Spectacular Vernacular: London's 100 Most Extraordinary Buildings

Spectacular Vernacular: London's 100 Most Extraordinary Buildings

by David Long

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London is full of extraordinary, enigmatic and, above all, unexpected buildings: a pirate castle in Camden, an art gallery made of shipping containers, underground ghost stations, and much more. Here David Long reveals the very best of the capital’s extraordinary buildings, some of which are passed by every day, hidden in plain sight.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752480305
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 11/30/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 22 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David Long has contributed to the Evening Standard, the Sunday Mirror, the Sunday Times, and The Times.

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Spectacular Vernacular

London's 100 Most Extraordinary Buildings

By David Long

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 David Long
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8030-5



An Englishman's Castle

Abbot's House

Dean's Yard, SW1

With property prices having long ago replaced the weather as Britain's conversational subject of choice, the debate will presumably never cease about which is the grandest house, the most expensive, the most outrageously opulent, awful or tasteless – and of course who lives in each one. But at least the few who know it can agree on one thing, and that is that hidden away in this secret corner of the Abbey precincts – itself comprising the finest collection of pre-Reformation buildings in the capital – is London's oldest domestic residence.

Today it is the home of the Dean of Westminster, successor to a long line of abbots, but in so far as it is known at all it is probably as the place in which Henry IV went to meet his maker. The first English king actually to have had two English parents, his death came suddenly in 1413. Even then, however, this particular part of the abbey complex was by no means new as it is believed to date mostly from about 1370.

Though luckier perhaps than his French namesake – who having changed his religion three times was eventually stabbed to death by an irritated religious fanatic – Henry IV's reign was nevertheless not well starred from the beginning.

At his coronation he lost a shoe in the procession, from his other foot a spur worked itself loose before falling off, and finally at the banquet which followed a sudden gust of wind succeeded in removing his crown. In such a superstitious place as fourteenth-century England all three were seen as portents of trouble ahead, something only made worse when a fortune teller prophesied that the Plantagenet father of seven would meet his death in Jerusalem.

In the event, of course, Henry was to die without even troubling to set foot in the Holy Land. Instead he was brought into this place, at the time the abbot's lodgings, after being taken ill while at his prayers in the Abbey. Unfortunately, the very place chosen by his attendants (an otherwise appropriately rich, tapestry-hung room used these days for meetings of the Dean and Chapter) was traditionally known as the Jerusalem Chamber. It is said that once this small but suddenly significant fact was revealed to the king he realised immediately he would never leave the place alive.

Sadly, today the lodgings – which include the former abbots' dining hall and the spartan but splendid sixteenth-century Jericho Parlour with its elegant linen-fold panelling – are no longer easy to access. Instead, while meandering through the public parts of the Abbey cloisters, the historic exterior can be glimpsed. The fourteenth-century fabric and some even older stained glass is visible through an ancient stone opening before one emerges into the surprisingly peaceful enclave of Dean's Yard. It is also sometimes possible to see the dining hall, since this now forms part of Westminster School.


Piccadilly, SW1

Originally the home of the 1st Viscount Melbourne, this intriguing mansion from the 1770s is the work of the great Palladian Sir William Chambers (1723–96) and while the interior has been completely remodelled since that time his chaste façade of mellow brown brick and stone dressings still exudes the perfect aura of a first-rate London residence of the late eighteenth century.

This perception of noble elegance is heightened considerably by the building's unique position, for it stands at the end of its own large but still entirely private courtyard right in the heart of the West End. Opening on to Piccadilly with its buses, motorbikes and nonstop bustle, the yard remains sufficiently tranquil and unspoiled for the sudden arrival at its Tuscan porch of a coach-and-pair to cause no surprise whatsoever.

Albany's current usage is similarly apposite to the period. While other buildings of similar quality in this area have been chopped about, taken over by traditional gentlemen's clubs, or more often simply torn down, Albany – it takes its name from a later owner, Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827) – was at the start of the nineteenth century skilfully converted by Henry Holland into smart chambers for bachelors. The perfect base, in other words, for gay young blades. Indeed, even the normally dry Nikolaus Pevsner acknowledges the attractively raffish appeal of the place, describing a 'popular flavour that was slightly disreputable and wholly enviable'.

Little surprise then that more than 200 years after the conversion was completed a set or flat in Albany is still highly sought after. As Macaulay's biographer described it, 'that luxurious cloister, whose inviolable tranquillity affords so agreeable relief from the road and flood of the Piccadilly,' it is hard to conceive of a more perfect central London pied à terre than this. It has all the traditional pleasures of clubland with St James's across the street from the front door, and to the rear the expensive amenities of Savile Row, should anyone need to call on his man at Huntsman or Henry Poole.

