Lauderdale House and Gardens, Waterlow Park, London

Located right next to Highgate Cemetery, Waterlow Park is your typical north London public park, where grassy slopes alternate with trees and shrubberies and hidden ponds. It was donated to the City Council in 1889 by politician and philanthropist Sir Sidney Waterlow who intended it as “a garden for the gardenless”. Waterlow had created the park by merging the grounds of several estates he had acquired in the area. Perhaps the most prominent of these estates was Lauderdale House, which still stands in an elevated position in the northeast section of the park. It is surrounded by an ornate terraced garden markedly distinct from the rest of the park.

In its present state, Lauderdale House sports a fine neoclassical façade, dating to c. 1760. At its core, however, the house is much older: It was first built as a timber-framed structure in (or slightly before) 1582 for Richard Martin, Lord Mayor of London. By the mid-seventeenth century, it had passed into the possession of John Maitland (1616–1682), 1st Duke of Lauderdale, councillor and favourite of Charles II. A source from that time already describes the house as “having an English garden with terraces, orange trees and a fountain”.

It seems that the gardens’ architectural structure has remained largely unchanged since then: To this day, the terraces are retained by brick walls dating from the seventeenth century. The buttressed southwest wall, which now separates the garden from the surrounding park, is particularly impressive.

Two sets of stone steps lead from the park onto the lower terrace; another flight of steps connects the latter to the upper terrace and the house itself. The steps are somewhat younger than the walls, some of them said to be of eighteenth-century origin, others presumably rebuilt in the Victorian period.

While its architectural ‘framework’ is thus of a rather venerable age, the garden itself was much altered in later times. It underwent its most decisive remodelling in the years after 1850, when Lauderdale House was leased to the clergyman and scholar James Yates (1789–1871). Under his patronage, the house became “famed for its garden-parties, at which the literary and scientific celebrities were gathered to meet the lions of the season”, as James Thorne’s 1876 Handbook of the Environs of London informs us. “The terraced garden”, Thorne continues, “with its brilliant flowers and velvet lawns, was in Mr. Yates’s time a charming example of an old-fashioned garden, treated with the best modern skill.” As we know from other sources, Yates also added an orchard, a hedged kitchen garden, a palm house and other glasshouses to the grounds.

Not long after Yates’ death, however, the garden had fallen into decay. In 1893, John E. Locking characterises it as “a wilderness of shrubs and flowers”, and an overall rather desolate place: “As one mounts the steps of the terrace, overgrown with snapdragon, broken many of them, and the balustrades falling down, somehow there is a feeling of sadness. (…) Here, in tangled confusion, the iris, the evening primrose, the marigold, the hollyhock, the camomile, the Portugal laurel, the sweet pea, burridge, and the rowan-tree ‘for luck’, grow and flourish at their own sweet will in the long silky grass.”

Today, after some further ups and downs, Lauderdale House and its gardens are once again a well-kept and charming site. Having been restored to their former glory from 2001–2005, with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund, they are now a lovely place for a stroll or for simply sitting down on a bench – or for enjoying a cuppa and a slice of cake in Lauderdale House Café…

York Water Gate, London

I recently read Laura Cumming’s fascinating book The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez and was pleasantly surprised to find that the author, albeit briefly, mentions one of my favourite London landmarks: York Water Gate. Now located in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, this fine piece of architecture is all that survives of York House, one of the many great houses that once lined the Strand. Its name refers back to the Archbishops of York who had owned the building from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. In 1622, however, it was acquired by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592–1628), a friend and favourite of king James I and later of his successor Charles I.

Villiers immediately set about embellishing his new property: Within a few years it was adorned with frescoes by Orazio Gentileschi, paintings by Holbein, Raphael, Titian and Dürer, a statue of Samson by Giambologna (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum), and a fairly large number of sculptures from Roman antiquity. All of these works, alas, were destroyed or dispersed when the building was demolished in 1675, having been sold off to developers by Villiers’ son.

So all that remains today is the former water gate, built in 1626 at the rear end of the property. Like most of the palaces on the Strand, York House and its grounds extended all the way to the Thames. It was there that the gate was erected as a ceremonial entrance for those arriving from the river, a much-used transport route in those days. As befits its function, the water gate is richly decorated with coats of arms, inscriptions, emblems, and heraldic beasts relating to the owner and his family – e. g. the Villiers’ motto Fidei Coticula Crux (The Cross is the Touchstone of Faith) inscribed on the land side of the structure.

