the original building as a lasting memorial to the people of Eastbourne who died during the Second World War – urged councillors to delay signing off on the demolition order.

He said, “My father’s vision was that the building should stand as the only memorial to those who died in Eastbourne during the many air raids of the Second World War and those residents who with fortitude remained in the town and survived.

“He also saw that the building would realise his dream for residents and visitors to have free access to read books in a sun lounge with outstanding views.

“The building is of historic importance and should receive protection from demolition. In any case it should not be demolished unless and until the council can bring forward the planning permission for an entirely suitable replacement. My concern is that, if the present building is swept away and the council then finds that no commercial developer is prepared to build a replacement which reflects the vision of my father, there will no opportunity for repairs and restoration.”

The council was split but the demolition was agreed despite outrage from supporters of the cafe and local historians who accused the council of not doing enough to protect the building and acting too hastily to pull it down.

Plans were drawn up for a temporary café soon after it was demolished but these were delayed when a third party partner pulled out.

The council then spent £36,000 on an Airstream offering drinks and snacks to visitors along the promenade while a new temporary cafe was being built behind it.

The news the gleaming American Airstream was placed in such a prominent seafront location was given a lukewarm reception.

It was described as a “garish and shiny” blot on the landscape by critics who wanted to see something more visually pleasing on the site.

High quality decking was then installed on the site for the temporary café, as councillors said it was imperative a structure was erected so the site could be used.

The council opted to operate the café using its own in-house team and the cafe was opened in July 2013.

It has proved to be a busy and popular attraction enjoying views of Eastbourne’s stunning coastline across to Holywell.

However, when the old Wish Tower Café and sun lounge was demolished, Eastbourne Borough Council promised the site would eventually house a prestigious permanent new facility.

Back in February 2013, Cllr Carolyn Heaps, portfolio holder for tourism and leisure, said, “The Wish Tower site is a vital element in our seafront tourism offer, and will eventually be linked to the redeveloped Devonshire Park complex.

“While we plan for a suitable permanent facility that is fitting for this fabulous location, we are pleased to be on course to open a temporary catering offer.

“I am confident the temporary café will become a huge hit with residents and visitors enjoying the promenade, starting this Easter.”

At the time, a council spokesperson added, “Eventually it is planned that a permanent restaurant and café, housed in a newly built structure, will open on the site, helping to boost visitor numbers to Eastbourne and provide a fitting legacy to the Foyle family who helped fund the original Wish Tower restaurant.”

Although early attempts to find a developer proved fruitless , the council is still committed to providing a more permanent facility for the town.

To help with the process, an architect who grew up in Eastbourne has now produced an exciting vision of how a future building might look.

It is hoped the plans and designs might stimulate interest in the site and its possibilities.

Wendy Thomas was encouraged in the project by the Foyle family and retired solicitor John Boyle.

The original building was made possible by the generosity of the late Cllr Gilbert Foyle and his sons who met half the construction cost.

The family wanted the new attraction to serve as a practical memorial to the 174 Eastbourne civilians who died during enemy bombing in World War Two, and a plaque was placed on the side of the building bearing that dedication.

John Boyle was the borough council’s solicitor in the 1960s and handled the legal work when the original café and sun lounge was built in 1962.

He has remained a friend of Gilbert Foyle’s son, John, who is now in his 90s. When the council decided that the café was beyond restoration and would have to be demolished, Mr Foyle and Mr Boyle urged the council to ensure that a fitting war memorial would be provided.

This year Mr Boyle and Mr Foyle asked Wendy Thomas, who is a partner in Ecotects, a Brighton firm of chartered architects, to draw up a design for the type of building that could fulfil the potential of the site and stand again as a fitting memorial to the local bombing victims.

Wendy’s design reinstates the cantilevered balcony, removed when the old café was demolished, and proposes a versatile building with open vistas out to sea and towards the Downs.

Two gentle domes complement the nearby historic Wish Tower, and as an acknowledgement to the Foyle family a reading room is suggested at a lower promenade level.

An environmentally friendly turf roof would complement the nearby Wish Tower slopes.

Near the entrance a ‘water wall’ would stand as the formal memorial to the bombing victims.

Mr Boyle emphasises that the architect’s drawings do not represent a formal development plan, but are a concept aimed at keeping the future of the site in the public eye and stimulating discussion.

He has sent copies to the leader of the Borough Council, David Tutt, and MP Stephen Lloyd.

Mr Boyle said, “The Wish Tower Café and Sun Lounge was a popular feature, enjoyed by thousands every year. It’s deterioration was highly regrettable as was the demolition, particularly as it served as a memorial.

“The current small café is a reasonable stopgap, but the site has the potential to provide the town with a new much-needed attraction.

“I hope Wendy Thomas’s design may - with the support of the Council – reignite interest and perhaps catch the eye of a potential developer.”

Wendy Thomas has many years’ experience of both traditional and modern forms of construction on a wide range of projects, and has been active within the Royal Institute of British Architects both locally and nationally, chairing the Women Architects Group for several years.

Her particular interest focuses on sustainability within the built environment combined with a very high standard of design.

* An article on this subject appears in the current issue of the Eastbourne Society Observer, the quarterly magazine of the Eastbourne Society.