Category Archives: Architecture

How high, why and by who?

Serpentine Pavilion 2021: Counterspace’s tribute to London’s community spaces

The lost Moorish palace of showbiz and sin: The story of Leicester Square’s Alhambra

The history of the West End theatre and music hall, which stood on the current site of the Odeon Luxe cinema.

The Alhambra in Leicester Square in 1879
(Engraving from The Illustrated London News, 1874)

Situated in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square is known for its cinemas, casinos, chain pubs/restaurants and cheesy nightclubs. As a lifelong Londoner, I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid it if I’m honest. However, I can appreciate it’s a destination for film fans, thanks to the premieres and awards ceremonies which take place there. Of course, it wasn’t always cinemas which drew people to Leicester Square, as the area has long been a destination for Londoners and tourists seeking nocturnal entertainment. One of the lost Victorian venues which lured in the crowds was the Alhambra, previously on the site of the current Odeon Luxe cinema.

Leicester Square was established in the 17th century, taking its name from Leicester House, the grand home built by politician Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester (1595–1677). It was largely residential in the early centuries, but started to evolve into a hub for tourism and entertainment by the 19th century. Before the Alhambra was built at 24-27 Leicester Square, it was occupied by four houses, dating back to the 1670s. These buildings were homes to Lords, Ladies, Barons and Earls over the years, although No.27 was converted into a bagnio (bath house) in the 1720s.

In Victorian London, Leicester Square boasted a host of attractions to amaze and entertain. Among the delights on offer were Wyld’s Great Globe, the Savile House museum, and the Empire Theatre of Varieties (the predecessor to the Empire cinema). The first Alhambra was first built in 1854 as an attraction named the Royal Panopticon of Science Arts. Designed by Thomas Hayter Lewis (1818-1898), it opened in March 1854 and hosted art exhibitions and scientific demonstrations (see a 1854 sketch of the interior). The façade was a bold Moorish style, feature two minaret-esque towers and a dome. Although initially a hit with a reported 1,000 visitors daily, it soon fell out of favour and prompted the owners to sell up for just £9,000 in 1857. The new proprietor, E.T. Smith was an experienced theatre owner and envisioned the building as an entertainment venue. He had a circus ring constructed in time for its re-opening as the Alhambra Circus in April 1858. Smith managed to secure a license for music and dance performances later that year and went on to host ballet and variety shows. After a few years, he sold the building to William Wilde Jnr, who used it for music hall and circus productions. The famous French acrobat Charles Blondin (1824-1897) performed in front of the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) at the Alhambra soon after his successful Niagara Falls tightrope. In May 1861, the venue hosted another legendary French acrobat, Jules Léotard (1838-1870), who wowed with his flying trapeze act over the heads of the audience below. As he proved a huge draw, Léotard was paid £180 a week – an impressive salary at the time. Read the rest of this entry

Victoria House in Whitefriars | An unusual blend of 19th century architecture

The story of a former Fleet Street printing house.

Victoria House on the junction of Tudor Street and Temple Avenue in the Whitefriars district of the City

Many of the surrounding streets of Fleet Street have the industries of law and the press to thank for their many architectural designs. Although the newspapers and publishing houses have moved on, their legacy in the area lives on through their former offices. One of these buildings, the former Argus Printing Company, now survives as a great example of Victorian commercial architecture and is now luxury apartments. Located on the corner of Temple Avenue and Tudor Street in the district of Whitefriars, is a building now known as Victoria House.

The name Whitefriars comes from the former friary, which stood in the area from the 13th to 16th century. Following the dissolution of the friary, the area swiftly went from religious to run-down. At the time, it was located outside the jurisdiction of the City of London so became a magnet for the badly-behaved. The area was known as ‘Alsatia’ and was renowned for its criminal population. However, the Great Fire of London of 1666 provided an opportunity for officials to clean up the area as it was rebuilt.

