"Perhaps before long we shall be buying our petrol at imitation country churches or ferro-concrete Stonehenges!" exclaims an article from 1929, reflecting on the Chinese Garage at Beckenham.
This pagoda-inspired confection had been unveiled the year before, designed by Edmund B. Clarke. The idea was to lure in passing motorists with a show of Disneyesque whimsy. It's also likely the theme was picked to dissuade the council and residents of the Langley Court Estate from voting down the construction of a run-of-the-mill petrol station.
At an expense of around £6,000 (close to £400k in today's money), the Chinese Garage had an ornamental pond garden planted with shrubbery and a pond filled with golden carp (these pond's still there, but not the fish). Multicoloured lights glowed beneath the eaves after dark — it must have been quite a sight given its demure location on the roundabout of a sleepy Kent suburb.
A Pathe newsreel from the petrol station's early days shows a woman saluted by a uniformed attendant, then enjoying a stroll around the gardens while her car is serviced. It's said attendants sometimes wore silk robes, although we've not seen photographic evidence of this.
Of course, the design isn't exactly traditionally Chinese. For one thing, Edmund B. Clarke had been inspired by the pagodas of Japan rather than China. Even then, the decidedly English half-timbering and latticed windows appear to reference some of the neighbouring buildings. Like this one:
After serving its time as a petrol station, the garage became a car dealership for a while. These days you can fill up at the Chinese Garage, but on pinot rather than petrol — it's now a Majestic Wine. Tesco has (controversially) moved into another section of the building. Still, it's quite something that this near-century old landmark remains in such fine fettle.
If you're visiting Beckenham Chinese Garage, check out the beautiful Beckenham Place Park too. It's about 35 minutes' walk.