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55 Broadway - London's First Skyscraper

I love art deco buildings and visited 55 Broadway last year on a London Underground tour and it did not disappoint! The building was completed in 1929 and was, at that time, London’s tallest office building and the city’s first skyscraper. English Heritage listed the building as Grade II in 1970 and upgraded it to Grade I in 2011. On 1 December 1929 the building was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects London Architecture Medal and it became home to London Underground’s headquarters. A picture of the building is below (credit London Underground Museum).

The building's reception is pictured below.

I took the picture below from one of the higher floor levels.

The area where this iconic structure stands was previously a slum, however this changed when the Metropolitan District Railway (now known as the District Line) opened a station at St James’ Park in 1868. The District Railway expanded and in 1898 its headquarters were transferred from Victoria Street to new offices built over St James’ Park station on York Street (now Petty France). London’s electric tube systems were merged into one corporation called the Underground Electric Railways of London, which was also known as the Underground Group. The tube system was modernised and expanded quickly which affected the city’s entire network of underground railways. The offices were enlarged in 1905 and then again in 1909 and the District Railway’s offices were renamed Electric Railway House.

The demand for public transport grew which resulted in more administration workers being needed which required a bigger office, however after the First World War Britain’s economy was weak and there were labour shortages so expansion plans were put on hold. In 1922 the office building was extended over the railway tracks but there still wasn’t enough space. In 1926 all administration staff were moved into a new building on the awkward shaped plot of land on Broadway, above the District line’s sub-surface railway tracks.

The men at the helm of the 55 Broadway project were Lord Ashfield (Chairman of the Board) and Frank Pick (Managing Director of the Underground). The Underground had expanded in the 1920s requiring new and upgraded stations across its entire network resulting in Frank Pick becoming interested in modern architecture. He travelled to Europe and the United States looking for design inspiration. During Pick’s trip he met Bolton born architect Charles Holden and was so impressed by his work he commissioned him to be the consulting architect for extensions to the Northern Line. Later on, Pick asked Holden to submit designs for the Underground’s new headquarters as they were both keen on modernist principles, preferring plain and simple shapes and designs. Holden championed simplified forms without unnecessary decorative detailing and he believed that architectural designs should be dictated by a building’s intended function. An interesting fact is that Holden twice declined the offer of a knighthood.

Lord Ashfield supported Holden’s sleek design for 55 Broadway, which was a 14 storey structure that would be the tallest office in London. The building’s footprint was in the shape of a crucifix, which was usually reserved for churches and cathedrals. The unconventional building shape maximised the use of the awkward footprint, it had lots of natural light and pedestrians would have a direct route from Victoria Street to the entrance of St James’ Park station.

The building of 55 Broadway began in 1927 and was finished in 1929, just as the Great Depression slowed Britain’s economy again. Holden’s design was based on a 14 storey steel framed skeleton, a technique used when building America’s skyscrapers, encouraging growth upwards rather than horizontally. There are seven hundred reinforced concrete piles underpinning the building with an average depth of 12 metres below basement level. There are over 2,000 cubic metres of unpolished Portland stone cladding on the outside of the building, giving it a grand appearance: Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery are also finished in the same material!

The outside of the building is decorated with sculptures by artists who were both celebrated and controversial at the time 55 Broadway was built. Holden tried to keep the cost of the project down and agreed to limit decorative ornamentation, however he still wanted the building to have visual impact. He commissioned seven British artists to create ten large sculptures to decorate the building’s exterior, one being Jacob Epstein who regularly received negative criticism from the public and the press. Pick had forbidden Holden from hiring Epstein but after seeing his work agreed to hire him. Epstein was commission to sculpt the building’s two most prominent pieces: “Night” and “Day”. There are eight other sculptures carved into the sixth floor’s exterior, inspired from the four directional winds, two for the north, south, east and west. Epstein’s works, “Night” and “Day” were vilified by the press and public when they were unveiled in 1929. The press had an advance viewing of “Night” in May and the Daily Express described it as a “a prehistoric blood-sodden cannibal intoning a horrid ritual over a dead victim”. In June, “Day” was revealed and critics described it as “distasteful”, “vulgar” or “repulsive”. How taste changes as these sculptures are now celebrated 20th century works of art and are seen as symbol of artistic freedom! The sculpture below is "South Wind" by Eric Gill.

Jacob Epstein's 'Day" is below.

The interior of the building is simple and sleek and the meeting rooms are very opulent. The ground floor entrance is covered in unpolished travertine marble as are the corridors and upper level lift lobbies. The doors are made of walnut, bronze, enamel and glass and the original floors were teak parquet. The upper level offices have large windows to maximise natural light and movable partitions were used to adapt office space.

Otis lifts were installed and the building was wired for electricity and telephones, it had an internal postal system and state of the art heating that warmed offices with water heated coils set into the floor, allowing head to rise naturally. The 10th floor was reserved for executive dining and the 11th floor was used for facilities. The 12th and 13th floors were combined to house the clock winding room. There is a rooftop viewing area on the 14th floor and the views of London are stunning.

The executive dining room was on the 10th floor, but lower ranking staff had nowhere to eat during the working day so would have to go out to eat. Time travelling for meals meant less time working so in 1950 an officers’ dining club was built on the 2nd floor for middle managers, many of whom had served in the Second World War and were used to the ‘ranks’ being separated. A canteen was provided for lower ranking administrative workers on the ground floor.

When Britain entered the Second World War in the late 1930s London Transport took precautions to protect 55 Broadway. The steel framed structure was thought to provide some defence against bombing but London Transport bomb proofed a section of the basement and relocated the telephone exchange there so that communications were secure.

In October 1940 a German bomb exploded on 55 Broadway and badly damaged parts of its west wing on the 4th, 5th and 6th floors. The “East Wind” sculpture by Eric Gill survived and the building’s unique crucifix shape and metal frame helped protect the building from further damage. The damage was repaired quickly but the exterior cladding could not be fixed until 1963 due to shortages of Portland stone.

In the late 1970s London Transport’s system did not have enough funds to keep it in a good state of repair. The then Leader of the General London Council, Horace Cutler, appointed Leslie Chapman to the London Transport Board on a part time basis and asked him to evaluate its operations. Cutler’s report resulted in cuts to executive perks and the executive suites were converted into meeting spaces for all employees.

In 2000 Transport for London replaced London Transport and inherited 55 Broadway as its headquarters. The offices are still used but the historic structure is difficult to manage and some people feel it cannot manage modern staff and business needs. There has been talk of converting the building for residential use but planning permission expired in 2018 and Transport for London still occupies the building and no transfer of ownership has been announced.

View from one of the office windows is above and views from the roof top are below.

The roof top tower is below, proudly flying the London Underground flag.

One of the corridors in the East Wing pictured below.

One of the executive corridors below.


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