By the 17th century, Whitefriars became a hub for trade with its many warehouses and wharves. Horwood’s Map of 1799 shows Grand Junction Wharf, Weft & Coves Wharf and White Friars Dock around the site of current Victoria House. Although today, Tudor Street is just over 300 metres long, on Horwood’s Map the name only leant itself to a short stretch of the eastern end. Meanwhile, the western end leading into Inner Temple was called Temple Street until it was renamed as an extension of Tudor Street in the 19th century when the area was altered by construction of the nearby Victoria Embankment in the 1860s. It was during the 19th century that the area of Fleet Street and the surrounding streets – including those in Whitefriars – became a hub for London’s booming newspaper industry. The Victorian era saw the establishment of buildings for both the editorial and production of newspapers and magazines.

Grotesque keystones add some character to the façade

One of the Victorian buildings established for this burgeoning industry was Victoria House, home to the Argus Printing Company. Journalist and politician Harry Marks (1855-1916) established the Argus Printing Company (APC) in 1887 to print his Financial News daily newspaper, which had been founded three years earlier. At its launch, the original Argus printing plant on Bouverie Street wasn’t very large, featuring one machine and rotary press which could produce 12,000 eight-page papers hourly. By 1887, the success of the Financial News meant the APC could buy a larger machine by Hippolyte Auguste Marinoni (1823-1904), which doubled the hourly output. Within a few years, the Bouverie premises were too cramped for the volume of production required so a new site closer to the Thames was acquired in 1891. Read the rest of this entry

Step inside Whitehall’s jewel: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office building

Exploring George Gilbert Scott’s stunning government offices in Westminster.

Foreign Office exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office building’s neo-classical exterior

Many UK Government buildings in Westminster date back to the Victorian era. It was an age when no expense was spared when it came to decorating buildings’ exteriors and interiors, when structures were created to ‘make a statement’ about the people within them. Although the Palace of Westminster gets most of the attention from Londoners and visitors to the capital alike, there is also another remarkable piece of architecture housing a government department. At the time it was built, Britain was at the height of colonial power, so had an extensive budget with which to impressive foreign visitors.

When it came to settling on the final design for what we know today as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Building, it was an arduous process to get there. As was (and still is) common at the time, a competition was launched in 1856 to choose the design for the Foreign Office and neighbouring War Office. English architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) ended up in third place in the competition with his original Gothic revival design (see the designs in the RIBA archives), which also incorporated the War Office. However, it was Scott’s former pupil Henry Edward Coe (1826-1885) and his then-partner HH Hofland’s French Visconti-type design which was chosen for the Foreign Office. However, Coe and Hofland’s plans were ditched the following year when Prime Minister Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), brought in the government’s favoured architect Sir James Pennethorne (1801-1871), who had originally designed plans for the Foreign Office a few years previously, but had not entered the competition. Lord Palmerston’s decision to dismiss the competition results outraged the architecture industry, with Scott leading the protest against it. In 1858, Lord Palmerston lost power and Scott was given the commission. It was around this time, the plans for the War Office were ditched in favour of the India Office, established in 1858 to take over the governing of India from the East India Company.

The dome topping the Grand Staircase depicts female figures representing countries of the world

The grand staircase is designed to impress

In June 1859, Lord Palmerston was re-elected and kicked up a fuss over Scott’s neo-Gothic design, demanding he redesign something neo-Classical, which the architect described as “a style contrary to my life’s labours”. Scott feared ditching his signature style would leave his reputation as one of the key Gothic Revival architects “irreparably injured”. However, Scott decided turning down the opportunity would be unwise, bought some books on Italian architecture and headed to Paris to study classical buildings, such as the Louvre. The India Office insisted he collaborate with their Surveyor Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877), who designed the interior of their office, leaving Scott to focus on the classical exterior of both offices. The plans were finally approved by the Government in 1861, with construction completed in 1868. The Foreign Office was located on the north-west corner of the building with the India office on the south-west corner, while the Colonial Office and Home Office were added on the eastern side in 1875. Fortunately, Scott’s fears about his reputation were unfounded, with support from his peers and the public. “Even Mr (John) Ruskin said I had done right,” wrote Scott in his Personal & Professional Recollections in 1879. As for Scott’s original Gothic vision of the Foreign Office, it was used as the basis for the Midland Hotel at St Pancras.

