The Building of Bloomsbury

Read a short history on the building of Bloomsbury

At the time of the Restoration in 1660, Bloomsbury was still almost entirely open countryside. Then came the new Southampton House, then Bloomsbury Square. Samuel Pepys described Southampton House as 'a very great and noble work'. John Evelyn called Bloomsbury Square 'a noble square or piazza, a little town.' But the house itself: 'too low.' But it had 'good air'. Dr. Everard Maynwaring was even more effusive about Bloomsbury: 'it is the best air and finest air....and city conveniences joined together'. John Strype said: 'this esteemed the most healthful of any in London'. By contrast, the UCL Bloomsbury Project claims that it was 'an area of swampy marshland and rubbish dumps' until the 19th century institutions 'turned Bloomsbury from a largely undeveloped backwater into London's intellectual and cultural heartland'! But it was back in the 17th century that Bloomsbury became crucial to the London's expansion.

Bloomsbury takes its name from the Blemond family, whose manor house stood where Bloomsbury Square is now. In 1375 the manor was taken over by the Carthusians, who built the Charterhouse at Smithfield. After the dissolution by Henry VIII it was acquired by his chancellor, Thomas Wriothesley, who became the Earl of Southampton in 1547, then forfeited but restored by James I. The estate was fortified with trenches and palisades after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, and the construction of Southampton House and Bloomsbury Square by Lord Southampton finally began in 1657. The estate passed by marriage to the Russell family, the Earls of Bedford, in 1669. Southampton (now Bedford) House was finally demolished for redevelopment by the Bedford Estate's architect James Burton in 1800, when the remains of the fortifications in the grounds were finally removed.

Bloomsbury is above all famous for its squares. With their linking streets, these are thought to follow the line of its ancient pathways. It was laid out as a grid based on terraces and formally landscaped squares to create an attractive residential environment in a rapidly expanding London. Although this process of expansion to the north and west went on for many years, from roughly 1660 to 1840, it kept a consistency of street pattern and building type. It was all done in a very English style, the squares subtly differing in shape and character in a way quite different from continental planning. Despite later changes, these streets and squares remain its dominant characteristic and it is rightly considered to be a very important early example of town planning.

Bloomsbury's developers
Who were the developers who shaped Bloomsbury? After Bloomsbury Square, the story effectively begins with Nicholas Barbon in the second half of the 17th century. Barbon has a reputation as a notorious speculative developer. It is unwise to quarrel with lawyers, and his aggressive building plans caused conflict with those of Gray's Inn, but his terraces have stood the test of time. He developed Red Lion Square, Bedford Row, Queen Square, Great Ormond Street and part of Lambs Conduit Street from the 1670s. Those of his terrace houses that remain are now considered fine examples of a Restoration style that predates Queen Anne and Georgian, now all too rare in London, with their decorative flat canopies and doorcases, fanlights, arched sashes and mellow brick.

Barbon's lead was followed by the development of Rugby Street, from around 1700, Great James Street, in the 1720s, and John Street dating from the middle of the century. An important developer of the second half of the century was Jacob Leroux who started the process of exploring Fitzrovia to the west of Tottenham Court Road in the 1760s by creating Goodge Street and Goodge Place. George Dance the Younger, Sir John Soane's master, developed Alfred Place with its flanking North and South Crescents, west of Gower Street; his houses have gone but his layout remains.

Bedford Square is the best preserved of all London squares, an oasis of calm just a stone's throw from the bustle of Tottenham Court Road. Begun around 1775, we don't know a lot about the designers of the individual houses, though Nos. 1, 6, 10 and others have been ascribed to Thomas Leverton, whose writings confirm he worked on some of the houses. Angelica Kauffmann's designs were used for ceilings in No.1. The newly invented Coade Stone can be seen in the doorframes of these houses. Gower Street, stretching right up from Bedford Square to Euston Road, was developed from the 1780s, and Doughty Street from the 1790s.

James Burton was the next developer of critical importance. As the architect of the Bedford Estate, he changed the face of Bloomsbury by extending it to the north of Bloomsbury Square, starting with Russell Square around 1800, then Bedford Place and Montague Street, and further north Tavistock Square, Burton Street and Cartwright Gardens. His terraces are in his simple but eloquent Neoclassical style, with decorative doorcases, recessed sash windows in compliance with the latest fire regulations, and more stucco than before.