It is to the rear too that one needs to go to get a real flavour of Albany, namely to its other entrance shown here, which is discreetly tucked away between two tiny but perfect bow-fronted shops at the meeting place of Vigo Street, Savile Row and Burlington Gardens. Providing the perfect short cut through to Piccadilly – at least, 'for those who have the audacity to use it', to quote Charles Dickens – the pristine black-painted entrance gives on to the rope walk, a covered walkway linking the long wings of chambers which Holland constructed on either side of Lord Melbourne's garden. If you have the nerve to try it, however, don't be tempted to run or to whistle since both activities – being still considered utterly ungentlemanly – are even now strictly outlawed within Albany's hallowed precincts.

Despite the absence of a single blue plaque either here or at the front, the list of Albany residents past and present is illustrious. Not just Henry Holland himself, but other leading architects including Basevi and Smirke, and statesmen such as Canning, Palmerston, Gladstone and, more recently, Sir Edward Heath. Also the Lords Snowdon and Clark, Sir Thomas Beecham, numerous writers including Greene, Macauley, Huxley, Priestley, Rattigan and the actress Dame Edith Evans all lived here as did two notable diarists of our own times – Sir Harold Nicolson and the political enfant terrible Alan Clark MP. And Lord Byron lived at No. 2a, where he used to box.

Crosby Hall

Cheyne Walk, SW3

Described by English Heritage as 'London's most important surviving secular domestic medieval building', Crosby Hall's ongoing journey of more than 500 years from redundant City storehouse to Chelsea's grandest private home must surely rank as one of England's most epic architectural tales. Built between 1466 and 1475 for rich City merchant Sir John Crosby, it was later purchased by Sir Thomas More. It served also as a temporary home for the future Richard III and Sir Walter Ralegh and from 1621 to 1638 was the head office of the Honourable East India Company. Eventually the great hall of this Bishopsgate mansion suffered the very real ignominy of being reduced to a warehouse before it was rescued from the wrecker's ball and moved brick by brick to a new site on the river at Chelsea in 1908.

By chance, what one assumes will be the final resting place for the sole surviving example of a City merchant's domicile was also once Sir Thomas More's garden. That must have doubled Crosby's appeal for its present owner and restorer, Christopher Moran. Having made his fortune in the thoroughly modern world of the insurance markets, Moran makes no secret of his enthusiasm for all things Tudor. Nor of his desire to turn Crosby Hall, with its fine double hammerbeam roof and oriel windows, into the most lavish private address in London.

Certainly Moran has shown great patience, determination and fortitude over what must be one of the most challenging privately funded building projects ever undertaken. For example, when he acquired the freehold in 1989 he had already spent twenty years thinking about the project. Now he is reckoned to have spent seven more years negotiating with the relevant planning authorities, another decade coping with anything up to 100 builders and craftsmen coming in and out each day, and an estimated £25 million on the work itself. That said, other estimates suggest that by the time the eighty-five-room house is finished – and it is not there yet – the final bill will be at least twice as much. Certainly the scale of the project is not hard to grasp when you consider that it takes about ninety minutes to walk round Crosby Hall, a mellow brick and stone assemblage which, like a college quad come to London, now encloses a remarkable Tudor garden.

With its centrepiece a great fountain of the goddess Diana, the gardens were designed by the present Marchioness of Salisbury, her highly detailed work being based on the lessons she gleaned from her own work at Hatfield House. It is clear too that the same painstaking approach has been taken throughout the Hall. Calling on the expertise of dozens of Tudor scholars and scores of specialist builders to conserve and extend this remarkable building, the realisation of Mr Moran's dream has required the relearning of many old skills needed to create a house which is authentically Tudor not just in its overall appearance but also in its execution. Thus the fountain alone took more than three years to create, the solid oak front doors on the river side weigh an incredible 3 tons, and elsewhere people involved in this singular development have had to be taught the lost art of double-struck pointing in order to ensure that the new brickwork looks exactly as it would have done when Sir John Crosby first moved in.

Debenham House

Addison Road, W14

Nothing prepares you for this vast peacock-coloured Edwardian extravaganza as it looms above the bustle and hubbub of Holland Park. An extraordinary creation of brilliant blues, greens and creams – and this is only the exterior, you understand – London's most flamboyant Arts and Crafts house was built for the eponymous department store magnate Sir Ernest Debenham by Halsey Ricardo in 1905–7.

Sir Ernest's successful Wigmore Street store was clad in sensible plain white tiles, but here he allowed Ricardo to really let fly with colourful Burmantoft bricks and Doulton tiles, as well as columns, capitals and decorative motifs, all carefully moulded, fired and glazed.

The effect as the house rises out of the trees is both ethereal and whimsical, yet Ricardo's design was essentially a very sound and practical one. One says this because the use of these fashionable ceramics – his 'boldest profession of faith in the use of imperishable glazed materials' – was an attempt to give Sir Ernest's new house a finish which would be impervious to the English weather and proof against the corrosive effects of urban pollution. (Proof also against the enemy as it later stood its ground when in the Blitz a 500lb bomb exploded in the garden.)

