Adelaide House | The story of London’s first skyscraper
The history of the City’s pioneering, art deco office block and the hotel which came before it.
Standing on the north side of London Bridge, two impressive buildings form the unofficial gateways to the City – Fishmongers Hall on the western side and Adelaide House opposite. While the Hall dates back to 1830s, Adelaide House is a 20th century, Modernist construction. Although Adelaide House has only been standing a little shy of a century, its name has origins dating back to the same period as the current Fishmongers’ Hall.
In 1831, the New London Bridge opened slightly west of the original location of the Old London Bridge. Opening the capital’s iconic crossing were King William IV (1765-1837) and Queen Adelaide (1792-1849), with the monarch honoured with the road approaching the bridge being named King William Street. The old London Bridge Waterworks had been demolished to make way for Adelaide Place and a neo-classical block, the Adelaide Hotel. With four storeys visible on the London Bridge side, the building featured Corinthian pilasters and a ornamental balustrade on the roof level. Looming over the London Bridge Wharf, it was a perfect location for a hotel. The wharf guaranteed a regular hotel clientele as it was busy with cargo and passenger steamships. One company operating out of the Wharf was the New Medway Steam Packet Company, which offered cruises down the Thames to the Essex and Kent coastline. The Adelaide Hotel was open by 1835 and had expansive views over the river, as well as typical amenities such as a restaurant and ladies’ coffee room. The Handbook of London, published in 1849, describes the Adelaide as a “third-class hotel”, although Adams’s Pocket London guide two years later is more complementary: “A spacious establishment in high repute”. Despite the handy location, the Adelaide Hotel wasn’t a huge success and was converted into offices in the 1850s and renamed the Adelaide Buildings.
The Adelaide Buildings were home to various companies over the decades, but one dominant tenant was the Pearl Insurance company. Originally started in the East End in 1857, the company expanded and moved to the Adelaide Buildings in 1878, where it remained until 1914 when it headed west to High Holborn. (See a London Metropolitan Archives photo of the building in 1913).
By 1920, the Adelaide Buildings were demolished to make way for the new Adelaide House. Entrepreneur and underwriter Richard Tilden Smith (1865-1929) took over the site and commissioned architects Sir John James Burnet (1857-1938) and Thomas Smith Tait (1882-1954) to erect an 10-storey office block for his National Metal and Chemical Bank company. Burnet and Tait designed a steel framed, Portland stone and granite building – the first building in the City of London to use the steel frame technique, which was later utilised in the erection of skyscrapers around the world. When it was completed in 1925, it was the first skyscraper in London at 141ft (although admittedly shorter by today’s standards of what we expect from a skyscraper). It was also the first office building in the UK to have central ventilation – an early form of air-conditioning – as well as telephone and electricity on every floor. On the granite façade are a mix of Art Deco and Egyptian features – the latter inspired by the then-craze for Egypt following the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Among the contractors working on the structure were stonemasons George Hart & Sons. Tilden Smith’s expansive office was on the top floor and had a private roof garden with stunning views of the capital. The garden covered two-thirds of an acre and featured an 18-hole putting course, telephone, rockeries, fruit trees and beehives (see a British Pathé video of the beehives in 1937). For the garden, 350 tons of soil was carried upstairs. Above the main entrance opening out on to London Bridge is a sculpture by Sir William Reid Dick (1879-1961). The 3.2 metre high figure is depicted in draped materials and carrying an orb with a bronze astrological band. When it was first built, not everyone was a fan of the Modernist architectural style and it received criticism for obstructing the view of St Magnus-the-Martyr’s spire. A complaint in The Times dubbed it an “architectural Matterhorn”. It appears the church ended up in legal dispute with Smith over Adelaide House in 1929. Referring to the law of “ancient lights”, it was likely the church wardens were unhappy over the loss of light into the church, as well as protecting the privacy for the parishioners.
Tilden Smith, who made a fortune in the Australian goldrush, didn’t get to enjoy his new office for long and died in December 1929. During the 1930s, the roof garden was accessible to staff members, with female employees utilising it for exercise classes during their lunch break. Adelaide House managed to survive the Blitz, despite nearby St Magnus-the-Martyr church receiving significant damage. The building to the east was demolished following World War II, leaving the plain, eastern side of Adelaide House exposed, which was never the architects’ intention to be seen. In 1954, the roof garden was removed and replaced by an extra storey. In 1970, law firm Berwin Leighton (now Berwin Leighton Paisner) moved into Adelaide House. Two years later, the building was Grade II listed by Historic England. In the 1980s, the building underwent significant internal alterations, following by a £19.2million renovation in 2005-2007.
Meanwhile, the neighbouring London Bridge Wharf was incorporated into the neighbouring New Fresh Wharf in the 1930s, which continued to received cargo and passenger vessels. The Fresh Wharf company ended up building a 10-storey warehouse in 1953, which was eventually demolished in 1973-4. Today, the site is home to a 1978 office building St Magnus House, designed by Swiss-British architect Richard Seifert (1910-2001), who is also responsible for Centre Point in Oxford Street, Tower 42 and No.1 Croydon.
- Adelaide House, King William Street, City of London, EC4. Nearest stations: Monument or London Bridge.
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