Monday 21 October 2019

London Open House Weekend - Albert Speer's doorknob, Charles Holden's masterpiece, an air raid shelter and Civil Defence HQ in one day!

Firstly, for those readers outside London, or indeed the United Kingdom, let me explain what London Open House Weekend actually is!

It bills itself as "the world's largest architecture festival, giving free public access to 800+ buildings, walks, talks and tours over one weekend in September each year." The event has been running since 1992 and provides access to buildings that are not normally open to the public, as well as to the parts of well-known buildings that the public cannot usually visit. In short, it is a dream for any lover of architecture, history or of London in general!

This year, I set myself a target of visiting some sites with a wartime connection and as always, report on here what I had found. My first visit took me to Westminster and to a building with an interesting immediate pre-war history.

Number 6-9 Carlton House Terrace is now the home to The Royal Society, who have been resident here since 1967. The Terrace itself is the creation of architect John Nash and in addition to Prussia House, as the building was known in a former guise as the German Embassy, the Terrace has had many famous residents, including Lord Palmerstone, William Ewart Gladstone, Viscount Astor and Lord Curzon.

The small garden adjoining the former embassy is the home to a small grave marker, which is inscribed "'GIRO' EIN TRUER BEGLEITER! LONDON IM FEBRUAR 1934, HOESCH" and commemorates a pet dog belonging to the ambassador from 1932 - 1936, Dr. Leopold Von Hoesch. Translated, the inscription reads "'GIRO' A LOYAL COMPANION" and is also perhaps indicative of the good Doctor's personality - a cultivated, cultured man, who worked hard to improve Anglo-German relations in the inter-war years. The marker almost certainly doesn't indicate the actual resting place of Giro as it was rescued from oblivion by a worker engaged on excavating the underground car park during the 1960s. Giro had reputedly met his end by electrocution, when he carelessly chewed through an electric cable to a lamp but sadly today, there is no trace of the location of his exact grave.

Giro grave marker (Author's photograph)

Dr Von Hoesch had been appointed by the Weimar regime and by the time of his death in 1936 whilst still in post, he had found himself increasingly at odds with his new political masters back in Berlin. His funeral cortege in London had been full of Nazi pomp but tellingly, he was returned to Germany on a British destroyer, HMS Scout and at the funeral in his home city of Dresden, not one party member had bothered to attend.

I was aware that the interior of the building had been renovated by Hitler's architect Albert Speer and wanted to see if any evidence of this work was still visible. I had heard rumours of a Nazi Eagle mosaic hidden beneath a carpet somewhere in the building but if there was any truth in this, any views of it were not forthcomng but what we were able to see from this era were several doorknobs reputedly installed during the Speer renovation and also the main staircase, which now boast Travertine marble facings, also a remnant from the work carried out at this time.

A Third Reich doorknob! (author's photo)

Travertine marble installed during the Albert Speer renovation (Author's photograph)

A brisk walk across St James's Park took me to my next port of call at 55 Broadway, perhaps better known as the headquarters building for London Transport, designed by Charles Holden and constructed between 1927 and 1929. The wartime connection here is somewhat more tenuous but still merits a honourable mention. Holden himself was London Transport's "in house" architect and was responsible for the corporate style that led to the classic, airy station buildings designed on the Northern and Piccadilly Line extensions but he had perhaps first come to prominence for his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) immediately after the First World War. Initially working as Senior Design Architect and reporting to such luminaries as Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, he had gone on to design works in his own right including memorials at Messines Ridge British Cemetery and the Buttes New British Cemetery at Zonnebeke.

55 Broadway was when built, the tallest office building in London and is of a cruciform design, with wings that project from a central core which contain lifts, staircases and other services. The design allowed more natural light into the offices and was constructed directly above St James's Park Station. The building is supported by some 700 concrete piles and nineteen load-bearing steel girders span the railway, with special insulation used in order to reduce vibration emanating from the passing trains beneath. It is faced with some 2,200 cubic metres of Portland stone, one of Holden's favourite materials. Much use was also made of Norwegian granite for plinth facings and black Belgian marble for the column capitals, as well as Travertine marble for the reception areas.

55 Broadway still looking maginificent (Author's photograph)

Frank Pick, the Chief Executive and Deputy Chairman of London Transport, who commissioned the building and who was responsible for every aspect of London Transport's corporate design, also invited contemporary artists such as Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Henry Moore, A H Gerrard, Eric Aumonier, Allan Wyon and Samuel Rabinovitch to contribute sculptures to adorn the building but Epstein's work entitled 'Night and Day' provoked a considerable outcry at the time for the somewhat generously endowed child that forms part of the 'Day' section of the work. Pick and Holden, to their credit, stood by their artists and supported the installation of their works. The building suffered during the Blitz and received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb on the night of 10/11 May 1941, which was temporarily repaired in brick during the war but seamlessly repaired post-war using compatible Portland stone.

