The Stories behind London's Lost Art Deco Icons

20 August 2018

Since its world-premiere at the International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts in France in 1925, Art Deco has permeated countless creative spheres: from fashion, jewellery, art, and especially architecture. During the late twenties to the early thirties, London quickly became a hotspot for Art Deco architecture. From the impressive news buildings on Fleet Street, built as a kind of testament to a newspaper’s political clout, to highly ornamented theatres with gilded facades and neon marquees: London was front and centre of the jazz age’s Art Deco phenomenon. And much like the flappers of the era embraced bobbed haircuts, skinny moustaches, and loose morals; London embraced the bold and glamorous excesses of the roaring twenties with open arms and a hopeful vision of the future. 

Today however, is a different story. With almost a century passing since the golden age of Art Deco, and with modernist marvels taking over the skyline, London’s Art Deco gems are few and far in between, but definitely worth saving. To echo the sentiments of fellow Art Deco-enthusiast, Jay Gatsby, who once said, “Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!” we are giving you some of London’s extraordinary Art Deco buildings that have been given a new lease on life in recent years. Proving that you can indeed, not just repeat the past, but maybe even make it better. 

TROXY

THEN: With a capacity of 3,250, Troxy was the UK’s biggest and grandest cinema when it opened back in 1933. In its hey-day, Troxy was managed by natural-born showman Maurice Cheepen, who used to stage incredible publicity stunts whenever the cinema had a new release.

Imagine the grey skies of Industrial 1930s London, and then seeing a horse drawn carriage promoting Cinderella, or a cape-clad Vampire roaming around the East End promoting Dracula (which back then would have certainly caused a scandal among the life-hardened middle class) Throughout its golden days, Troxy was a place that allowed East London residents to escape to a more glamorous world. Silver screen movie stars like Clarke Gable, Vera Lynn, and Lita Roza, who if you don’t know, is the first British artist to top the UK Charts with the tune “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” were all patrons of Troxy before it closed in 1960.

NOW: After almost fifty years since its last screening, Troxy has now been reborn into one of East London’s buzziest live events spaces. Their first major gig in 2008, featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and filled every seat in the house. In 2014, Troxy completed a full restoration process that breathed new life into the cinema’s Art deco foundations. The building’s exterior features the new Troxy sign, which was designed to replicate the original facia. Inside, the theatre’s art deco wall panels, mouldings, iron railings, and impressive brass chandelier have been lovingly restored to its former glory. Today, Troxy is undeniably one of East London’s most fascinating music venues, hosting gigs by all kinds of pop and underground bands.

Eltham Palace

THEN: In its heyday, Art Deco was so popular that even royals jumped into the bandwagon. While Eltham Palace itself originated as a 13th century moated bishops’s palace, it was remodelled in 1933 by architects Seely and Paget for Stephen and Virginia Courthauld. The Eltham Palace was a great example of the juxtaposition between the building’s medieval elements and 20th century Art Deco.

While the exterior may look like a classic stately home; the palace’s interior is a reflection of the Courthauld’s eclectic tastes. The doors that lead to the estate’s dining room seems more like an entrance to Cleopatra’s tomb, than to a dining room. A highlight of the house, these doors are painted in a printed lacquer of geometric patterns and hand-drawn animals in gold, inspired by a visit to the London Zoo. The house’s focal point however, has to be its spectacular entrance hall. Designed by Rolf Engströmer, the entrance hall is bathed in light from a glass dome that sits directly above. Its circular shape is strikingly modern, and the walls are lined with blackened veneer and marquetry with illustrated tableaus from both Italy and Scandinavia.

NOW: In 2015, Eltham Palace was opened to visitors for the first time; and is now managed by The English Heritage as a public museum. Conservators have managed to maintain a large chunk of the palace’s original interiors, as well as many of the Courthauld’s Art Deco treasures; and is a great place for design-lovers to spend an afternoon.

The Old Midland Bank

THEN: At one point in time, The Old Midland Bank once held the title as the largest bank in the world. A Grade II listed building located in London’s bustling financial district with Guildhall and Bank of England in close proximity. The Old Midland Bank’s impressive facade was designed by the great Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1924; the man who would be responsible for much of the architecture of New Delhi.

Inside, the bank’s interiors were designed by John Alfred Gotch, and were reflective of the glorious excesses of the financial industry at the time. One of the bank’s most iconic features is its impressive walk-in vault, which actually made an infamous cameo in James Bond’s Goldfinger. The Old Midland Bank also had a theatre, a two-story company boardroom, and a medieval banquet hall, and a rather indulgent private chairman’s lift set right off the bank’s main entrance. In 1992, the Midland name was taken over by HSBC, and the Old Midland Bank remained empty for almost ten years.

NOW: Today, the Old Midland Bank has been reincarnated as The Ned. Coined after an affectionate nickname for its architect, Edwin Lutyens. A joint project by the forever cool Nick Jones, and the Rydell Group; The Ned is now one of the City’s buzziest hotels; a jewel amongst the modernist  architecture surrounding it. With over 320,0000 square feet of space, 252 bedrooms and suites, 9 restaurants, (8 of which are in the former banking hall on the ground floor) and a glitzy lounge located in the bank’s iconic walk-in vault - The Ned is Soho House’s biggest project to date.

When Nick Jones first visited the then vacant No.27 Poultry Street, he immediately saw the building’s potential. He shared this love with his design team, led by Adam Greco and Alice Lund; who have painstakingly recreated the building’s glamorous art deco details. From the bank floors green marble pillars, the black and white tiled flooring, oak panelled walls, and brass light fixtures - The Ned looks like an Art Deco masterpiece, reimagined for 2018.

Savoy Cinema

THEN: Located on Stoke Newington Road, The Savoy Cinema was originally designed for Associated British Cinemas by architect William R. Glenn. Opening on October 1936 with a screening of “Mr.Deeds Goes to Town," the Savoy was once Hackney’s cultural hub, particularly during the golden age of cinema. As the years passed, the Savoy was transferred from one owner to the next. It first became the ABC Cinema from 1961, and then reopened as the Konak Cinema in 1977, becoming known for screening obscure Bollywood movies. In 1982, it was reopened as Ace Cinema, and closed not more than two years after with a screening of Scarface. Since then the Savoy Cinema has become a forgotten and almost derelict space. After surviving a small fire — it almost seems like this once stunning piece of art deco history has breathed its last breath. 

NOW: Under the eye of Auro Foxcroft and the people of Village Underground it seems that The Savoy will be given a new lease of life, with plans announced to convert the 81 year old venue into the Evolutionary Arts Hackney or EarthH for short. 

With almost £2 million behind the project as well as the councils resounding approval, the Village Underground are planning to transform the Savoy into a 2500 plus capacity multi-arts centre that will feature music, theatre, dance, and poetry; along with an education program in partnership with the Community Music charity. Not only is the venture a great way to revive one of London’s lost icons, but is also a great model to show how music, art, and architecture can bring a community together. According to Auro, “As a social enterprise, it’s essential for us to have financial backing that understands our goals, and in this way these organisations have set us free to usher something into the world that would have otherwise not have been possible.” And while, we have yet to see the Savoy Cinema in this new light, it is important to note how important these treasures are to the communities they belong to. Beyond satiating our nostalgia, keeping these buildings alive is also about keeping a little bit of our history close to our hearts and minds. 

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Words by Hannah Tan-Gillies

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