Great Pubs of England: The Philharmonic, Liverpool
Keywords: country pubs, victorian and edwardian pubs, pubs, liverpool, philharmonic dining rooms, liverpool philharmonic hall, the philharmonic, the beatles, john lennon, paul maccartney
England boasts many different types of pub, from traditional country pubs in idyllic, rural settings to ornate Victorian and Edwardian pubs in urban areas. I have always loved the traditional rural variety, but as a design historian I also admire urban pubs, with their effusive architecture and opulent, grandiose interiors.
One of the most ornate pubs in Britain is the Philharmonic in Liverpool. Known locally as the Phil, its official name is the Philharmonic Dining Rooms. Located on the corner of Hope Street and Hardman Street, the pub is diagonally opposite the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, from which it derives its name. However, it is to another musical connection that the Philharmonic owes its international fame: members of the Beatles regularly frequented the pub before the group’s meteoric rise to prominence.
Commissioned by the brewers Robert Cain & Company, the building was designed by Victorian architect Walter Aubrey Thomas. The exterior is in the Free Style, but as was common with late Victorian and Edwardian architecture, the building has a wealth of detail in continental Art Nouveau. The fenestration (or window-design) is immensely varied. Many have elaborate architraves and there are also two-storey oriel windows. Whimsical turrets rise above a balustraded parapet, giving the building a playful skyline. Among the most impressive external features are exceptionally good Art Nouveau gates designed by H. Blomfield Bare. There is also a profusion of sculpture on a musical theme, with musicians and musical instruments emerging from the architectural fabric in low relief. Many of the fittings were created by craftsmen at the Liverpool School of Art. The pub opened for business in 1898.
Main entrance with elaborate Art Nouveau gates
The interior is a revelation. The main bar is highly ornamented with glass grapes and a golden eagle. The bar has dark wood-panelled walls and copper reliefs depicting musical scenes. There are also Art Deco lights – a later addition – which shine onto the mosaic floor, giving an iridescent effect. The central, horseshoe-shaped bar is awash with ornate stained glass.
The pub has a large and luxurious Grande Lounge at the rear, and two smaller drinking rooms or ‘snugs’ named after the composers Brahms and Liszt. The Brahms and Liszt rooms have panelled and glazed walls, while the Grande Lounge has crystal chandeliers, stained glass skylights and an ornate, gold-reliefed cornice, upon which life-size figurines stand, holding up the magnificent ceiling.
The current dining room is located on the first floor. The gentlemen's toilet survives in its original design and has high quality decoration, including ornate marble urinals. Women are permitted to visit as part of organised tours, and indeed the toilet is listed as a place of special architectural or historical interest.
By the 1960s, the hotel had become a Liverpool institution. The Philharmonic Hall across the road was the venue for Liverpool's first rock and roll concert when Buddy Holly played in 1958. It is possible that one of Holly’s biggest fans, Paul McCartney, attended the gig and in fact McCartney now owns Buddy Holly's songs. The Beatles themselves used to drink at the Philharmonic, and John Lennon once complained that one of the prices of fame was ‘not being able to go to the Phil for a drink.’
Copper panels on a musical theme
Liverpool's most famous brewer is Robert Cain & Company, who funded the pub's construction. For this reason I recommend one of Cain's beers as the perfect accompaniment to this heady conconction of architecture and interior design.
This article is part of an ongoing series. Please see my article on The Eagle and Child, Oxford, a legendary pub where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met to discuss The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia:
See also my article on Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, reputed to be the oldest pub in England and one of only two I know of to be built in a cave: