The rise of the private ownership of cars in the 1920s and 30s led to a whole new industry to service the new consumer motorist. The whole process of buying, owning and servicing private motor cars needed a succession of new buildings; showrooms, garages, car parks and filling stations. The contemporary style of Art Deco and its closely related cousin, Streamline moderne, lent themselves perfectly to this new world of glamour and speed. The same styles were applied to the other modes of transport like flying and going to sea, but having a car was slightly more attainable for the man who was still riding the Clapham Omnibus.
Traditionally, car showrooms had been situated in the west end of London, around Great Portland Street and Piccadilly, but in the 1930s, sleek looking buildings in white render sprung up next to the newly built roads around the suburbs of London, such as the Great West Road, Western Avenue and the Great Cambridge Road. The most eye-catching set of these buildings belonged to the Stewart and Ardern company, exclusive sellers of Morris cars in the greater London area. The company was formed in 1911 by Gordan Stewart and Lawrence Ardern, building up a network of 11 dealerships around the South East, as well as offices in Bond Street and Berkley Square and a works in Acton Vale.
From the start of the 1930s, they built brand new dealerships reflecting the spirit of the machine age. The architect for these new places of the motor car was Stewart Cameron Kirby (1898-1955), an architect and furniture designer originally from Norwich. Kirby is credited with designing at least three showrooms for Stewart & Ardern; Ilford (1934), Staines (1934) and Catford (1935). The company also had a showroom at North Harrow built as part of a parade of shops and flats, its mixture between neo-Georgian and art deco fits in with its meek suburban neighbours, despite the attention seeking clock tower. It is unclear if Kirby was responsible for designing this building.
The three showrooms at Ilford, Staines and Catford throw off any thoughts of fitting in, and look to proclaim themselves as the ideal places to join the new motoring revolution. The three buildings are all curves and sleekness. Their horizontal emphasis is punctuated by tall curved towers at Catford and Staines. Like other contemporary forms of transport they look to communicate speed, modernity and ease. The dour brick of the North Harrow showroom is replaced by flawless white render and acres (or at least metres) or glass. The large windows were designed to show off the cars at all times, showing off the cars to passing motorists.
The interiors were fitted out in chromium, steel and glass, dazzling customers with a vision of the future, similar to HG Wells “The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, and the subsequent film of 1936. The cars were spaced out inside, allowing prospective customers to be able to see all the way around the cars on show. One slightly jarring note in the photos of the showroom interiors are the cars themselves, looking very boxy and unwieldy compared to their surroundings.
Three of these four buildings still exist, with two of them still in the business of selling cars (North Harrow and Staines). The Ilford building still exists but looks a shadow of its former self, these days, (you can find it at 543-549 High Road, Ilford). The Catford showrooms seem to have disappeared with the passing of time. Stewart and Arden’s other showrooms were located in South Tottenham, Croydon, Golders Green, Sutton and Southend, all designed in a more classical style. Part of the Golders Green building still survives as a Kwik Fit centre at 1287 Finchley Road.
The other architects were mentioning when talking of the design of interwar car showrooms was that of Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, famed for the factory designs along the arterial roads mentioned earlier. The company designed the Daimler Hire Garage in Bloomsbury in 1931, a four-storey building containing a garage, offices, coach station and car park, designed in a similar modernistic style to Cameron Kirby’s showrooms. Wallis, Gilbert & Partners also designed a showroom and service station for Henley’s (1937) on the Great West Road, near their art deco factories for Pyrene, Coty and Firestone. The forty metre high, curved clock tower later became famous for advertising Martini when it was converted into a warehouse for the company. The building caught fire in 1989, and an office building was built on the site, retaining the clock tower. Wallis Gilbert and Partners also built car showrooms at Great Portland Street in 1926 and for Packard Ltd on the Great West Road in 1929, as well as service stations for Brew Bros, Old Brompton Road (1933) and Godfrey Davies in Neasden (1939).
Other interwar showrooms and garages worth mentioning include the Rootes building (1939) in Maidstone, a streamlined car showroom designed by Howard and Souster, now listed and turned into apartments. Gollys Garage on Earl’s Court Road (1935) wasn't so lucky. It was designed by the firm of Seymer, Orman and Adie and had a canopy fitted with glass bricks to allow more daylight onto the forecourt and an exterior decorated with ceramic tilework.
The Olympia Garage in West Kensington was built as part of the extension to the Olympia exhibition hall by Joseph Emberton from 1935-37. The garage building is a functionalist design in reinforced concrete with brick facing, influenced by Erich Mendolsohn’s designs in Europe. The garage is Grade II listed but the Olympia complex is currently undergoing conversion into a residential complex. Emberton also designed showrooms for Crown Motors at 71-77 Great Portland Street in 1937, in a similarly sleek fashion.