The original train describer that once could place every train on the network (Author's photograph)

The seventh floor executive suite (Author's photograph)

An 'Underground' embossed hopper at the top of the drain pipe (Author's photograph)

Sadly, many of the original office interiors were torn out in 1986/87 during a refurbishment and replaced with more contemporary materials, which are frankly, not suitable for a building of this stature. Despite this, some original features still remain, such as the train describer in the main reception, which when installed could reputedly locate the position of every train on the network by making a printed mark on the recording paper disks for each of the lines in existence at the time - this device predates the Victoria and Jubilee Lines by some years. The Executive Suite on the seventh floor, which once contained Frank Pick's office, together with that of the Chairman, Lord Ashfield, remains fairly unchanged with timber panelling abounding and the exterior of the building features drain pipes adorned with the "Underground" logo on the hoppers.

55 Broadway is deservedly a Grade One Listed Building. Sadly, the cash-strapped Transport for London have sold the building, which will become a hotel, no doubt out of the price range for ordinary Londoners. It remains to be seen whether this magnificent structure will continue to be open for future Open House Weekends.

I left 55 Broadway beneath rapidly darkening skies and made a quick dash by tube for Waterloo Station, from where I was to catch a train for my next destination and what for me, would be the highlight of my day.

The Shelter Entrance at St Leonard's Court (Author's photo)

Fortunately, I made a quick connection at Waterloo but by the time I alighted from my train at Mortlake, it was raining steadily but although the Open House brochure had warned me of potential queues at my next venue, a combination of the bad weather and my early arrival meant that only a short wait was necessary before I could descend below ground!

It was inevitable that if an air raid shelter formed part of London Open House, then I would be there and the private shelter at St Leonard's Court had been on my "must visit" list ever since I became aware of it a couple of years ago.

St Leonard's Court itself is a four storey, private apartment complex designed by architect F G Fox and constructed between 1934 and 1938. The idea of the shelter was no doubt spurred on by the Munich Crisis that came during the year the block was completed and although the immediate threat of war was averted then, planning permission for the shelter was sought in October 1939, just a month after war had been declared. Residents had been canvassed as to their interest in building the shelter and they had decided that a private shelter was far preferable to the public shelters on offer in the borough. Space could be assured for the price of £7 per annum and the original shelter consisted of two large sitting areas constructed below the courtyard and accessed from stairs in a turret-shaped structure. These sitting areas were segregated into male and female sections, each with two Elsan-type toilets and capable of holding 120 persons. Each sitting area had an emergency exit, consisting of a vertical ladder, in case of the main exit being blocked by rubble. Electric light was provided as well as bench-type seating. These facilities represented a considerable improvement on the public shelters, which were usually brick built, surface structures with little or no sanitation.

Going down.....(Author's photograph)

The route to daylight (Author's photograph)

Emergency Exit (Author's photograph)

Ladies sitting area (Author's photograph)
Gentlemen's sitting area (Author's photograph)

Each sitting section had two of these Elsan toilets (Author's photograph)

In 1941, a dormitory section was added and contained 48 bunk beds. This was probably limited by space constraints rather than any lack of demand. As with the sitting areas, the accommodation on offer here was vastly superior than could be found in any public shelters, with the possible exception of the London Underground (out of range for this area) and the Deep Level shelters (also out of range and yet to be finished in 1941). As with the sitting areas, the dormitory was divided but this time with a Children's section added too. Each bunk had it's own electric light above the bed for reading purposes and remarkably, many of these lights still have the makeshift shades made by the residents from pieces of fabric that they had to hand. As with the sitting areas, an emergency exit ladder was provided.

Each bunk had a light - here with original improvised lamp shade (Author's photo)

Recreated bunks, with numbered coat hangers (Author's photograph)

Fortunately, although the shelter was used on numerous occasions during the Blitz and subsequent V-Weapons campaign, St Leonard's Court was never seriously damaged by bombing and suffered just one incendiary bomb on the roof in 1941, which was quickly dealt with by the Air Raid Wardens.

Leaving the shelter and saying my goodbyes, I was now racing against the clock, as I needed to get from Mortlake back to my own neighbourhood in southeast London before it was too late. Once again, the train connections were kind to me and I was able to quickly dash home and collect my car in order to make the final visit of the day.

