At the end of January 2020, the headquarters of London Underground, at 55 Broadway SW1, finally closes after over 90 years of occupation.
In 1868, London's second underground line opened; the Metropolitan District Railway with its steam-powered trains running from South Kensington to Westminster. The line would later be massively extended and become known as the District line. By the end of the century, the District Railway Company, who operated this line, decided to build its offices over one of the stations; St James's Park.
A bold statement
During the late 1920s, and following the amalgamation of several transport bodies (tube, buses and trams) into the Underground Group, there was a need for a single building to house this new organisation. And as operators of one of the world's largest transport systems, they wished to make a bold statement with their new headquarters.
Adams, Holden and Pearson were appointed, and it was Charles Holden who became the architect responsible for the creation of 55 Broadway. He and Frank Pick, the managing director of London Underground during the 1920s, had worked together previously on infrastructure projects including Wimbledon South and Piccadilly stations. The brief for 55 Broadway was to demolish the old railway offices and create a structure that had to occupy an odd, kite shaped site and sit over an underground station just seven metres below ground.
The skyscraper of London
Holden's answer was a cruciform, steel-framed structure with Portland stone cladding. It was a technique used to build American skyscrapers in the same era. The stepped building gave a broken ziggurat appearance as it rose towards the clock tower. 55 Broadway was for while known as the 'skyscraper of London' — and is sometimes credited as London's first skyscraper (even though it was only 53 metres high and St Paul's Cathedral was twice the height). Holden received the RIBA London Architectural Medal for his design in 1929, the year the building opened.
A penis problem
Contemporary sculptors were commissioned to create decorative works, on the theme of the four winds, to adorn the exterior. These included Eric Gill, Samuel Rabinovitch, Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein. It was Epstein’s sculpture of a naked father and son, Night and Day, that created some outrage when it was unveiled. The length of the boy's penis caused concern in certain quarters of the press and with the public. Several of the Underground Group directors, including Frank Pick, offered to resign over the matter. To compound things, when it rained, the penis created a spout of water that fell onto the pavement (and passers-by) below. In the end Epstein ascended a ladder and chiselled an inch and a half off the boy's member and the matter was settled.
A floor with nothing on it
55 Broadway's seventh floor, with its higher ceilings and oak panelled corridors, was the executive suite. Several of the director's offices, including Frank Pick's, had personal en-suite bathrooms. The board and senior management took their lunch in a silver-serviced dining room.
Oddly, the building's ninth floor had to remain unoccupied. Pick referred to this planning absurdity in 1931:
It goes so high that it has a ninth floor, which we cannot use because the London County Council has decided that it is unsafe for us to live there. But our architects insisted there should be a 9th floor, because the proportions of the building required it, and we were complacent clients, so it was built.
In 1930, the London Passenger Transport Board was established and took control of several transport bodies including the Underground Group. Pick became the chief executive of the LPTB in 1933. And with Lord Ashfield as chairman they, from 55 Broadway, began to modernise and rationalise not only the Underground network but the buses and trams too.
A shopping arcade appears
It was Frank Pick who would 'brand' the transport network in London, giving it the famous corporate identity we are still familiar with today — especially the use of Johnston font (in use now for over a hundred years), the roundel and the map created by Harry Beck.
In 1988, the ground floor area of 55 Broadway, which had been London Underground offices, an information desk, a ticket office and a library, was redesigned to create a small shopping arcade and a detached, central reception area for the offices above. It was done with great care and mimicked the art deco use of stone and brass features of the building.
Most of the original features still survive within the building, including the wall covered travertine marble, brass uplighters, marble drinking fountains and brass framed lift doors. A twin Cutler mail chute (no longer working) is visible on each of the floors in the central area. In 2011, the building was given Grade 1 listed status.
An unusual clock
In the reception area, there's a train interval indicator. There was one clock for each of the underground lines operating during the 1930s. At one station on each line was an electronic trackside trigger (one for each direction) that sent a signal to this clock once a train had passed over it and a mark was made on the revolving paper disk. So the number of trains per hour, in each direction would be recorded. The paper disks would be collected at the end of each day and the frequency of the service checked.
End of an era
The building has been acquired, on a 150 year lease, by Integrity International Group for £120 million and a planning application is has been submitted to convert the former offices into a hotel. Since 2015, the TfL staff at 55 Broadway have been gradually migrating to new offices in the Olympic Park — and now the end of an era is in sight.
TfL's public tours of 55 Broadway culminated in some spectacular views across the city, from the clock tower. Let's hope that once this art deco gem has transformed into an upmarket hotel, that there'll still be an opportunity for anyone to ascend to this viewpoint and gaze out over the London that TfL keeps on the move.
Images ©David Fathers 2020 and Londonist 2019. Featured image: TfL