Conservation United Kingdom

London Underground to sell listed HQ

Art Deco building has sculptures by Epstein, Moore and Gill

The exterior of 55 Broadway, and Jacob Epstein’s controversial sculpture Day, right

London Underground is to sell off its headquarters in Westminster, which boasts Art Deco interiors and sculptures by Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henry Moore. The ten-storey, Grade I-listed structure at 55 Broadway was London’s first skyscraper when it was erected in 1929 by the architect Charles Holden. According to a spokeswoman for Transport for London, it is selling the property because it is no longer “fit for purpose as a modern office building”.

The structure’s exterior reliefs are by some of the greatest Modern British sculptors. Above the entrance portals are two works by Epstein, Day and Night, which were influenced by Assyrian sculptures in the British Museum. Day proved to be particularly controversial when it was unveiled in 1929: Epstein chopped off an inch from the penis of the central figure (a child) after protests that it was too central to the composition. Eight figurative sculptures on the sixth floor represent the winds. They were inspired by a frieze of deities on the Tower of the Winds, an ancient Athenian building. Gill carved three of the reliefs and another was the young Moore’s first public commission. The remainder are by Allan Wyon, Samuel Rabinovitch, Eric Aumonier and Alfred Gerrard.

Weathered and discoloured

The sculptures are now badly weathered and discoloured with streaks of dirt. Anita Feldman, the head of collections at the Henry Moore Foundation, says: “The importance of these rare carvings cannot be overstated. They should be professionally cleaned and a programme for routine maintenance established.”

The interior of 55 Broadway still has Frank Pick’s original suite of offices, with walnut panelling and Art Deco flourishes, in the east wing of the seventh floor. Pick, who rose to become the chief executive of London Transport, masterminded all aspects of the underground’s design, including the roundel used on station signs, Edward Johnston’s typeface (which is still used today) and posters by artists such as Man Ray, Graham Sutherland, Frank Brangwyn and László Moholy-Nagy. It was in these offices that Harry Beck developed the London Tube map, which has inspired similar diagrammatic maps for most of the world’s underground networks. The west wing was damaged during the Second World War, but was later repaired. The building was renovated in 1989 and received a Grade I listing in 2011.

In Philip Davies’s 2012 book London: Hidden Interiors, the author writes: “There are a handful of buildings that are so inextricably identified with their original function that to change their use should be unthinkable… 55 Broadway, the iconic home of London Transport since its inception, is just such a case.”

Now, however, the building is likely to be converted into luxury flats, which will be inserted into what are mainly open-plan offices. A spokeswoman for Transport for London stresses that “any future development plans would need to respect the heritage of this Grade I-listed building, and we will, of course, proceed sensitively”.

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Comments

16 Aug 13
16:9 CET

JOHN, GEELONG, AUSTRALIA

Decades ago, I used to work in the adjacent building. I always felt rather overwhelmed by it. It was rather as if the Art Deco lovers had been captured by a bunch of Futurist architects and the result was too massive and without charm.

14 Aug 13
17:2 CET

STEPHEN SKELTON, LONDON

I have heard the story about Eric Gill and the 'long penis' in relation to the statue over the front door of the BBC building, but never about the Epstein statue on this building. Is it correct?

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