The Victorian ceiling stencils and gilding have been restored in the Grand Locarno Suite

On completion, it was the first purpose-built Foreign Office, which by that point had been in existence for nearly 80 years. The white, Portland stone façade features many classical elements, including balustrades, columns and pediments. Dotted around are sculptures of former monarchs and politicians as well as allegorical figures of Law, Commerce and Art by English sculptors Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905) and John Birnie Philip (1824-1875). Most enter the complex through the grand arched entrance on King Charles street leading to a large outdoor courtyard. Read the rest of this entry

From criminals to cocktails: How one London hotel started life as a Magistrates Court

The former courthouse in Soho hosted some high profile trials featuring John Lennon, Oscar Wilde, Christine Keeler and Mick Jagger.

Courthouse hotel exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Edwardian-built Courthouse Hotel in Soho

Great Marlborough Street in Soho features an amalgamation of architecture styles. From the mock Tudor timbers of Liberty to the dazzling Art Deco detailing of Palladium House, there’s quite an array of designs. One imposing building is the Courthouse Hotel – its name giving a clear reference to the building’s former life.

Originally without the ‘Great’, Marlborough Street was built in the early 18th century, the road being named to commemorate John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), following his 1704 victory at the Battle of Blenheim. The site of courthouse was originally three houses (19-21), where various affluent families lived over the decades. In 1793, No.21 became one of seven police offices across the capital, established by Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 following the success of the Bow Street court and its ‘runners’ – the precursor of the Metropolitan police. Each location was staffed by three magistrates and up to six officers. Crime had risen steadily in the capital as its population boomed, so the offices could house suspects following arrest and host criminal trials. Other offices were opened in Clerkenwell, Shadwell, Shoreditch, Southwark, Whitechapel, St James and St Margaret Westminster. The police office was expanded to incorporate the rear grounds of No.20 in 1856, although tenants continued to live in the building until 1892.

Courthouse hotel Marlborough Street © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Iron bars separate the lobby lounge from the hotel bar

Police courts were utilised for a wide range of ‘criminal’ activities, including assault, theft, animal cruelty, desertion, solicitation, gambling, matrimonial disputes, small debts, drunk and disorderly conduct, and ‘loitering with intent’. More serious cases to be heard in front of a jury would be heard in the Old Bailey or a Crown Court, although sometimes the preliminary hearings would take place in the magistrates’ courts.

During the 19th century, many famous names passed through the doors of Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court – on both sides of the law. In 1835, a young Charles Dickens (1812-1870) used to cover cases while reporting for the Morning Chronicle. A decade later, Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873), the future Napoleon III, was a witness in a fraud case while exiled in London. The beginning of Oscar Wilde‘s (1854-1900) case against John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900) for libel began at the courthouse in 1895, before moving to the Old Bailey. The author and poet launched a private prosecution of Douglas (father of his then-lover Lord Alfred Douglas) after the Scottish nobleman described him as a “sodomite” on a calling card. The case was dropped, but Wilde was famously charged and convicted of gross indecency soon after and sentenced to two years in prison.

An Edwardian makeover

As the 20th century dawned, it was time for the court to be updated. Architect John Dixon Butler (1861–1920) was responsible as the Metropolitan Police’s architect and surveyor. Butler, who succeeded his architect father John Butler in the role, began his tenure with Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), assisting on the building of New Scotland Yard. During his career, he designed over 200 courts and police stations, including Charing Cross, Wapping, Hackney, Highbury Vale, Hampstead, Muswell Hill, and Tottenham.

Butler’s new design for Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court was a three-storey building made of Portland stone in a restrained free Classical style. Details such as Ionic pilasters, arched windows, and a grand central pedestal topped by the Royal Arms all lend to the building’s imposing style as a location for law and order. Butler’s new design did manage to incorporate some of the original Georgian building, including three late 18th century chimney pieces, two of which are white marble and still exist today. The courthouse was built by Messrs. Patman and Fotheringham and was completed in 1913. Read the rest of this entry

Trading, theatre and Tudor merchants | The story of The Royal Exchange

The current Royal Exchange is the third iteration to stand on the site at Bank.

Royal Exchange exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Royal Exchange on Cornhill is the third building on the site

Today, an exchange building is generally utilised for telecommunications or foreign currency. However, as a commercial building, exchanges date back to at least the 13th century. In London, many of the capital’s former exchanges are long gone, and if they do still exist, conduct business using different methods. However, one of the London’s oldest exchanges still exists, albeit not the original building.

