The former Daimler Hire Garage in Herbrand St

Luckily, work commitments usually mean that I’m in London for Open House weekend, and although the need to be in certain places at certain times doesn’t allow us to get booked up for some of the more in-demand venues, the element of improvisation sometimes takes us to places we wouldn’t have put at the top of our list. This year, we began the day with a wander round the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, followed by a stroll around the Middle Temple which, although much of the open space is just that, open, all year round was marking the weekend with a range of activities and a delicious range of pop up street food stalls.


Note the flowing lines carried across from the window bars

However, this didn’t really tick off any of our ‘must sees’, and we were still smarting a little from having missed the chance to book up to see Charles Holden’s art deco HQ for London Transport at 55 Broadway. So it was like a little birthday present when I emerged from work, made contact with Mrs M and found that she was at one of fellow deco architect Wallis Gilbert’s less well-known buildings and that, if I got cracking, I’d be just in time to join them. He’s the chap who designed the Hoover Building in Perivale, Victoria Coach Station and the much-missed Firestone building on the Great West Road whose untimely and underhand demolition sparked the creation of the Twentieth Century Society to preserve such treasures.


The line of the windows betrays the route of the original ramp

And so, just twenty minutes later I emerged from Russell Square station (a lovely bit of transport architecture in its own right) in the heart of Bloomsbury, popped round the corner and was greeted by the art deco eye candy that is the former Daimler Hire Garage in Herbrand Street. The building dates back to the period between the wars when motoring was becoming increasingly popular but few in London bothered to own their own vehicle, even if they knew how to drive one. Daimler was just one of the companies to step into this gap, hiring out up market cars and drivers to wealthy London patrons wishing to motor down to the country. As a prestigious brand, they needed a prestigious premises to operate from, and one that would be fit for purpose in storing and maintaining a fleet of vehicles.


We love a deco balustrade!

Wallis Gilbert’s 1931 design borrowed on his other industrial buildings in putting a stylish front onto a functional main body, but still the needs of this commission demanded form to follow the function. His answer was to build a curving helical ramp into the front corner of the building, serving a series of reinforced concrete decks for garaging. Servicing was carried out on the ground floor, and an area for private garaging was also included. The reinforced concrete frame was infilled with brick, and then rendered to give the smooth art deco lines. The joy of the place is not just in the overall lines, but in the little details that enhance it, like the green tiling on the central tower (a typical Gilbert feature), the banded green-framed windows, including those sloping up along the ramp, and touches of decoration on the doors.


Even in the secondary parts of the building, the detailing and lines stand out

Having been used as garaging of one sort or other throughout its life, the building was looking particularly shabby by the end of the 20th Century (and I confess I must have walked past it numerous times in the 80s without noticing it), until it was treated to a sympathetic restoration and conversion into office space and then occupied since by advertising agency McCann, who were our willing hosts for Open House day. It was fascinating to walk up the shallow stairs that follow the structure of the ramp, with the sloping windows in each office giving away the original orientation. The parking decks make for high effective open office space, ideal for a bunch of creatives, and the massive reinforced concrete beams are a feature in themselves that don’t need hiding away. McCann’s have even put the roof space to good use with a faux grass surface laid on the ramp as it reaches the top level – a space they’ve successfully used for cinema events. As an industrial building, most of its features are in the main structure of the building, but there are some lovely features that have been preserved, such as the very deco balustrades (we love a good balustrade, we do). What made the tour was the obvious pleasure that the McCann team took in the building they occupy, and the pride with which they showed it off to random art deco enthusiasts who’d wandered through their doors – this is just what Open House is all about.

While in the area, we made a quick call to nearby Senate House, designed by the god of 1930s London Transport design, Charles Holden. We’d missed the organised tours, but the university staff were kind enough to let us wander round the main circulation areas which definitely whetted our appetite for a return visit and a more extensive look round.


For those interested in architecture, or just what goes on behind the walls of buildings they’d never normally be able to enter, Open House weekend is a treat, especially in London. Don’t leave it until the last minute and miss out on the venues that need pre-booking. Keep an eye on the website as it builds (I won’t add a link in case next September’s is different), pack in as much as you can, and don’t forget to take time to chat to the volunteers from each of the buildings included who’ve willingly given up their weekend to spend it in the place they come to work the rest of the week!