Modernist wonder of Hermitage Court, South Woodford

It’s a place I’d only glimpsed from the W14 bus on the way back from South Woodford Odeon, one of the other great art deco wonders of Redbridge. But following my nose out to the forest the other week I finally took a closer look at Hermitage Court.

This suburban modernist marvel was built in 1935-6. It sits back off the Woodford Road, emitting a low hum of high architectural class and a sense of mystery brooding behind the net curtains. Lawyer to the Greater Train Robbers George Stanley rented a flat here for his mistress. In his book The Secret Train Robber, Lee Sturley recounts how George introduced Hermitage Court to fellow solicitor Maurice Lesser who apparently fell in love with the place and used it to for liaisons with various boyfriends at a time when homosexuality was illegal.

What other stories does Hermitage Court have to tell? This must just be the tip of the iceberg.

The Wonders of Barkingside

That loop in the Central Line has got to be there for a reason beyond making Essex commuters change at Leytonstone and wait for a tube going via Hainault.

The reason it seems is protect the architectural gems of Barkingside from the herds of tourists that would surely stampede this way if it was slightly easier to reach.

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You’re welcomed by the brutalist beauty of the Magistrate’s Court radiating greyness like a beached battleship.

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Then there is this modernist delight on the High Street – the sort of building that makes me dream of a parallel life living in one of these flats above the shops.

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But the jewel in the crown must surely be Fullwell Cross Library – a Grade II listed civic alhambra designed by Frederick Gibberd completed in 1968.

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Gibberd started his career as a architect of ‘modern flats’, making his name with Pullman Court in Streatham.

But he was just warming up for building Fullwell Cross Library – the ceiling alone worth trundling around the Hainault branch for.

Modernism in Lewisham?

First off I’m not entirely sure that ‘modernist’ is the correct term to describe these three buildings in Lewisham High Street that caught my eye when I was down there the other week. But it’s the word that pops into my befuddled brain when I look at them.

Nikolaus Pevsner was fairly dismissive of Lewisham, writing in 1952 that it was, ‘A large borough, but little to see’. Although he knew his modernism from his art-deco, I am compelled to disagree.
The building above however is the only one I’ve found any info on – it was a 1960s department store, but I haven’t yet found out its original name.

The past life and former glories of this branch of Currys eludes me though. It’s a magnficient building worthy of more than being shared between cheap electronics and nail varnish remover.

The detail on the facade was clearly the product of an age that took its retail architecture seriously. This building seems slightly embarrassed by what has become of it, skulking back behind its tacky plastic frontage.
I wonder if it’s a survivor of the V1 attack on Lewisham Market in July 1944 that devastated the town centre

Ok this Primark isn’t quite so grand but still recalls a Grace Brothers age of High Street glamour and civic dignity.
I didn’t glide down to Lewisham on the DLR to study retail behemoths but I can’t seem to get these buildings out of my head. Just need to find out the correct word to describe them now.

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Suburb-hunting in Modernist Metroland

SPB Mais

“To the believer in the influence of the environment – and I am certainly one – it comes as something of a shock to discover that what we are pleased to call the suburban outlook – that is, the narrow outlook of the stereotyped – is shared by the owners of castles in the Cheviots and studios in Chelsea, and is actually rather rare in the suburbs which are supposed to engender it. The truth, I thought, must be that the suburbs are not quite so uniform in character as they are made out to be.”

This is the opening to a chapter on the London suburbs in England’s Character by SPB Mais (1937). I keep coming back to Mais – I think he is one of the most resonant forebares of this art of wandering around and recording your thoughts about what you have seen. That must have been why I took this book down off the shelf this evening.

Mais’ ‘suburb-hunting’ started out in Harrow with its gasometers and he praises North Harrow for a “surprising moment of courage in building a series of dazzling white flats with green tiles, recessed balconies, multitudinous glass, and terraces fronting a communal public unfenced garden.” Sounds like he’s describing the now Grade-II listed Pinner Court designed by local architect HJ Mark and completed in 1936 at the time Mais would have been writing the book.

Pinner: Pinner Court, Pinner Road (Nigel Cox) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Large chunks of Pinner and Rayners Lane have now been placed in a conservation area to protect its modernist and art deco inspired buildings and streetscapes – and it seems that HJ Mark was at the centre of this suburban Bauhausian outpost, particularly in Eastcote Town Centre.

This makes me wonder whether Mais, a self-professed ‘man of the hills’, was in fact a closet modernist, further evidenced by his belief in the influence of the environment it re-enforces my vision of this tweedy BBC radio presenter of Microphone At Large as a proto-psychogeographer. Was he drawn out to Harrow to discuss the modernist project with Mark and take a topographical ramble through the dreamscape that Marks had created in the Harrows and the Weald.

More modernist wonders of the suburbs can be seen on the brilliant Modernism in Metroland website.

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