From around 1790 another distinguished architect, S.P. Cockerell, planned the redevelopment of the Foundling Estate for the governors of the hospital, which had been built on open land in 1745-53. He proposed the laying out of Brunswick Square and Mecklenburgh Square on either side of the building. It was wartime and Cockerell was sacked for the age-old problem of inability to control price inflation on the part of contractors, but was reinstated as consultant and his pupil Joseph Kay designed the stately east terrace of Mecklenburgh Square which owes a lot to the Adam style. James Burton then built many more houses on the estate.

Next came Thomas Cubitt, a celebrated builder who worked in conjunction with his son Lewis Cubitt and various architects in his characteristic Greek Revival and Italianate styles. His terraces, with greater use of stucco than those of his predecessors, and decorative flourishes designed to appeal to the upwardly mobile, can be seen on the west side of Tavistock Square, in Gordon Square, Endsleigh Street and Endsleigh Gardens, in Woburn Walk, and to the east around Grays Inn Road in streets such as Frederick Street close to his building yard in Cubitt Street. Together with John Nash he was the most prolific of the early 19th century developers of London catering for its expanding population. Talking of Nash, he is represented by buildings on the west side of Bloomsbury Square and round the corner in Great Russell Street which he remodelled in his stucco manner.

The landscaping of Russell Square and the reshaping of Bloomsbury Square were carried out by Humphrey Repton around 1800, replacing the plain formality of earlier tradition with his more romantic spirit.

Bloomsbury's buildings
What about the great houses, the churches, the educational, medical and charitable institutions, and their architects? Apart from Southampton House, the early great houses in Bloomsbury included Montague House, which later became the first home of the British Museum, Powis House, where Great Ormond Street now is, and Thanet House to the west of Montague House in Great Russell Street, where its fabric still stands in nos. 100-102. Montague House was built by the multi-talented Robert Hooke for the first Duke of Montague in 1675-9, but the original house did not last long; it was burnt down in 1686 and rebuilt by the French architect Pierre Puget. It was rather underused until in 1759 it was opened as the chosen site of the British Museum, to be the repository of Sir Hans Sloane's collections. Robert Smirke gradually rebuilt the site, starting with a new building at the east side in the 1820s, then at the back, and then the new front of 1842 which meant the demolition of the old house. The museum was embellished with Sydney Smirke's Reading Room, completed in 1857. The North Wing was added in 1906-14 by the distinguished Scottish architect Sir John Burnet, in a monumental but unfussy Beaux Arts style that is sympathetic to Smirke's existing work. Burnet is well represented in the area by two other buildings: 30 Russell Square (1913-14), built for the Royal Institute of Chemistry, and Kodak House in Kingsway (1911), praised by Pevsner as a modernist 'pioneer.'

In 1829, around the same time as Smirke at the British Museum, William Wilkins, the architect of the National Gallery, was completing the Wilkins Building for University College, London's first university, also Neoclassical in style, restored by Sir Albert Richardson after war damage.

In Lincoln's Inn Fields, Sir John Soane acquired first no.12, then 13, then 14 between 1792 and 1823, and remodelled them in his distinctive Greek Revivalist manner.

Henry Roberts was noted for his dedication to social housing and Parnell House, Streatham Street, 1849, is a notable example of his work. At the Great Ormond Street Hospital, sadly only the chapel by Edward Barry of 1876 is now worth a visit. Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Natural History Museum, is represented in Bloomsbury with the former University College Hospital in Gower Street, known as the Cruciform Building, of 1896-1906, red brick and terracotta, a very Victorian combination of romanticism and severity. Another outstanding building, in complete contrast, is Mary Ward House in Tavistock Place, progressive Arts & Crafts by Smith & Brewer, 1895-7, architects who are also well represented by Heal's Department Store, one of the few fine buildings left in Tottenham Court Road.

The quality of Bloomsbury's Edwardian buildings is markedly underrated. A good example of high Edwardiana is the former Holborn Town Hall of 1906-8 by Hall & Warwick, with its Baroque exuberance, next to the very similar former library of 1894 by W. Rushworth with renaissance detailing. Back in Gower Street and University Street, the drama of the Cruciform Building tends to overshadow even the absurdly pompous but delightful 'medical Baroque' Rockefeller Building by Paul Waterhouse of 1905. At the southern end of Southampton Row there are three fine buildings of this period: on the corner with High Holborn, the former Baptist Union headquarters, 1901-3, free Baroque by Arthur Keen, next to it The Castle House by Bradshaw Gass & Hope, 1905-6, and then the former Central St. Martins School of Art & Design, 1905-8 by W.E. Riley with W. R. Lethaby.

