Thursday 30 August 2018

Northwood Hall - 1930's luxury in Highgate

Luxury Art Deco apartment blocks were built all over London during the 1930's. Offering the latest domestic conveniences, concierge services and in some case swimming pools and resident only restaurants  they were designed with the principles of modernity and luxury firmly in mind. Many of these buildings have survived including Northwood Hall in Hornsey Lane, Highgate, built in 1935 and designed by architect Charles Edward Bright.

Northwood Hall is large and imposing with a striking main entrance topped by stylised lettering carrying the building's name. Behind this sits a recessed and glazed stairwell topped by a tower rising one level above the rest of the structure. The original almost 200 flats were advertised as having either two or three bedrooms with large reception rooms and various modern facilities. The rental cost per annum in 1935 ranged from £105-175 per annum and for this tenants got central heating, constant hot water, heated linen cupboards, an electric lift, garage space, a fitted kitchen and a de-luxe bathroom. Peace and quiet was ensured through the sound proofing of all corridors.

Architects working in the modernist style emphasised not only modernity and luxury but also healthy living. Charles Edward Bright reflected this in the building's unusual cruciform shape, intended to maximise the amount of natural light flowing into each unit. The inclusion of semi-circular sun windows in some flats and French windows leading to external balconies in others further enhanced this. The balconies are architecturally interesting too, protruding from the building and of unorthodox design with one rounded and one squared off end.

Still with healthy living, exercise was encouraged by setting the building in extensive gardens and by providing tennis courts where according to the advertising brochure residents could participate in tournaments during the summer months. Of course, exercise wasn't compulsory and for the less sporty residents, the roof garden may have been more attractive. Sadly neither of these features have survived. The tennis courts were built on many years ago and the roof garden is no longer accessible. The loss of the roof garden is particularly unfortunate since it must command spectacular views across the city as do the flats at the upper levels. Indeed this was a feature of the original advertising which boasted that it was possible to see as far south as Crystal Palace on a clear day.

The annual rent included access to uniformed porters who could also arrange for maid services but perhaps the most splendid facility of all was the restaurant that offered both table d'hote meals and an a la carte menu. Not only that, meals could be served in your flat if you preferred to eat at home. These arrangements were not unusual in apartment buildings of this period - the Isokon in nearby Belsize Park had a famous restaurant and bar - but I am not aware of any that have survived until today. I understand that the former restaurant space was converted into additional flats whilst a residents' shop also closed.

The architect had an interesting career. Educated at the Bartlett, he went on to work as an assistant to Herbert Baker, Edward Lutyens and Guy Dawber from 1928. He designed at least three more London apartment buildings during the 1930's, including Benhurst Court in Streatham which has some design similarities to Northwood Hall. He also saw military service in Gibraltar during the Second World War.

Recently proposals were brought forward to add two storeys to the building consisting of 22  new apartments with a total of 55 bathrooms (!) Whilst there are many examples of adding a single  storey to buildings of this kind, it is most unusual for changes of this extent. If implemented this would have significant impact on the original design, destroying its lines, proportions and in particular detracting from the previously mentioned main entrance. The building is not protected by listed status but significant opposition to the proposals including more than 40 objections submitted to Haringey Council's Planning Department resulted last week in their withdrawal. New proposals are to be drawn up and consulted on. It is hoped that a more sympathetic approach will be taken. 

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Picture Post 71 - A Hidden Art Deco Treasure in London's West End.

One of London's most attractive Art Deco facades is tucked away in a side street, just a few steps from Bond Street in the city centre. Built in 1937, Blenstock House was designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who were also responsible for the superb Ibex House near Tower Hill.

The building stands on the corner of Blenheim and Woodstock Street and gets its name from a combination of the two. It received Grade II listed status in 2009 due primarily to its use of "eye-catching materials on the facade which is clad in buff, yellow and peach faience, a distinctive and stylish example of Art Deco architecture". Other features referenced in the listing include bent glass vertical windows, a stair tower, flagpole and the rooftop advertising frame. The stylised external sprinkler stop valve signage is also thought to be original. I particularly like the "thermometer" feature in the centre of the facade and the glazed tower which stands to the left when facing the building. According to the official listing details, some original internal features have been retained including the brass handrail and metal balustrade of the main staircase.

The building was originally the offices of Phillips auctioneers, a company with a long history, founded in 1796 by one Harry Phillips. Harry had served as a senior clerk for Christie's auctioneers before branching out by himself. The first Phillips auction in Blenstock House was held in 1939. Although the building was leased to Phillips, other businesses also occupied space here including sportswear manufacturers Berker Sportscraft Ltd who moved there in 1946. By 1951 two more companies had space here - Glendining and Co Ltd (another auctioneers) and Fina Petroluem Products. Over time Phillips expanded and by 1974 they were the sole tenants. In 1989 they established an interconnection to their other premises in nearby New Bond Street to form a single unit. Bonhams took over the entire building in 2001.