But even without its decorations York Water Gate would still be highly impressive. Reflecting the Italianate court style fashionable in the ambit of Charles I., it essentially is a small-scale triumphal arch dominated by rusticated Doric columns.

Unfortunately, the architect of this rare piece of London Baroque is unknown. Traditionally, it has been attributed to sculptor and royal master-mason Nicholas Stone, but other names have been suggested, too, most notably Balthazar Gerbier and Inigo Jones. The one thing we can say with certainty, though, is that its design was based on that of the Medici Fountain in Paris, erected only a few years earlier by an Italian master, presumably Tommaso Francini, in the gardens of Marie de’ Medici’s palace on the Rive Gauche.

There is a certain irony in the fact that York Water Gate was modelled on an elaborate architectural garden feature – for that is exactly what the gate itself has become since the construction of the Thames Embankment in the 1860s: The river now flows more than a hundred metres south-east of the building, leaving it stranded and all too often overlooked at the back of the Embankment Gardens.

Fortess Road Post Office, London

This one really speaks for itself, I believe: ‘Fortess Road Post Office’, a mosaic inscription on this late nineteenth-century building in Kentish Town proclaims. The words are placed in a blind window right in the centre of the gable. A symmetrical floral motif in the lunette completes the composition. This motif is repeated in the lunettes of the other, actual windows on the façade (although in one of them the mosaic decoration is now missing).

One might argue that the rather narrow blind window might not be the ideal choice for fitting such an inscription, but the designer of the mosaic turned necessity into virtue by giving the words a distinct diagonal slant. This gives the lettering a dynamic appearance, which is enhanced by the curvy shapes of the initials and by the floral scrolls filling the angles of the frame.

And it’s even further enhanced by the background: What may seem like a flat white surface at first glance, upon a closer look, turns out to be a pattern made of small tesserae following the curls and twirls of the letters they surround. What’s more, the white tesserae are interspersed with yellowish ones, adding a certain shine and sparkle to the mosaic ground. Combined with the colourful contrast between the dark, almost brownish red of the letters and the turquoise of the initials, all this produces an aesthetically pleasing, almost lavish effect.

It seems almost superfluous to add that the post office no longer exists, at least not at this address. Instead, the building now houses a shop on the street level and, I assume, flats on the first and second floor. But the post office sign remains, an ornate reminder of the building’s original use – and of a time when the area was growing at a fast pace from rural suburb to urban borough.

Summer House, Richmond, London

Standing directly on the popular Thames promenade in Richmond, this small tower-like building is probably a familiar sight to many Londoners. Its crenellated parapet gives the structure an almost medieval look, but the large round-arched windows betray its eighteenth-century origin: It was built around 1760 as an architectural garden feature for Trumpeter’s House, which, at that time, was in the possession of one Lewis Way, a barrister of the Inner Temple, Director of the South Sea Company and President of Guy’s Hospital.

Trumpeter’s House itself had been erected shortly after 1700 between Richmond Green and the Thames, on the site formerly occupied by Richmond Palace. Lewis Way added two wings and an impressive portico to the building, as well as the summer house at the rear end of the extensive gardens, which stretch all the way to the river. In many respects, it is this position on the waterfront that determined the design of this ‘miniature tower’. After all, its primary purpose was to provide its owners a view over the river. Thus, while the garden side has a solid, closed appearance, there are two large windows looking outwards, and the building’s main level is raised above ground by an elevated basement. One might perhaps even describe the summer house as a kind of free-standing theatre box – with the boats and passers-by outside providing the entertainment.

 

Cholmeley Lodge, London

Another walk uphill in north London, this time up Highgate Hill. As you make your way up from Archway tube station, the Art Deco block of Cholmeley Lodge stands out like an eye-catcher at a slight bend in the road, among rows of mostly Victorian terraced houses. It was built in 1934–35 after designs by Guy Morgan, who is perhaps best known for Florin Court, another London apartment building in the Art Deco style.

In the case of Cholmeley Lodge, the vertical rise is counterbalanced by the horizontal lines of the balconies on each floor. Projecting from the façade, these balconies also add a certain amount of structure and plasticity to the block. Add to this the contrast between brick and white-plastered walls, enlivened by generously spaced windows, and the result is a building that appears rich and elegant without using so much as a single ornament.