Royal Exchange clock tower © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The eastern side of the Exchange

Standing at the Bank junction of Cornhill and Threadneedle Street is The Royal Exchange, which dates back to the 16th century. It was founded by Tudor merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), who had been trading in Bourse of Antwerp, the world’s first commodities exchange. He obtained land and permission from the City of London’s Court of Alderman to establish a centre of commerce. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) opened the first exchange in January 1571 and gave the building a royal title, along with a license to sell alcohol and valuable goods. Gresham later added two additional floors above the trading floor, with units leased out for retail. This savvy move essentially created Britain’s first shopping mall. Originally, stockbrokers weren’t allowed into the Royal Exchange because of their reputation for being rude, so conducted their trading in the nearby coffee shops.

Gresham’s original Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Its replacement was designed by architect Edward Jarman (1605-1668) and opened in 1669. It was a stone, Baroque building with piazzas, arched entrances to the inner court and a 178ft high tower with clock and bells. The second Royal Exchange was full of merchants and brokers. In 1713, Lloyd’s of London acquired two rooms in the building. However, the building followed the fate of its predecessor and burned down in January 1838. It is believed the blaze may have been caused by an overheated stove in Lloyd’s Coffee House in nearby Lombard Street. Read the rest of this entry

Explore the unlocked city as Open House London 2020 returns with a difference

Find out what’s on at Open House London this year, including event types, safety measures and changes due to the pandemic.

Brixton Windmill © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Brixton Windmill is one of the buildings taking part

With the Covid-19 pandemic still continuing, “normal life” is still a way off from returning. So this year, Open House London is expanded to the Open House Festival, with additional events taking place over a longer period than the usual weekend. This annual event is essentially a festival of architecture and history, where some of London’s most interesting buildings open their doors to the public for free. From private homes to government buildings to offices and hidden historical sites, it’s a great opportunity to explore the capital beyond what is usually accessible. Open House London is one of my favourite weekends of the year and I’ve seen inside some amazing buildings in previous years. It’s also an opportunity to visit some London attractions, such as museums (that you would usually have to pay for) for free. The main weekend takes place 19-20 September 2020, with more activities taking place up to 27 September. As part of the festival, Open House Families will be hosting various events around the capital for children to discover the city’s architecture and history.

Is Open House London different this year because of Covid-19?

Yes. Many buildings that usually take part are unable to open safely this year, so many are offering virtual, online experiences instead. Those venues that are allowing physical visits will be subjected to typical safety requirements, including social distancing, restrictions on group sizes (rule of six applies), one way systems and requirements to wear a face mask and bring hand sanitiser. You will also be required to give your information as part of the Government’s Test and Trace scheme. Open City is advising Londoners to stay local to their homes so travelling long distance and using public transport is kept to a minimum. In addition to virtual and physical building visits, there will also be guided and self-guided walking and cycling tours.

Do I need to book in advance?

For the buildings that are allowing physical visits, some are requiring people book in advance, while others are allowing walk ups. However, at the walk ups, you should be prepared to wait depending on the capacity already present. Organisers will be prioritising safety so will ensure visitors have enough space to socially distance while inside the building. Those who have pre-booked tickets are advised to have a digital copy on their phone, unless otherwise advised by the ticket provider.

Be aware, government restrictions and advice could change at any time so keep visiting the Open House website frequently for the most up to date information.

Metro Girl’s favourite Open House London posts

Check out MG’s blog archives of previous Open House London visits to buildings taking part in this year’s festival:

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Step into a neon wonderland at Gods Own Junkyard in Walthamstow

This year, there will also be podcasts, Open House films and publication of a new book, The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs. Wherever you explore – be it virtually or in person – I wish you a safe and fun Open House London experience!

  • Open House London 2020 takes place 19-20 September, while the Open House Festival runs from 19-27 September 2020. For more information, visit the Open House London website.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

For a guide to what’s on in London in October 2020, click here.

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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.

Adelaide House London © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Adelaide House stands on the north side of London Bridge

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.