The architectural company of Fuller, Hall and Foulsham was based in Hemel Hempstead and its partners were to design many buildings there during the expansion of the town in the 1950's as well as AMP House in Croydon, completed in 1964.

Saturday 18 August 2018

China Town Rediscovered

I have recently been spending time in Chinatown, photographing the street life and discovering things  that I'd hadn't noticed in more than 30 years of going there! I have to admit that it is some time since I last went to a restaurant there but I often partake of those long, deep fried "Chinese doughnuts" if I am there at the weekend and occasionally buy little treats including sweets made from various beans, or mangosteens, a small and delicious fruit I developed a liking for when living in Thailand some years ago.

Dansey Place grocery shop
Taking a break, Rupert Court
I have many memories of spending time in this part of London, including eating with groups of friends, once or twice attending parties in tiny flats tucked away above restaurants and even going to the Guang Hwa bookshop to purchase of Chinese books for a library service I once worked in and which had several Chinese customers. My recent forays, reading and internet research have made me appreciate Chinatown much more and have also provoked in me discomfort about its future as more businesses are forced out through hikes in rent whilst the number of gambling establishments increases.

For those not familiar with London's Chinatown, it is a collection of about nine streets clustered on the southern side of Shaftesbury Avenue. People know it for its restaurants but bakeries, supermarkets selling Asian food items, hairdressers and community organisations can also be found there. There are also a handful of Japanese and Korean restaurants offering alternatives to Chinese dishes. The main thoroughfare, Gerrard Street is always busy, especially at weekends when Chinese people come from across London and the South-East to shop and to meet friends and family. Many tourists visit and are easily spotted having their photograph taken under one of the ornamental gates before choosing a place to eat. This street is also the main focus of public cultural activity at Chinese New Year and other festival times as well as a place you might see a political demonstration by Falun Gong, Jehovah's Witnesses distributing brochures translated into Chinese or occasional buskers at the junction with Wardour Street.

Wardour Street

Deliveries, Wardour Street
London's original Chinatown was in Limehouse in the East End where most of the city's Chinese population lived at the beginning of the 20th century, many of them running businesses catering to seamen from the nearby docks. The area was heavily bombed during the Second World War and many Chinese businesses and homes suffered destruction or damage. Post-war demolitions destroyed most of what remained and a new Chinatown was gradually established around Gerrard Street in the late 1960's and early 1970's. However the Chinese presence in this part of the city predates this. In "London Nights Out: Life In Cosmopolitan London" Judith R. Walkowitz refers to Soho restaurants run by Hong Kong Chinese in the 1930's as well as other Chinese businesses bombed out in Limehouse coming here in the 1940's on extremely disadvantageous leases just to stay afloat.

Shopping in Gerrard Street
And so to my discoveries. Wong Kei in Wardour Street is one of London's best known Chinese restaurants. For years it was renowned for the rudeness of the staff who who bellow at customers "upstairs upstairs" as they entered or insist you share tables with people already seated when there was space elsewhere. I remember one famous occasion when going there to eat with a group of Chinese friends one was so incensed with the rudeness of our reception that he almost came to blows with one of the waiters. This robust welcome became part of the experience of eating at Wong Kei and people would go there to "enjoy" the experience as well as to sample the food.

The Wong Kei building has quite a history. Built in restrained art nouveau style, the foundation stone was laid in 1904 by none other than actress Sarah Bernhardt whilst the coping stone was laid by Henry Irving. Both were extraordinary people. Bernhardt was the supreme star of the French theatre during the late 19th and early 20th century even after having a leg amputated in 1915. She also inspired several of the wonderful art nouveau posters of Czech artist Alphone Mucha. Irving was born into a working class family in Somerset, rose to become a luminary of the British theatre and the first actor to be granted a knighthood in 1895.  This building is proof that one should always look up when walking in London. I have a passion for art nouveau but entranced by the menu in the window only recently noticed the obvious architectural features and plaques to Bernhardt and Irving. For many years the building was home to William Berry "Willy" Clarkson's Wigs by Clarkson. Clarkson was not only an excellent wig maker and costumier, but also an accomplished blackmailer and fraudster. Perhaps unsurprisingly he died in suspicious circumstances in 1934.

