Whitechapel Bell Foundry future: bitter row erupts over plans to turn historic site into 95-room boutique hotel, restaurant and bar

The future of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is turning into a bitter row pitting a US developer against leading lights in British arts, as the first images emerge of plans to convert the rare piece of London’s industrial past into a boutique hotel.

The foundry, established in the 1570s, moved to Whitechapel High Street in the 1740s and produced world-famous bells including the Liberty Bell for Philadelphia, bells for Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and for St Mary-le-Bow church, where anyone born within earshot of the bells is considered a true Cockney.

The foundry closed in 2017 and the Grade II*-listed building was sold to American entrepreneur Bippy Siegal for £7.9 million. He has just lodged a planning application for a 95-room hotel, restaurant and bar, horrifying sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, V&A director Tristram Hunt, composer Michael Nyman and cultural historian Sir Charles Saumarez Smith. Along with several leading conservation groups, they back a rival plan to keep the site in use as a working foundry.

This alternative future is proposed by the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust and Factum Arte, which creates sculptures using 3D printing. Tower Hamlets planners are studying Siegal’s plans and a decision is expected this summer.

Disharmony: art luminaries are fighting a bid to turn the former Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel (Alamy Stock Photo)

In an attempt to appease objectors, Siegal’s plans include restoring the foundry and using it as a public café with a small working foundry, “interpretation spaces”, artists’ workshops and workspace for creative businesses.

“We all feel a strong responsibility to deliver a plan that sustains these amazing buildings and that continues the atmosphere of craft and creation that held in the foundry for so many years,” said Mr Siegal.

A report by project architects 31/44 said the plan was for the foundry to remain “productive and industrious”, and added: “Bells will still be cast on site but now so too will artworks. This, alongside the artists and creative businesses that will be working in the building, will create a level of activity and public access that has not existed on the site before.” The new hotel would sit behind the foundry. 

The row over the future of the foundry comes after a period of intense change for Whitechapel, where arts-led regeneration during the Nineties kick-started rapid gentrification which was subsequently accelerated by Whitechapel’s inclusion on the Crossrail line. 

Property prices across E1 have increased 61 per cent since 2012 to an average £519,000 according to Rightmove.

A spokesman for the developer said its proposals would transform the defunct foundry into “one of east London’s foremost cultural landmarks”, with the support of Historic England.

“A significant part of the historic foundry will be transformed into a publicly accessible space, allowing visitors and the local community to experience the atmosphere and energy of the spectacular foundry spaces, which will retain their unique character, through the reintroduction of many original artefacts,” he said.

However, Stephen Clarke, a patron of the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust, said it should be restored and run as a working foundry. The trust still hopes to buy the site and take it over, he added. “We want it to be a living, working foundry. This is why the building was listed.”

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