Historic Cardiff landmark mired in controversy among UK's most ‘endangered’ buildings

The Coal Exchange Hotel in Cardiff Bay
-Credit: (Image: Richard Swingler Photography)

One of Cardiff's landmark buildings has been listed among the UK's most endangered buildings after years of controversy. The Coal Exchange in Cardiff Bay has most recently been used as a hotel but has been mired by maintenance problems, safety concerns and a row between the building's owners and operating company.

In December the business that owns the freehold repossessed the site from the operating company after a row between the two firms. The hotel closed shortly afterwards but reopened on March 8 under new management. South Wales fire service has recently served prohibition notices on the building as its north side was in a state of partial collapse.

However a charity dedicated to preserving Victorian buildings has now named the Coal Exchange among the most "endangered” in the UK. You can get more story updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletters here.

Read more: Cardiff's Coal Exchange hotel shuts as operator blames development company

Read more: Cardiff's Coal Exchange hotel to reopen but weeks worth of bookings cancelled

The Grade II-listed building, which dates back to 1888, was used as a market floor for coal trading when the Welsh capital was a hub of the global coal trade. In recent times it was run as a music venue and offices until 2013 when safety concerns forced it to close. In 2016 the property was sold to the Liverpool-based hospitality company Signature Living to turn it into a hotel.

However, this company went into administration during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the future of the building in doubt. It has most recently been managed by Eden Grove Developments, whose director is former Cardiff Labour councillor Ashley Govier, but a lease on it was granted to a limited liability partnership called Cardiff Exchange Hotel LLP owned by businessman Anil Rai. Another company of his was given the contract to operate the hotel.

The front of the building, with triveway leading up to front door
The Coal Exchange has had a turbulent few years -Credit:Richard Williams

In February 2023 a burst water pipe forced the hotel to close. The water build-up was so significant that part of the building was forced to be demolished upon the order of Cardiff Council to make it structurally sound. The council initially put a road closure in place due to the risk of falling masonry.

Devastating aerial photos a month later showed the extent of the damage to the Victorian building, with entire floors missing right the way from the top to the ground floor and effectively one side of the historic structure almost completely hollowed out. It is understood that the section being removed will be rebuilt, but it is not yet clear whether it will look exactly the same as it did before.

In aerial photos from February 2024, weeks before the building reopened as a hotel under new management, swathes of scaffolding could be seen on the section of the building in need of repair - you can find these here.

Scaffolding in place at the north side of the building. -Credit:Richard Swingler Photography
Scaffolding in place at the north side of the building. -Credit:Richard Swingler Photography

The Victorian Society’s annual top 10 list of buildings and structures in need of rescue, released on Wednesday, May 29, was described as “terrifying” by the society’s president, Cardiff comedian Griff Rhys Jones.

Each of the sites listed as in need of rescue and repair is Grade II-listed or above, meaning they are subject to regulations protecting their historical and architectural significance, but the charity said in some cases it feared this was not enough.

Other buildings on the list include one of the first tennis pavilions in the world, a requisitioned school where author Vera Brittain nursed during the First World War and a Gothic coastal villa in Devon which served as a school for girls from 1885. St Martins in Ilfracombe, formerly known as Roslyn Hoe, had become a small hotel by the 1930s and was described by a local architect as an “exercise in symmetry”.

A bird's-eye view of the Coal Exchange hotel in Cardiff
The damage to the north side of the building can be seen from above -Credit:Richard Swingler Photography

Rhys Jones said the list was “a testament to the excitement, variety and invention of the Victorian Age”. “How terrifying to see buildings I have known, loved or used all my life in Southend and Cardiff in need of rescue,” he added.

“But come on. Look at the character on display here. They all add colour and story to any urban landscape. Their restoration and reuse make huge commercial sense. They are attractions in themselves. They are already destinations. They should be part of local pride.
“What do we want? A parking lot? A faceless block in their place? A slew of new carbon pollution? When they have so much colour, continuity and history on their side already?”

The top 10 list for 2024 is:

  • Cardiff Coal Exchange, Cardiff

  • Kennington Boys’ School, London

  • The Kursaal, Essex

  • Jesmond Dene Banqueting Hall, Newcastle

  • Former Bramcote Tennis Pavilion, North Yorkshire

  • St Luke’s Chapel of Nottingham City Hospital, Nottinghamshire

  • St Martins (formerly Roslyn Hoe), Devon

  • Chances Glassworks, West Midlands

  • St Agnes’ Vicarage and Hall, Liverpool

  • Former Education Department Offices, Derbyshire

A spokesperson from Eden Grove Developments, the freeholder of The Coal Exchange Hotel, said: "We welcome the interest from the Victorian Society as well as the general public in how we are improving the hotel as well as the whole site.

"The Coal Exchange Hotel means a great deal to the people of Cardiff and rightly holds a place in our heritage. That is why we are fiercely committed to getting the restoration works right that ensures the future of the site for generations to come.

"This is the most exciting periods in the history of The Coal Exchange and we have appointed an all-Cardiff team to oversee the restoration of the full site which includes parts we were previously unable to access.

"We are about to engage the statutory bodies to discuss the exciting plans we have for the site that will secure it for the next 100 years."