Dansey Place
Just across from Wong Kei, there is a narrow alley that runs behind a string of restaurants. This is Dansey Place. At first site (and smell) it is neither welcoming nor attractive. However it is worth venturing in if only to visit Lo's Noodle Factory where delicious fresh noodles are made and sold  very cheaply from this "hole in the wall" operation. Peep over the counter and it is possible to see huge sheets of noodles being stretched out before cut and packed into bags ready for sale. There is also a seafood stall in the street and a small, red and green painted grocery shop.

Our friend Willy Clarkson has a connection with Dansey Place too. Before the Second World War the street was a notorious gay meeting place. Men would congregate in a public lavatory opposite Clarkson's shop and which became known as Clarkson's Cottage. It was also a haunt for blackmailers who would extort money from the men - male homosexuality being completely illegal in the UK until 1967. The facility was so notorious that when it was closed in 1945, a wealthy New Yorker bought it and installed it in his garden.

A modern conversation in Gerrard Street
Nice hoardings but another closed restaurant
London's Chinatown is small compared to those of say New York, San Francisco, Manila or Melbourne but it is no less interesting. Whatever time you choose to wander its few streets there will be something to see including early morning deliveries to the shops and the restaurants, waiters and waitresses having quick cigarette breaks before the onslaught of lunchtime customers,  people snacking outside the bakeries and the of course occasional street trader. I recently noticed a couple of older men selling garlic and green vegetables spread out on newspaper. I bought something from each of them and asked if they would let me take their pictures. We do not have a language in common but we somehow understood each other and they agreed for me to take their portraits - both extremely amused that I should want to. I have since returned to give them hard copies of the photographs. Both of them were surprised and after looking at the pictures placed them very carefully in their wallets. One tried to give me free garlic in return! Portraits of the two gentlemen are featured in this post.

It is true that we often don't notice the things we see very day and we don't always realise their value or consider them special until they are lost. This tiny enclave in the centre of London is important not only to the various Chinese communities or as a tourist attraction but because it represents an important part of the city's history. The losses due to high rents and the encroachment of unrelated businesses is worrying. It would be shameful if these few streets lost their unique character in the way that much of the neighbouring Soho has.

Gerrard Street
Lisle Street

Monday 6 August 2018

Picture Post 70 - Dreamland Margate

Margate is a a town of just over 60,000 people on the Kent coast. Every summer it attracts thousands of day trippers, most of whom will have been greeted at the station by a representative of Dreamland, a large entertainment complex and visitor attraction on the seafront. Today Dreamland encompasses a fairground, roller room, crazy golf, concerts and shows and a range of family orientated activity. The site was originally home to the Dreamland Variety Theatre which opened in 1923 and could seat 900. Later renamed the Dreamland Cinema it was adjacent to an amusement park of the same name.

The Dreamland Super Cinema opened on the same site in 1935 and quickly became a landmark building in the town. The Painted Veil starring Greta Garbo based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel of the same name was the first film to be screened there in March 1935. Architects Julian Rudolph Leathart and W.F. Granger designed the cinema, the design of which was strongly influenced by German expressionism. Dreamland was perhaps the first art deco cinema to have a brick expressionist exterior which culminated with an 80 foot tower with a dramatic projecting fin. The asymmetrical facade also included crittal glazing and stylised lettering originally lettering applied in sans-serif with neon strips. Unfortunately this has been lost. The fin ensured that the cinema could be seen from some distance along the shoreline whilst the interior boasted an ultra modern sound system, an organ, bars, a ballroom, a 500 seat restaurant and a cafe with views out to sea. The cafe originally had a large mural of a sea serpent designed by Walpole Champneys. English heritage report the mural as being lost. 

2050 customers could be seated at any one time with 1,328 seats in the stalls and 722 on the balcony. The interior was designed by John Bird-Iles whilst  Eric Aumonier sculpted sea-nymphs set into recesses at each side of the auditorium. Bird-Iles was the son of the complex whilst Aumonier was also responsible for the kneeling archer at London's East Finchley Underground Station.

The cinema was closed in 1940 due to the Second World War. In the same year it received troops evacuated from Dunkirk. It did not reopen until July 1946. Significant changes were  made to the design in 1973 when two more screens were added in the balcony space. The stalls and stage were converted to a theatre but failed to attract audiences and closed just two years later in 1975 and was the used as a bingo hall. In 1981 a third, smaller screen was added, with seating for just 60 people. This was to operate for 12 years before closing in 1993 as part of a series of changes made by the new, Dutch owners. The bingo hall closed in 2006 whilst the other two screens managed by Reeltime Cinemas held on until the following year when they too ceased operating.

The building was awarded Grade II listed status in 1992 before being upgraded to Grade II* in 2008. Major restoration of the exterior began in 2011 and were completed in 2017. The restored building once again stands proudly on Margate's promenade and I understand that there are plans to introduce open air screenings in the complex this summer.