Michael John Law- 1930s London: The Modern City
Alistair Forsyth and Peter Fowler- Buildings for the Age: New Building Types 1900-1939
Joan Skinner- Form and Fancy: The Factory Buildings of Wallis, Gilbert & Partners 1916-1939
Anatomy of a House No.7
All the houses we have covered so far in our Anatomy of a House blog have been designed by famous architects, and are now listed and preserved for future generations to admire. The next house is none of those things. Nowadays, if you were wandering down Nelmes Way in Hornchurch you would probably not even give this house a second glance, committed modernist that you are, wandering off in search of the next flat roofed wonder. But had you been walking the same road in 1933, you may well have stopped in astonishment and wonder. These days, St Raphael looks like any other detached suburban home, but when first built it was the essence of forward looking modernity.
It was designed by Australian architect Stewart Lloyd Thomson, who was involved with one of the first modernist houses in the country, and subject of our first Anatomy, High and Over in Amersham. He was born in Melbourne in 1902, moving to Britain in the early 1920s to finish his architectural training. He worked for Southern Railways before briefly working with Amyas Connell on High and Over. A couple of years later Thomson got the commission to design a house for Mr & Mrs Hill in Hornchurch, then in the county of Essex and part of Hornchurch Urban District.
Thomson designed the house to be constructed with a concrete frame, an early example of this method of construction for small domestic projects in Britain (alongside previous AOAH subjects High & Over and Torilla, Nast Hyde). The frame was infilled with brick and covered in pale cream render. The windows were metal framed and there were wrought iron railings around the first floor deck and second floor sun garden. The house had an integrated garage, and iron gates with a striking De Stijl-inspired design. The garden also had a greenhouse, complete with a curved concrete entrance.
Inside the design continued the exterior’s forward-looking aesthetic. The walls were painted in peach, with a pink-brown carpet and silver rubber curtains. The hallway featured a large mirror, expanding the space through illusion. The light fittings were oval shaped trough lights which projected illumination evenly around each room. The ground floor was designed with an open plan living and dining room and a kitchen. The first floor contained four bedrooms, with one having access to the front deck area and a rectangular staircase tower leading up to the roof top sun garden. The oval pattern was continued out in the garden where an oval path led a route around the greenery.
What a futuristic wonder the house must have seemed on completion! In a street of Rob Roy, this house would have been Dan Dare. Unfortunately, all we have now is the wonderful photos from the September 1934 edition of Ideal House. At some point, prior to 1990, the house was converted into an ordinary looking residence. The plan of the house is still somewhat intact, but the flat roof and sun decks have disappeared beneath a tiled, pitched roof, the curved entrance porch has been subsumed beneath an extension, the concrete premier walls and iron gate swapped for a large crazy paving driveway and the half moon garden entrance has been replaced with a conservatory.
The 1933 version of the house garnered much publicity in the architectural press, with lavish descriptions of its construction and its interior finishings. But this didn't seem to lead to fame and riches for Thomson. During the rest of the decade he designed an office block in Torquay, another office in Bedford and did some work on shops in London. In the post war period he went into partnership with Greek architect Hector Corfiato, working on the Notre Dame de France Church in Leicester Square together. Corfiato had taught Amyas Connell when at the Bartlett School, which Thomson also attended, so it can be assumed that they also met there. Thomson later taught himself at University College London between 1955 and 1960. Thomson died in 1990.
There is some (slight) good news however. A copy of St Raphael still exists at the other end of the country in Inverness. The house, Lamburn 41 Old Edinburgh Road, was ‘designed’ by R. Carruthers-Ballantyne who seemingly had seen some of the copious press coverage of St Raphael and used the design himself. This kind of plagiarism happened at the start of the 20th century when architects could see other projects in the press but probably thought their copies wouldn't be noted. Other houses that were copied include Oliver Hill’s Frinton Park estate designs, Evelyn Simmons ‘Sunway’ house from the 1934 Ideal Home Exhibition and FRS Yorke’s 1936 house in Iver, Bucks. From a 21st century perspective, we should be glad that the copies were built as quite often the original was altered (as with St Raphael) or demolished altogether.
Ideal Home magazine September 1934
R. Randall Phillips- Houses for Moderate Means Country Life 1936
H. Myles Wright- Small Houses 500-2,500 pounds The Architectural Press 1937
Anatomy of a House No.6