Inside Apple Birmingham: Preserving a 144-year-old building


Apple Birmingham, England

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Continuing the occasional series on notable Apple Stores, AppleInsider visits Apple Birmingham in England to see a magnificent example of the company’s architectural history being preserved.

Apple has occupied the New Street, Birmingham building since 2016, but it was first built in 1879. At the time, it was the imposing offices of Midland Bank, with a huge, opulent and open banking space.

Subsequent owners reduced this space and filled it with retail shelves, but Apple was keen to restore it. According to the plans seen at the time by the local newspaper the Birmingham Evening Mailthe architects were specific about returning space to what it once was.

“We intend to restore the space to its volume and generous character when used as a banking hall by Midland Bank,” the plans state. “Retail will be confined to the ground floor and lower ground floor, to impose on the public the experience of the space as it was originally intended when used as a banking hall.”

New Birmingham Street

Even few local residents know this, but the place where Apple Birmingham is located is properly called Queen’s Corner. This name is written in stone high on one of the other buildings at the crossroads where New Street and Corporation Street meet.

Corporation Street then immediately becomes Navigation Street as it, and its new tram lines, run down and behind Apple Birmingham to reach Birmingham New Street station. It is one of the busiest railway stations in the country and yet New Street itself has seen many years of declining traffic, caused by the construction of the Bullring shopping center at another end of the street.

When it was new in 2003 it sucked New Street and High Street life so much that more people wondered if it was correctly spelled “Bullring” or “Bull Ring” than in the old shops.

Apple has also played its part in this because in 2005 Apple Bullring opened inside the mall. This store was largely modeled after the original American stores, in a narrow space, although quite a long one.

Original Apple store in Birmingham, UK

Original Apple store in Birmingham, UK

It was also a double-height store, but only one floor was used for retail. The rest may have included support and repair spaces, but it was all preceded by a big, shiny Apple logo.

This store occupied its 4,000 square feet until the day Apple opened its Apple Birmingham store on New Street – with 20,000 square feet.

For many months, the Bullring was unable to fill the space left by Apple. So for this time, instead of the small store’s glass doors, the space was barricaded and Apple posted a note.

“We will never leave you,” he began, before directing people to his new store.

Walk through the doors of 19th century banks to the Apple Store

Walk through the doors of 19th century banks to the Apple Store

Outdoor bank, Indoor bookstore

Records are patchy on how often the Midland Bank building changed hands, but ask a local and they’ll tell you it’s changed from banking to Waterstones bookshop, and now to Apple. It is possible that there were briefly other bookstores there, however.

It was really Waterstone that transformed the bank into a retail space and, for the majority of residents and visitors to Birmingham, provided their first glimpse of the building.

Waterstone’s took over in the 1990s and one estimate was that its shelves held 100,000 books. These shelves were spread over five floors plus a two-level basement and if that wasn’t enough there was a second Waterstone store right next to the Bullring.

This other store remains open and busy to this day, but the huge one in the bank building is missed.

How it was before.  View from the stairs of Waterstones Bookstore, shortly before it closed in 2015. (Source: Flickr)
How it was before. View from the stairs of Waterstones bookstore, shortly before it closed in 2015. (Source:Flickr)

Or rather, its cavernous size and wide range of books are a miss. There’s one thing about the bookstore that Waterstone management said they couldn’t do anything about — but Apple did it immediately.

Much of the main hall was once taken up by long, wide, wide and decidedly steep steps to the next level. However, once you got past a certain height on the stairs, you could see the top of the shelves arranged around the floor.

Compared to the very neat front and sides, these tops of the shelves were extremely dusty and even looked unpleasantly dirty.

However, once Waterstone closed the store and Apple purchased the empty space, those shelves were completely removed. It was the same for the staircase.

Today the people of Birmingham used to wander more than five levels and now enter what seems to be just one.

On a gloomy day, those chandeliers are needed, but the huge windows make everything feel very light and airy.

On a gloomy day, those chandeliers are needed, but the huge windows make everything feel very light and airy.

Occupied and open space

When AppleInsider visited on a Sunday afternoon in early March 2023, the roof of the main entrance looked like a cathedral. And the floor seemed crowded.

Some 80 customers were helped by around 15 employees. On a cloudy day, the interior of the space was bright and welcoming.

Even with over 90 people in there, the space is still cavernous

Even with over 90 people in there, the space is still cavernous

There is a series of ornate chandeliers that were lit, but light also came from nine huge windows. Arranged around two walls, the nine begin just above head height and then extend almost to the very high ceiling.

You could see that original skylight when it was a bookstore, but Apple made it a bigger feature

You could see that original skylight when it was a bookstore, but Apple made it a bigger feature

From the center of the retail floor you can also see all the way to the top of the building and what appears to be a carefully restored and definitely elaborate skylight.


Although it initially appears that Apple only occupies the ground floor, we notice that there are no shelves on the walls. This space is all about tables with products, and the walls that don’t have huge picture windows, instead have huge Apple posters.

Stone staircase from the basement to the ground floor

Stone staircase from the basement to the ground floor

This is because all of the accessories that are usually displayed on wall shelves are in an almost hidden basement area. The entrance is up wide, open gray stone stairs, but as it’s right at the back of the store, it’s easy to miss it until you get up there.

If you then descend the stone stairs to the basement, you come to a much smaller and much darker area. It probably spans about a fifth of the same length as the main ground floor, but it looks narrower.

It is also interrupted by four large pillars, which roughly divide the space into zones for different products. Shelves hold the usual range of accessories and surround a series of tables.

It doesn't quite show in the pictures, but the basement is slightly darker than the main floor

It doesn’t quite show in the pictures, but the basement is slightly darker than the main floor

Most of these tables display roughly the same range of MacBook Pro and iPad models as the main space, but that’s also where Today at Apple takes place.

Compared to stores like the one on London’s Brompton Road, the Today at Apple space is tiny. It really is a single store table with a mobile monitor on one end.

While AppleInsider was there, an Apple Genius was leading a Today at Apple session on using Procreate on the iPad. Although small, the space was full and there were iPads, each with an Apple Pencil, to spare.

It’s definitely a downside that this area is so small, but the overall vibe is welcoming, even cozy. It was also busy with about 30 customers working with about 9 employees, and the slight darkness made all the screens brighter.

Outside the store

New Street Birmingham is typical of many English cities in that at eye level everything is modern and new, with every window display in glass. But raise your head just a fraction, and nearly all of the buildings are clearly at least decades old.

Another angle from the outside

Another angle from the outside

It’s all buildings except Apple’s. Apple Birmingham looks its age, in a good way, standing there as if it was designed in the 1800s, but so clean and fresh that it looks built today.

The street has yet to quite regain its position as Birmingham’s busiest, since the Bullring took in the clientele and COVID took its toll. But it’s winning it back, and every December the whole route from the Mall and past Apple to Birmingham Town Hall is lined with stalls for the Christmas market.

Like many Apple stores, Apple Birmingham is unique, even in the UK. Compare it to Apple’s newest store, Brompton Road in London, and the radically different store at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

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