Where’s London’s oldest…skyscraper?

March 5, 2018


There’s several candidates for this title – NatWest Tower, built in 1980, has been described as London’s first “genuine” skyscraper (we’ll deal with that in our current special) but we’re looking back to earlier times (after all, the term first started to be used in the 1880s) when candidates included 55 Broadway in Westminster.

Once the tallest office building in London, 55 Broadway was constructed in 1927-29 as the headquarters of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (which later became London Transport and then Transport for London). The building contains the St James’s Park Underground Station which is one of the most intact of the early underground stations.

Designed by Charles Holden (also noted for his design of the University of London’s Senate House and war cemeteries in Belgium and France) , the 14 storey Art Deco building is cruciform in plan to maximise street views and the amount of light entering each office as well as to ensure that the bulk of the building’s tower didn’t overwhelm the surrounding streetscapes (and to ensure the building complied with the then current building height restrictions).

The building, the design of which was influenced by US architecture, is made from a steel frame encased on concrete and faced in Portland stone. Based on a two storey pedestal which covers the entire site, the spur wings around the tower rise a further five storeys above the base while the tower itself rises 53.3 metres (175 foot).

Internally, the building features bronze and marble decoration and what was a state-of-the-art system known as a Cutler mailing chute to send letters around the building.

Of special note are the many sculptures which adorn the building, described as a “showcase of pre-Second World War British sculpture”.

Among them are two Jacob Epstein sculptures representing ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ and eight figurative reliefs representing the winds for each cardinal point, the work of sculptors led by Eric Gill and also including Eric Aumonier, Alfred Gerrard, Samuel Rabonovitch, Allan Wyon and Henry Moore (it was his first public commission).

The sculptures proved somewhat controversial at time particularly due to Epstein’s depiction of ‘Day’ featuring a nude male – Ezra Pound famously said Epstein was contributing to a “cult of ugliness”. And while this sculpture eventually had his manhood truncated slightly following the outcry, the sculptures were otherwise left untouched.

Holden won the RIBA London Architecture Medal for the building which received Grade I-listing in 2011 (it had earlier been Grade II listed), partly due to its being London’s first ‘skyscraper’ and a building which “heralded the epoch of tall steel-framed office buildings”.

The building was damaged during the Blitz but remains largely intact. There are now plans to convert the building to luxury apartments although at present Transport for London continue to use the building.

PICTURES: Top – Epstein’s ‘Night’ – One of the less controversial sculptures adorning the building (Loz Pycock (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0))/Right – The mass of 55 Broadway with the controversial (and altered) sculpture of ‘Day’ (David Adams).

Note: The original article said 55 Broadway was once the tallest building but should have, of course, said tallest office building. St Paul’s Cathedral was the tallest building until 1967. The building was also damaged during the Blitz but apparently not by a flying bomb.

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2 Responses to “Where’s London’s oldest…skyscraper?”

  1. John King Says:

    55 Broadway was damaged during the Blitz but not by a flying bomb. Some of the Portland Stone cladding damaged in the Blitz was not replaced until the early 1960s. There was a plan to turn the building into luxury apartments but the developers apparently ran into planning problems because of the Grade 1 listing. Presently the building is being refurbished internally and continues to be used by TfL. The LTMuseum runs excellent Hidden London tours around 55 each month. Still lots of great Art Deco features to be seen.

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