img031The beauty of the Hidden London tours run by the London Transport Museum is that, along with the places you can’t get to, like disused tube stations or the wartime deep tunnel air raid shelters, they can take you to places that you pass regularly, even know and admire, but that are inaccessible to the public for most of the time. In the case of the original London Transport headquarters at 55 Broadway, the level of interest is heightened by the knowledge that it is destined to change, so the chance to see behind the scenes is one that will not come too often again.
So it was that we joined one of five tours of 55 Broadway being run in a single day by the Hidden London team, and led by some of the expert volunteers who do this for the love of the transport and architectural heritage of the city. It’s an imposing building, but we quickly were transported back to 1929, when it opened as the first skyscraper in London, built in the new art deco style (not that anyone called it art deco, then, it was just modern), to realise just how different it must have looked amongst the low rise Victorian and Georgian buildings surrounding it in St James’. The whole concept was championed by London Transport’s visionary managing director, Frank Pick, who selected architect Charles Holden in the knowledge that Holden would deliver a building that not only made full use of an awkwardly shaped site on top of a tube line that ran close to the surface, but that would also symbolise the modernity represented by the growing underground network. As the headquarters of a modern, technological organisation, literally breaking new ground all over London, the building had to encapsulate the same qualities, not just in its appearance to the passer-by, but also to those who would work within it.

 

The detail even extends to the roundels on the water catchers

The result was something both architecturally and artistically innovative. A girder-framed construction allowed the building to adopt the same look – if on a shortened scale – to the skyscrapers delineating the New York skyline, and yet allow natural light to permeate through the cruciform layout. Faced with Portland stone, it blends corporate dignity with a degree of branding – the clock that surmounts the central tower echoes the London Transport ‘bullseye’ motif, which is also repeated on each of the rain water hoppers on the guttering, complete with the year of opening. Pick stretched the edges of public taste with his selection of artists for the exterior sculptures in bas-relief on each side of the building. Along with Eric Gill, now a renowned name in art deco sculpture and who contributed to the ‘four winds’ sculptures high on the walls, he invited Jacob Epstein to complete the ‘day’ and ‘night’ sculptures that would sit on the bottom storey of the building, well within everyday public view. On completion, they sharply divided opinion, and the tastes of the day demanded the removal of 1½ inches from the stone appendage of one figure!

 

Lovely original features still in situ – the mail shoots

But all this is well-documented and visible to the everyday visitor. Our treat was to go beyond the tube station entrance on the ground floor into the London Transport offices themselves. Deco touches are everywhere, from lights, to the door furniture, to the lifts (themselves an innovation in the days when stairs were centrally placed in most buildings). We particularly liked the integral mail chute system which carried all post to the mailroom on the ground floor. 80-odd years of constant use has meant that most areas have been adapted for modern-day technology, removing internal partitions (but then the building was designed to allow that), and installing false floors and ceilings for cable ducting. The exception is the seventh floor, where the London Transport senior management had their lofty offices, and where the walnut panelled walls and doors are retained. Prosaically, the Chairman’s immense office is now a general purpose meeting room, complete with flip chart – likewise the office where his two personal staff would field callers, but the integrity of the design is retained and one could feel the power that would have emanated from that end of the corridor. We were treated with access to areas that many TfL staff must rarely enjoy, too, with a climb beyond the occupied floors to the top of the tower for views that, despite the upwards growth of Westminster, are still stunning.
It will come as no surprise that these tours attract a fairly like-minded crowd, and one of the benefits is the shared pleasure in pointing out little design features that might otherwise be missed as we moved through the building. Staircases are always a bit of a theme, and 55 Broadway didn’t disappoint us, as we made our way all the way down a particularly fine deco example, enlivened at every landing with items from the London Underground heritage collection.
But it’s too small – with London growing steadily, and TfL’s operations now encompassing not only buses and tubes but also the London Overground, Docklands Light Railway, river buses and oversight of the taxi service in the capital, 55 Broadway is now only one of several headquarters in use, and the aim is to bring them together on a new site near the Olympic Park. With Grade One listed status, the building itself is fortunately safe, and TfL plan to maintain the suite of offices on the seventh floor to provide a reminder of its past existence. As the rest, it’s likely that the art deco features will be exclusively enjoyed by the occupants of the

It wouldn’t be an art deco tour without a staircase or two…

luxury flats into which the offices will be transformed. Whilst it’s reassuring that those lovely features and details will be preserved, I’m somehow doubtful that they’ll welcome a bunch of transport history fans poking around their exclusive domain, so if you have a yen to see British art deco at its best, keep a sharp eye open for future Hidden London tours.
As ever, there’s a useful history of the building on Wikipedia. The current Hidden London tour listing, while now sold out, is a good starting point for exploring not only future tours of 55 Broadway, but also of other inaccessible transport gems – of which more anon…