Ricardo was a member of the Art Workers' Guild and a sometime partner at Fulham of William de Morgan, and as was common in the Arts and Crafts Movement at this time he recruited numerous friends to work on his hugely elaborate project. Indeed, his accounts book must have read like a Who's Who of the Movement, with the intricate plasterwork by Ernest Gimson, the lead rainwater heads made by the Birmingham Guild of Handicrafts, William Aumonier being commissioned to carve much of the main staircase and E.S. Prior to create the coloured glass panels thoughout the house. Similarly, for the entrance hall (and it is said with the help of Debenham's eight children) Gaetano Meo was called on to devise a breathtaking Byzantine setpiece of pierced marble balconies placed beneath a glittering blue and gold mosaic dome.

Finally there was de Morgan himself who was kept busy covering literally every free, flat surface with richly decorated, peacock-blue tiles. Many had been designed especially for a yacht ordered by Tsar Alexander II, the best of them featuring vivid representations of animals, foliage and Tuscan landscapes, also of sailing vessels a good deal more conventional than the Tsar's strange, turbot-shaped Livadia. The effect is overpowering – certainly that was Lady Debenham's view – but glorious and uplifting too, not least because the all-encompassing nature of Ricardo's work meant that even the tiniest details were subject to the minutest scrutiny.

Thus, as with Augustus Pugin's decorative work in the Palace of Westminster, everything about Debenham House is bespoke. Everything from the intricate enamel-inlaid brasswork of the Birmingham Guild's ornamental door furniture to the more than two dozen tiled and marbled fireplaces. The domestic technology too, which included an awesome-sounding central cleaning system intended to recover dust from every room using the suction power of a vast engine buried in the basement. Pretty advanced stuff, in other words, though perhaps no more than one might expect from Sir Ernest whose office, being among the first to subscribe to the new Post Office telephone service in 1903, had secured the memorable and historic number 'Mayfair 1'.

Farm House

Farm Street, W1

Amid the grand terraces, faceless office developments and Victorian mansion blocks, Mayfair can still throw up the odd residential eccentricity, and arguably none better than this one. Inevitably, it's not quite as old as it looks, and this despite mention in the deeds of a right of way for sheep straight through the middle of the house. In fact it was substantially rebuilt in the early twentieth century by a Mrs Stakosch who favoured a rural Gothic style, complete with half-timbering and heavy panelling.

To her credit she sourced original medieval doors and fixtures to give the place an authentic feel and a century later her attention to detail still shines out. Not just in the impressive oak front door, which is carved on both sides with the heads of the Apostles, but also inside, where Jacobean internal doors close against original linenfold panelling (although the original stone floors have unfortunately been replaced with wide wooden boards).

Its most famous occupant was probably Gloria Swanson – a Carl Jasper mural uncovered in the dining room in the late 1970s shows the Hollywood star in several of her films – but before this it was owned by Gloria Vanderbilt's twin, Lady Furness, who enjoys the distinction of having introduced Wallis Simpson to the Prince of Wales in 1931.

Farm House is surprisingly large too, with a separate staff flat in the basement and above that four reception rooms, a study, a south-facing terrace, six bedrooms and an integral garage. With its many quirky features, such as the oriel window on the stairs (copied from an old London church) and the large first-floor drawing room overlooking the famous Jesuit Farm Street church, it is genuinely charming. As it's also situated in one of Mayfair's quietest streets it's not hard to justify the asking price, said to have been in the region of £4.5 million when it was offered for sale in mid-2005.

Fat House

Garner Street, E2

Architectural jokes generally fail on two scores. The first, and less serious one, is that they are rarely very funny; more serious is the fact that after the pranksters have finished explaining the joke to other insiders, and patting themselves on the back for being so very clever, somebody actually has to move in and live there. The FAT House, though, is quite a good joke, and the architect created it to live in himself, which is more than can be said for the majority of concrete and composite horrors which have been inflicted on the capital in the years since the bombers returned to base.

He is Sean Griffiths, a member of a group going under the rather modish name of Fashion, Architecture & Taste, hence FAT, and while his home dominates the environment at least as much as any 1960s high-rise might do – in this case the environment being an otherwise drab and anonymous street just off the main Hackney Road – it does so in such a way that, even several years after its completion, one still frequently encounters people standing on the opposite pavement with smiles playing on their lips.


Excerpted from Spectacular Vernacular by David Long. Copyright © 2012 David Long. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 TUDOR MANOR BORN – An Englishman's Castle,
3 MEMENTO MORI – Glory unto Death,
4 MONUMENT ALLEY – Folies de Grandeur,
5 MEET MINE HOST – Restaurants & Public Houses,
6 CITY & GUILDS – The Liverymen,
7 PRIVATE PLACES – Members Only,
8 IMPERIAL ERECTIONS – Bring on the Military Men,
9 EDUCATION & THE ARTS – Fit for Purpose,
10 FORM & FUNCTION – Working Buildings,
EPILOGUE: IF ONLY – Six Favourites That Never Made It,

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