That, however, is not all there is to it…

As you continue uphill and get closer to the building, you realise that it is not a simple block, but swings out in a curve, then turns a corner and swings out again. And again. In fact, Cholmeley Lodge is comprised of three (almost) identical crescents, overlooking the city from the slopes of Highgate Hill.

With its curves and balconies, the complex seems perfectly matched to its hillside spot, so it may come as a surprise to learn that it was originally designed for an entirely different location: the seafront at Bournemouth. But, even though Bournemouth, like many seaside resorts, has its fair share of Art Deco architecture, Guy Morgan’s design was considered too modern by the local planners and therefore rejected.

Well, what can I say, Bournemouth’s loss is Highgate’s gain, and so far, Cholmeley Lodge is probably my favourite building in my new(ish) north London neighbourhood.

Belvoir Estate, London

Earlier this year, at the beginning of May, I was walking with my partner from Archway to Crouch End, in north London. Knowing the neighbourhood already better than I did, she was pointing out the area’s architectural highlights to me, mostly buildings from the Victorian and Edwardian era. But as we made our way up Hornsey Rise, she drew my attention to a much more recent council estate extending along the east side of the road, saying that she kind of liked it despite its overt postmodernist 1980s look. Now, having both grown up during that particular decade, we share a somewhat ambiguous attitude towards it aesthetics, but I had to agree: those buildings on Hornsey Rise did have a certain quality, so I made a mental note to try and find out more about them… Only a few days later, of course, all major British news outlets announced a list of 17 postmodern buildings that had just received listed status by Historic England; the estate on Hornsey Rise was one of them.

Belvoir Estate, as it’s called, was designed by Gerry Jury of Islington Architect’s Department, under Chris Purslow, and built 1983–1987. Extending over a roughly triangular site delimited by Hornsey Rise, Hillside Road, and Hornsey Rise Gardens, it comprises a range of buildings in different styles and sizes, from bungalows to almost tower-like three-storey structures.

Between them, the estate’s altogether 48 housing units display a rich mix of materials and architectural motifs that has been compared to the aesthetics of the Arts and Craft Movement. As you’d expect in north London, the main building material is brick, and the combination of the yellowish London stock brick with sections of red brickwork makes for a nice contrast.

Even more contrast is provided by the addition of metal canopies and frameworks, painted in bright colours; faux-timber-framed oriels reminiscent of Tudor buildings; pointed windows that bring to mind Gothic or Gothic revival architecture; then again clear lines and curves recalling interwar Modernism.

All of these different features are thrown together in an almost playful manner, but the overall effect is anything but hodgepodge. Instead, what characterises Belvoir Estate is an interesting and pleasing interplay between variety and unity. Individual elements and motifs appear on one end of the building complex, then seem to vanish for a while, only to reappear, with subtle variations, at the other end. Thus the architect manages to give the estate a sense of unity, while successfully avoiding monotonous uniformity.

Midland Railway Stables, London

St Pancras Way in the Borough of Camden certainly isn’t the most picturesque street in London; lined mostly by nondescript industrial and student accommodation buildings, it has little to offer to the architectural and/or historical enthusiast. That is, until you reach no. 7: a two-storey brick structure, which immediately evokes the Victorian era. The ground floor is dominated by a regular row of round arched windows, while the openings on the first floor are slightly narrower and surmounted by straight stone lintels. The building’s original purpose is helpfully spelled out on a sign painted at the northern end of the street façade, reading “South Stables”. What the sign doesn’t tell you, however, is that this relatively small, isolated structure was built in the 1860s as part of the extensive Midland Railway facilities which then covered large parts of the area.

Midland Railway was founded in 1844 from the merger of several local railway companies serving the area around Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby. In the late 1850s, Midland Railway began to expand towards London, and in 1862 decided to build its own terminus there: St Pancras. The station opened in 1868, but one could argue that it was only really completed with the addition of the Midland Grand Hotel, George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Revival masterpiece, built 1865–1876. If the hotel was, and still is, St Pancras’ ‘public face’, a range of much more modest, utilitarian buildings was tucked away behind the station. Extending over hundreds of metres, there were offices, warehouses, facilities for coal traffic – and large stable complexes. Most of this has been destroyed in the course of the last one and a half century, but the South Stables building remains as a small, if poignant reminder of the Midland Railway’s golden age. And, in a slightly ironic twist, it also reminds us that, even though the Victorian era may have been the golden age of the steam-powered railway, actual horse power was still indispensable in any kind of transportation business at the time.