Exploring the history of 55 Broadway with Hidden London
If you’re interested in London history, architecture or its transport network, then check out a Hidden London tour from the London Transport Museum. Run for limited periods, I’ve previously visited the disused Aldywch tube station and the former World War II shelter underneath Clapham South tube station and found them fascinating. Although the Hidden London group offers visits to other disused platforms and tube stations, my last booking with them saw me remaining above ground. The tour lasts 90 minutes and covered many of the 14 floors of the building.
55 Broadway in St James was London’s first skyscraper because of the way it was built. Standing tall at 53 metres (175ft), the Grade I listed office block is an impressive piece of art deco architecture in Portland stone. The structure was originally built in 1927-1929 to a design by English architect Charles Holden (1875-1960). As well as 55 Broadway, Holden was also responsible for the University of London’s Senate House, Bristol Central Library and many tube stations, such as Acton Town, Balham, Clapham Common and Leicester Square, among others. 55 Broadway was briefly the tallest office block in London, before it was surpassed by Holden’s Senate House in the mid 1930s. It was originally constructed as the headquarters for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London Limited (UERL), on top of St James’s tube station.
The structure is rather unique for London buildings due to its cruciform shape, with 55 Broadway getting narrower the higher the storey, stepping up to a clock tower. This shape allows plenty of light in throughout the building. The radical new style of building, plus the risqué sculptures on the façade of the building led to some controversy at the time. American-British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) created a pair of matching sculptures on the north-east and south-east façades, entitled ‘Day and Night’. Some objected to the nudity of the figures, in particular the length of the male appendage on ‘Day’. To appease his critics, Sir Jacob agreed to shave 1.5 inches off the young male’s member. On the pediment above the sixth floor features eight figurative reliefs that represent ‘the four winds’, made by six different sculptors, including Henry Moore.
Before starting the Hidden London tour, we explored the public areas of the lobby, home to the station ticket hall and a small shopping arcade. The expense of construction was evident with travertine marble throughout. The art deco details have been retained throughout the building, such as walnut panelling, metal up lighting and bronze doors. If you look closely, you can spot the star burst motif – a popular Art Deco design feature – frequently engraved into the marble walls.
We stepped into the original lifts in the centre of the building and visited a series of floors. Each landing followed a uniform shape with corridors going off in north, south, east and west directions. Each floor featured white marble water fountain (now out of use) and a Cutler mailing chute, which allowed employees to send post down to be sorted. When it was built, the company operated in hierarchal terms so the more senior the employee, the higher their offices and dining halls were. The executives had grand offices towards the upper floors, with stunning detailing, such as ornate ceilings (pictured above), and access to four roof gardens. On the tour, we climbed some vertiginous steps to explore one of the roof gardens, which boasted fabulous views of nearby Westminster, including Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye. On the way down, we took the rectangle spiral staircase, which was the most decorative fire escape I’ve ever seen. The staircase had lovely Art Deco features on the balusters and railings.
The building suffered a direct hit by a World War II bomb on 14 October 1940. It entered 55 Broadway on the ninth floor and fell through several floors before exploding on the fifth floor, damaging a significant amount of the west wing. Fortunately no one was hurt, but tragically 68 people were killed while sheltering in Balham tube station that same night. The building was repaired in the 1950s, with the missing Portland Stone reinstated in 1963. The building was refurbished in the 1980s and a new shopping mall replacing some of the TfL offices. Since my tour, it’s been announced that TFL have sold off the building to Integrity International Group for “over £120 million”.
- 55 Broadway, St James, SW1H 0BD. Nearest station: St James’s Park. Prior to the sale of 55 Broadway, the London Transport Museum offered occasional Hidden London tours of the building, although the recent sale is likely to impact that in future. Check the LTM website for details.
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Posted on 17 Oct 2019, in Architecture, History, London, Tourist Attractions and tagged 1920s, Art deco, Hidden London, London Transport, London Transport Museum, Westminster. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.