Shrewsbury House sits almost on top of Shooter's Hill in southeast London and was built in 1923, replacing another house of the same name dating from 1789 and located slightly further up the hill. The earlier building has been built for the Earl of Shrewsbury but in 1799 had come into the ownership of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. The house had been used as a convalescent home during the First World War but in 1916, the house and it's grounds had been purchased by Fred Halse, a former Mayor of Woolwich and owner of a construction company. He demolished the original Shrewsbury House in 1923 and the new building bearing the same name was intended to be a family home for Mr Halse. Things obviously didn't go to plan and in 1930, Halse & Sons went into voluntary liquidation and it is far from clear whether Halse or any members of his family ever lived at their new home. The house is today Grade II listed and is described by Historic England as "A handsome and substantial early C20 country house with varied and well-articulated external elevations and interiors in a Jacobean, early C18 and Adam style."

The main entrance of Shrewsbury House (Author's photograph)

In 1933, the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich purchased the house, together with an acre of grounds for £9,000, with the intention of using the building as a library and museum, although the museum usage never actually materialised, perhaps due to the gathering war clouds. By the time war came in September 1939, Shrewsbury House had been established as the Civil Defence control for the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich, in preference to Woolwich Town Hall, a magnificent Victorian building but one which was considered unsuitable for this purpose, due to a combination of the age of the building and the associated expense involved in converting the basement for this use and also because of its location in the centre of a Garrison Town which was also fairly adjacent to a prime target for the Luftwaffe - the Woolwich Arsenal. Shrewsbury House, in contrast is in a far more isolated location and less likely to attract the attention of hostile aircraft.

By the time I arrived, the final guided tour of the day had started but I was able to tag along just in time for the parts of the tour that interested me most, covering the building's wartime past. The tour was guided by the excellent Andy Brockman, a local historian and professional archaeologist, who is also a trustee of Shrewsbury House. I joined Andy and the group in a room that now is used as a meeting room in the house's current guise as a community centre and which also contains the bar. Andy explained that during the Second World War, this room was the nerve centre of the Civil Defence network for the borough and would have contained representatives of the various services that constituted the wartime Civil Defence, or Air Raid Precautions as it was known in the early years of the war. Andy told us that there were few clues remaining as to this former use but invited us to look more closely at the main door to the room. On closer examination, the outline of the words "MAP ROOM" could just about be made out and were in fact, slightly clearer the further back from the door one stood.

The words "MAP ROOM" can still be faintly seen on the door (Author's photograph)

Moving on, Andy then took us outside the building with a promise to show us more of the building's Civil Defence past and we paused outside a large brick and concrete structure, reminiscent of a Second World War surface air raid shelter but one which looked too large for this purpose. Andy then explained that this was in fact the Civil Defence Control for the Cold War era but that initially, these structures had been based on Second World War technology and experience, hence this structure looking like a "beefed up" version of a 1939-45 shelter. Closer examination revealed strong buttresses at floor level, the purpose of these being to steady the walls against the much larger blast waves expected from nuclear weapons, which would exert enormous pressure on the walls, no matter how thick they might be. Speaking to us from within the confines of the main Control Room area, Andy went on to tell us that experience gained from subsequent weapon tests rendered these surface buildings obsolete almost as soon as they were constructed. The blast wave from even a moderately sized nuclear bomb dropped in the vicinity of the Royal Docks, just across to the north side of the Thames, would have been more than sufficient to have flattened a structure such as this. Subsequent control rooms would be built below ground to give them a chance of immunity from the effects of an atomic bomb.

The Cold War Civil Defence Control Room (Author's photograph)

Civil Defence Control - Cold War style (Author's photo)

Andy explains the use of the building to the group (Author's photograph)

We then moved back inside the building and completed our tour by looking out at the magnificent view across the Thames Estuary and East Kent from the upper floors. It was whilst checking out this view that I noticed that the garden of an adjacent house contained a small, concrete shelter. This would have been privately built instead of the then occupier accepting the more usual Anderson Shelter. Perhaps the proximity of the garden to the Civil Defence Headquarters had swayed the thinking of the householder!

Private shelter visible at centre of photograph, behind wooden fence (Author's photograph)

The view to the east (Author's photograph)

So ended an exhausting but highly enjoyable Open House experience. Where else could one experience an Albert Speer doorknob, see the work of one of our foremost architects, visit a remarkably well-preserved private air raid shelter and learn about the Civil Defence arrangements for a London borough, all in one day?

Thanks are due to all of those organisations taking part in London Open House Weekend 2019 as well as to all those volunteers who willingly gave up their weekend time in order to show off their wonderful buildings. The London Open House 2020 event will take place over the weekend of September 19 and 20, so reserve these dates in your diaries as there are sure to be some more architectural gems on display.

As always, all of the photographs in this piece are my images and may not be used or reproduced without my express written permission.

No comments:

Post a Comment