The Pierhead Building, by William Frame (1846-1906). 1896; restored and reopened in 2010 as a visitor and education centre for the Welsh National Assembly — a Grade I Listed Building. Red brick and terracotta. By Cardiff Bay Inner Harbour, Wales. Photographs (exterior, 2009; interior, 2019) and text by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Left to right: (a) Front view. (b) Detail of tower. (c) Gargoyles. Notice also the fishy features round the heads of the pipes.

William Frame's bold and confident building replaced the old Bute Dock Company offices after they were destroyed by fire in 1892. In the listing text it is described as "a two storey Gothic building faced with red brick and terracotta," with "an embattled clock tower over the main entrance and a fine terracotta panel on the west face." It is worth noting that the materials and workmanship here were local: "the bright red brick and terracotta was supplied by J. C. Edwards of Ruabon; the building is mentioned in the firm’s 1903 catalogue" (Tile Gazeteer). That means they, and most likely the tiles too, would have been produced at the Pen-y-bont Brick and Tile Works," something confirmed by an information panel about the firm in one of the upstairs display spaces.

Left: North entrance. Right: Over the main entrance.

The close-up on the left shows the Bute Docks Company's name over the north entrance, while the one on the right shows the richly decorated terracotta-work over the west entrance below the tower — a depiction of a steam locomotive over heraldic shields, with chimney stacks above like linked turrets, and more fanciful detail surrounding the clock face. All this is set off most effectively by the bluish-grey of the Welsh slate roofing with its matching finials. A case study concerned with the building's restoration sums it up by saying that it "incorporates a French-Gothic Renaissance theme with carved friezes, hexagonal chimneys, gargoyles, an ornate clock tower and a natural Welsh slate roof" ("The Pierhead Building, Cardiff Bay"). Unmissable because of its colour as well as its prominent site, and rich in ornamental detail, it made a clear statement about the company and indeed about thriving, cosmopolitan Cardiff to those arriving in the harbour.


Left: Floor mosaic in the entrance lobby. Right: Colourful tile panels.

The visitor is greeted near the front desk by this splendid mosaic, its locomotive motif echoing the terracotta panel on the façade, and its motto meaning in English (translated from the Welsh), "By water and fire," referring to the steam power that revolutionised industry and economy in this part of Wales. Dazzling tiles line the lower parts of the walls, making the vestibule quite spectacular.

A glimpse of the central hall.

As shown on the left, the spacious central hall has a high ceiling supported by stout tiled piers with round-headed arches. Along the central aisle there is plenty of top-lighting. When in use for functions, the hall can only be glimpsed by other visitors. But the stairs lead to the public spaces of the building, where some of Frame's more distinctive decorative elements can be found. Describing the upper rooms, the listing text continues: "Of most interest is the Port Manager's Office on the first floor, which features an ornamental chimneypiece with canopy, castellation, foliated columns, and herringbone tiles to the back." John Newman remarks that while the interior, generally, shows the influence of Alfred Waterhouse," in this first-floor office with its castle-like fireplace and elaborate look-out, "romantic medievalism" reasserts itself (267).

Left to right: (a) Terracotta newel posts and glazed ceramic handrail on the stairs (with majolica tiling continuing to the side). (b) Terracotta and herringbone tiling on the fireplace in the first-floor manager's office. (c) Oriel window with elaborate surround in the same room (and notice the coffered ceiling above it, similar to the one along the sides of the hall).

The listing text concludes: "Listed Grade I as a central and especially important building to the historical and visual dockscape of Cardiff; it is furthermore an exceptional Victorian building reflecting the confidence of the period in its flamboyant architectural detail, particularly in its use of terracotta."

William Frame

To understand the building, it helps to know a little about William Frame. He is sometimes assumed to have been a Welshman, but genealogical records (accessible on the FreeBMD website) show that he was born in Melksham, Wiltshire, in December 1846. He is already known to have been articled to a local architect in nearby Trowbridge, Wiltshire (DSA biography report). After that he became an assistant to John Prichard, the Welsh architect who so magnificently restored Llandaff Cathedral, then assistant and Clerk of Works to William Burges during the latter's extensive work on Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch. Frame too won acclaim for this work. Not unexpectedly, therefore, he took over from Burges when he died in 1873, and became the Third Marquess of Bute's architect in Cardiff. Despite a drinking problem, he continued in the Marquess's employ for the rest of his life.


Basic Biographical Details: William Frame. Dictionary of Scottish Architects (this useful resource includes architects who worked in Scotland, as Frame had done, as well as those who were actually Scottish). Web. 4 March 2011.

Donald Insall Associates Ltd, "Pierhead Building, Cardiff: Brief Historical Analysis for National Assembly for Wales." February 2009. Web. 21 August 2019.

FreeBMD website. Web. 4 March 2011.

Listing text. British Listed Buildings. Web. 4 March 2011.

Newman, John, with contributions by Stephen Hughes and Anthony Ward. Glamorgan, South Glamorgan and West Glamorgan. Buildings of Wales series. London: Penguin/University of Wales Press, 1995.

The Pierhead Building, Cardiff Bay (a professional restoration case study for the National Assembly of Wales). Web. 4 March 2011.

"Tile Gazetteer — Wales." Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society. Web. 21 August 2019.

Last modified 21 August 2019