Friday 4 September 2020

Twentieth Century - Art Deco in Birchington-on-sea

Birchington-on-sea is a large village in Kent not far from the larger seaside towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Whitstable and the historical city of Canterbury. It is a short walk from the stunning scenery of Minnis Bay and home to one of Britain's most elegant Art Deco homes. 

In 1935, local builder Chas Hawkes designed and oversaw the construction of an Art Deco building in Birchington. It was to be a home for him and his wife Kathleen and would also have an office for her Minnis Bay Estate Agency. When completed it would have been the epitome of modernism with its striking white exterior, crittall windows, delightful curves and subtle decorative references to the Art Deco "rule of three". Perhaps to emphasise its modernity the couple named their new home Twentieth Century.

The Hawkes lived there for several years until for reasons unknown, they moved to another home just a short step away. They were not the only notable people to have lived in the house. In 1962 Tudor Gates, author, playwright, screenwriter and Trade Unionist acquired the property and lived there until 1986. During that time he wrote a number of TV scripts and screenplays including Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971) - all of them for Hammer, the famed horror film company. He also contributed to the script of Barbarella (1968) and to the TV series The Avengers, The Sweeney and The Saint. Gates changed the building's name to The White House, a name it retained until just a few years ago.

As well as changes of name and ownership, the house was subject to a number of  physical alterations over the years. Kathleen Hawkes' estate agency office originally occupied what is today the breakfast room and had a door leading directly to the garden, enabling the main entry to be retained for private use only. This door disappeared at some point as did the original crittall glazing and the elegant Minnis Bay Estate Agency lettering on the office facade. The original design included stunning squared-off, wrap around windows at the front of the building and sadly these were also removed at some point. Not only this, the lintels installed to support the wall above the windows were removed making it difficult and expensive to reverse this at a later date. The house came on the market in 2011 and Wowhaus, the website devoted to Art Deco and modernist architecture wrote scathingly about the changes describing them as "how no to do it" rather than "wow". At about this time, the house became a bed and breakfast hotel.

Today the wow is well and truly back thanks to current owners Kat Webb and Spencer Stedman who purchased the property in November 2017 after having stayed there as a treat for Spencer's birthday. Both of them have been serious Art Deco collectors for several years and Kat even has an Art Deco dolls house given to her in her childhood! On taking possession they not only restored the original name to the house but undertook significant restoration work to bring it back to its original splendour. This labour of love resulted in them receiving the 2019 Raven Award from the Birchington Heritage Trust.

Today the Twentieth Century Bed and Breakfast is a wonderful place to stay, not only for Art Deco enthusiasts but for anyone wishing to explore this part of Kent with its beaches and other natural and historical attractions.  It has four themed rooms including the Baron and Lady Carson Art Deco suite which is named after the owners of the land on which the house sits. The Tudor Gates room has a collection of posters and other items related to Gates' career and the Amy Johnson room is filled with memorabilia commemorating the famous aviator. The David Bowie room is a tribute to the musical superstar who performed in nearby Margate and who is known to have visited the area as a child. The idea behind the themed rooms is that they reflect different periods with the twentieth century and commemorate people with links to the house and the area. 

Kat and Spencer have displayed items from their Art Deco collections in the common areas of the house and during my recent stay they kindly showed me their wonderful collection of photographs. These include images of the original exterior and of Chas and Kathleen Hawkes and the labourers who worked on the building. They are extremely knowledgable about Art Deco and were very happy to show me Hawkes' original architectural drawings and to share stories about the building's history. They are also wonderful hosts who serve a great breakfast which includes herbs, tomatoes and other fruit grown in their garden. Why would you want to stay anywhere else?

You can find more details about Twentieth Century on their website.

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  1. Architectural tastes come, influence everybody for a decade, then disappear again. I loved Deco from the mid 1920s until the start of WW1, but there aren't many examples left today that are still in wonderful condition. Your photos show how successful the recent renovations were, at least externally.

    What does the interior look like?

  2. My name's Johnny Bull and I would love to make an illustration from this photograph. If you like it, I'll send a print. I've become lately obsessed with light and shadow. Thank you.