Adelaide Hotel London Bridge

A photo of the Adelaide Hotel (circled) and the ‘New London Bridge’, (both since demolished) in the mid 19th century.
(Close-up from J Davis Burton image on Wikimedia Commons)

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).  Read the rest of this entry

A Jacobean tavern, waxwork museum and Victorian barbers | The many guises of Prince Henry’s Room

The history of 17 Fleet Street, a 17th century building that survived the Great Fire of London.

Prince Henry's Room © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Prince Henry’s Room on Fleet Street dates back to the 17th century

Standing on a Fleet Street is a rare piece of Jacobean London. Thanks to the Great Fire of London of 1666, hardly any buildings originating prior to the mid-17th century exist within the confines of the Square Mile. Among the few exceptions are 41 – 42 Cloth Fair in Smithfield, a handful of City churches, the Tower of London and St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse. Another one of these survivors is a Jacobean townhouse at 17 Fleet Street.

Prince Henry's Room © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Prince Henry’s Room stands opposite the Royal Courts of Justice

The site was originally part of an estate owned by the Knights Templar, an order of Catholic soldiers. Following their dissolution in 1312, the land passed to their rivals, the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Among their tenants were lawyers, who established the legal district of Temple which still exists today. With its origins as a Roman route, Fleet Street was named and established as a residential road in the Middle Ages. By the early 16th century, one of the Hospitallers’ tenants was the landlord of an inn called The Hand at 17 Fleet Street. After the Hospitallers was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1540, a lot of the Temple district passed into the hands of the Crown and other landowners.

In 1610, the owner of 17 Fleet Street rebuilt the tavern, by then named the Prince’s Arms. Some have claimed the tavern was named in honour of the investiture of Henry Frederick Prince of Wales (1594-1612) – son of King James I of England – while others claim the tavern’s name dates back to before his birth. Another theory suggests No.17 was built for the Council of the Duchy of Cornwall and that first floor had been reserved for Prince Henry’s use. The building features a three feathers motif on the façade – the symbol for the Prince of Wales. This symbolism appears again in the large room on the first floor, which boasts one of London’s best examples of Jacobean ceiling plaster. It contains the three feather motif, along with the initials P.H. Read the rest of this entry

Mary Queen of Scots House: This Neo-Gothic building is younger than you think

The story behind a Neo-Gothic office building-turned-holiday let on Fleet Street

Mary Queen of Scots House © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 202

Mary Queen of Scots House dates back to the early 20th century

Fleet Street has its fair share of striking architecture – from the bold Art Deco design of the Express Building to the old Tudor frontage of Prince Henry’s Room. However, one particular building’s design suggests it’s from an earlier age that it actually is – the Mary Queen of Scots House at 143-4 Fleet Street. The building is situated just two doors down from the temple-like Peterborough House and next door to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. The Mary Queen of Scots House has two entrances – the eastern one accessing the upper storeys, while the west is the shop door (currently a Pret a Manger). Just to the left of the shop entrance is Cheshire Court, a small alley previously known as Three Falcon Court.

Mary Queen of Scots House © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The carver of the Mary Queen of Scots statue is unknown

Long before Pret A Manger arrived, and indeed, even the current building was erected, the site had a varied history. In the 1770s, a publisher named Joseph Wenman was operating out of his premises at 144 Fleet Street, producing mostly theatrical reprints. By 1833, No.143-144 was owned by a Sir John Marshall, with one of his tenants being a baker, according to an insurance policy taken out at the time. In the 1840s, wood engraver Edwin Morrett Williams and cutler/hardwareman William Sutton worked on-site. By 1882, 143 had become a restaurant. Nine years later, optician Samuel Poole was operating out of 144.

In the early 20th century, Scottish landowner and liberal politician Sir John Tollemache Sinclair (1825-1912) acquired the land of 143-144 Fleet Street. He commissioned architect Richard Mauleverer Roe (1854-1922) to design an ornate, Neo-Gothic office building in 1905. At the time, Gothic revival was steadily falling out of fashion in architecture, although the new dawn of Modernist design was still a way off. The building has five storeys, one of which being a roof storey. The ground floor is surrounded by a stone arch with zigzag mouldings.

Read the rest of this entry