The British Medical Association in Tavistock Square is an even more grandiose piece of Edwardian Baroque of striking red brick, started around 1911 by Sir Edwin Lutyens and finished with the impressive range facing the street by C. Wontner-Smith in 1925-9, with its giant brick columns.

Turning to commercial buildings, the premises of James Smith at 53 New Oxford Street are a fine surviving example of a high Victorian shop. The Hotel Russell (1900) in Russell Square, with its absurd but exuberant French Gothic, is by the architect of the Bedford Estates, Charles Fitzroy Doll, as is the equally extravagant faux Flemish bookshop at the junction of Torrington Place and Gower Street. The delightful Sicilian Avenue, off Southampton Row, is by R.J.Worley, 1905-10.

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at 62 Gower Street, 1927 by Geoffrey Norman, is a pleasing example of interwar architecture with its strong verticals and sculpted masks at the doorcase.

Sir Edwin Lutyens is the architect of the former YWCA in Great Russell Street, 1930-2, with its monumental but plain red brick Neo-Georgian facade with expertly proportioned sash windows, its exuberant 'Wrenaissance' doorcase contrasting cleverly with its overall simplicity. His talented colleague Sir Herbert Baker is also well represented by London House in Guilford Street (from 1933), which displays his familiar quirks of design with its contrived flint and stone course, its internal courtyard giving it an intimate collegiate atmosphere.

Other good modern buildings include the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine by Horder & Rees, opened by Neville Chamberlain in 1930, and Charles Holden's monumental Senate House which had its foundation stone laid by George V in 1933. Holden is also abundantly represented among the other buildings of London University to the north.

The Foundling Hospital established by Captain Thomas Coram and built 1745-53 was demolished in 1926 and the Thomas Coram Foundation's offices are now in J.M. Shepherd's polite Neo-Georgian offices of 1937 in Brunswick Square. Some colonnades of the original scheme remain, fronted by Guilford Street, around a children's park.

Bloomsbury may be less renowned for its churches than its garden squares but it still has some good ones. By far the oldest is the Roman Catholic church of St. Etheldreda, dating back to the thirteenth century, once the Bishop of Ely's chapel, restored in 1935 by Giles Gilbert Scott. Hawksmoor's St. George Bloomsbury was built to supplement the old parish church of St. Andrew Holborn as London expanded to the west. One of London's great buildings, it was restored by G.E. Street in 1870 when he removed the lions and unicorns from the extraordinary spire modelled on the stepped tomb of Dionysus of Halicarnassus; these were recently reinstated when the church was once again restored with a substantial grant. St. George's Queen Square is also 18th century, but remodelled by S.S. Teulon, the Victorian Gothic 'rogue'. The parish church of St. Giles-in-the Fields was recreated by Henry Flitcroft, the architect of Woburn Abbey and several buildings in Bloomsbury Square and Southampton Place, in the mid-18th century. St. Pancras New Church was the first to be built in the strict Greek Revival style of the Regency, 1822 by H&W Inwood, modelled on the Erechtheum in Athens. Christ Church Woburn Square by Lewis Vulliamy was notoriously destroyed by London University, and Butterfield's St. Alban Holborn is much altered, though his fine adjacent clergy house remains intact. Raphael Brandon's grand former Catholic Apostolic church of 1853 in Gordon Square, studious Early English, survives as the University Church. Joseph Peacock's quirky interpretation of Gothic at Holy Cross Cromer Street also deserves mention. Finally, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church by John Gibson of 1845-8 should be noted for its creative use of brickwork in its high profile location at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue.

The last critical chapter of the Bloomsbury streetscape dates from the Second World War. According to John Lehmann's history of Holborn, the borough suffered the worst destruction of buildings pro rata to its area than anywhere else in London, not to say the whole of Britain. The consequent scale of redevelopment has inevitably added a strong layer of modern architecture to the mix. Outstanding buildings from this period include the Le Corbusier-inspired Congress House in Great Russell Street by David du R. Aberdeen, 1953-7 but designed in 1948. The Dyott Street elevation is more interesting and the interior, where you can look across the courtyard from the ground floor to Epstein's impressive War Memorial, is even better. Perhaps we must also mention Seifert's Centre Point in the context of the 1960s but if so we should also cite his lesser known but good later office building at 19-29 Alfred Place. Sir Denys Lasdun was the architect of the National Theatre but is probably even better summed up by his vast 1960s Institute of Education which, true to the modernist spirit, takes up the whole of the west side of Bedford Way, and his School of Oriental and African Studies library extension behind it to the west. The Neo-Corbusian Brunswick Centre and the Brutalist YMCA in Great Russell Street well represent the mood of the 1970s in their different ways. Of more recent buildings, the School of Slavonic Studies by Short & Associates, 2004, in Taviton Street is outstanding.

These new buildings have evoked mixed views. In the 1960s, Ian Nairn wrote: 'Bloomsbury is dead. Town planners and London University have killed it between them'. In 1970 John Lehmann predicted that Burton's Bloomsbury would soon disappear 'except for a few isolated remind us of man-sized architecture in a vanished age of taste'. Certainly it seems regrettable that there have not been more post-war buildings of real quality, particularly in recent years. Despite this, we should see the best of Bloomsbury's modern buildings, including those mentioned above, as adding yet another layer of architectural interest.

The architects who lived in Bloomsbury
Bloomsbury excels not only in its buildings, but in the distinguished list of architects who have lived and worked here. Charles Fowler (1791-1867), the architect of Covent Garden Market, lived at 1 Gordon Square, later the temporary home of the Warburg Institute. George Dance the Younger (1741-1825), developer of Alfred Place, the surveyor to the City of London who designed Newgate Prison, lived at 91 Gower Street. Sir John Soane, who lived in Lincoln's Inn Fields, was his pupil. Lewis Cubitt, Thomas Cubitt's talented brother who designed King's Cross Station, lived at 53 Bedford Square and at 77 Great Russell Street.

Turning to the Victorians, Augustus Charles Pugin, the immigrant French draughtsman and writer, and his more famous son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) lived at what is now 106 Great Russell Street. A.W.N. Pugin did the design work at Barry's Houses of Parliament and wrote a series of influential books in which he declared the Gothic to be the only true architectural style. Benjamin Ferrey, another important Gothic revivalist, lodged there as their pupil, and later had his architectural practice in Great Russell Street. Sir T.H. Wyatt (1807-1880), one of the famous architect family of Wyatts, so influential both for their work on ecclesiastical buildings and on country houses for the wealthy, lived at 77 Great Russell Street. His brother M.D. Wyatt (1820-77) lived at 37 Tavistock Place and worked on Paddington Station with Brunel. William Butterfield (1814-1900), a bulwark of the High Gothic Revival and prolific church architect most famous for Keble College Oxford, who designed All Saints Margaret Street and St. Alban Holborn, lived at 42 Bedford Square. G.E. Street was another eminent Gothic revivalist. Among his hundreds of buildings was the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. He lived at 51 Russell Square. He was trained by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1824-81) and himself trained Philip Webb, the pioneer of Arts & Crafts; another of his outstanding pupils was the Vernacular Revival master Edward Norman Shaw. William Morris, who lodged in Red Lion Square was another, and although his excellence was not to lie in architecture he must be counted as an honorary one. James Brooks, another Gothic Revivalist, and Habershon & Pite worked in Bloomsbury Square, as did Sir Edward Collcutt, architect of the Palace Theatre and Wigmore Hall, and Edward Prior, another important Arts & Crafts movement figure.

Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) lived and worked in Bloomsbury Square, where he designed both New Delhi and Hampstead Garden Suburb. He then moved to 31 Bedford Square where he created the Cenotaph. The Architectural Association moved to 34-36 Bedford Square at this time. Finally, no. 12 Bloomsbury Square was the office of Nikolaus Pevsner, author of The Buildings of England.

The Role of BCAAC
Despite all the changes Bloomsbury has seen over the years, it remains London's foremost example of a planned 17th and 18th century urban environment. Any architect or developer planning a new building for Bloomsbury must have both the ability and the vision to make a positive contribution to the conservation and enhancement of the area, and that will not be achieved without a thorough understanding of Bloomsbury's history. The purpose of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee is to facilitate that objective.

Anthony Jennings 2012