Bridge House, Albert Embankment, S.E.1

Opened in 1935, ‘Bridge House’, which stood on London’s Albert Embankment was designed and built for the booksellers, W. H. Smith & Son, Ltd.

Located immediately south of Lambeth Bridge (1929-1932), the building was demolished without resistance in the 1970’s and since that time has been almost entirely forgotten about, despite being one of the best examples of interwar ‘factory’ buildings to have been built in London.

'Bridge House', Albert Embankment, S.E.1
W. H. Smith building, Albert Embankment, Lambeth, London. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

The new site in Lambeth, acquired on 5th August, 1931, was intended to serve as both a stationery factory and book-binding workshop, allowing Smith’s to consolidate three existing west end buildings in to one, whilst ‘Strand House’, the head office since 14th October, 1920, would remain on Portugal Street, W.C.2.

To design the new warehouse building, which would feature offices, stock rooms and factory space, Herbert O. Ellis and Clarke, F.F.R.I.B.A., an established architectural practice of the era, were instructed by the retailer.

Working in collaboration with ‘Architect to W. H. Smith’, F. C. Bayliss, F.R.I.B.A., plans were drawn up between July and September, 1931, with revisions made in 1933, when planning permission was awarded by the London County Council (L.C.C.).

With offices at 3, 5 & 7, Old Queen Street, S.W.1., Ellis & Clarke are best remembered for their earlier Daily Express Building (1932) on London’s Fleet Street, E.C.4., designed and built in collaboration with Sir Owen Williams (1890-1969).

For the Lambeth site, the London firm of Holland & Hannen and Cubitts, Ltd., were appointed as general contractors on the new, five-storey building, which was constructed around a steel frame, with solid reinforced concrete floors.

As was typical of the era, British steel was used for the structure, supplied in this instance by Moreland Hayne & Co., Ltd., who had their headquarters on Goswell Street, E.C.1., and works, including a riverside wharf, in Silvertown, E.16.

The principal Albert Embankment elevation was finished in glazed cream terra-cotta facing tiles, with a contrasting base and main entrance surround in matching black tiles, all of which were supplied by the neighbouring firm of Doulton & Co., Ltd. who would complete their own headquarters building, adjacent to ‘Bridge House’, in 1940.

W. H. Smith building, Albert Embankment, Lambeth, London. © Lambeth

Given the primary purpose of the building was that of a warehouse, with book-binding and printing taking place on the upper floors, and loading docks on the ground floor, function triumphed over form throughout the rest of ‘Bridge House’.

Traditional lime bricks were used for all other elevations and internal walls, these being sourced from the Grovebury Brick Works Company of Leighton Buzzard, and bonded in the familiar Flemish repeating pattern.

'Bridge House', Albert Embankment, S.E.1
W. H. Smith building, Albert Embankment, Lambeth, London: detail of the main staircase. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

For the windows, metal casements were supplied by the Crittall Manufacturing Co., Ltd., from their works in Braintree, Essex, with Pilkington Bros., Ltd. providing the glass.

To further increase the amount of natural light in to the loading docks, a void was incorporated in to the middle of the building, glazed at first floor level with roof lights by Mellowes & Co., Ltd.

The only hint of ‘Deco’ within the building was the main staircase, where the balustrades were painted black and green, a familiar colour scheme for the style.

Photographs such as the one below, taken in 1935 by John Maltby (1910-1980), show even the staircase to be a relatively austere affair, manufactured in terrazzo, supplied by Art Pavements & Decorations, Ltd., with stair treads coming from Ferodo, Ltd.

'Bridge House', Albert Embankment, S.E.1
W. H. Smith building, Albert Embankment, Lambeth, London: the entrance hall. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

For the receiving, and onward delivery of goods to W. H. Smith’s extensive network of stores, which in 1932, numbered some 1,250 shops and rail station stalls, ‘Bridge House’ featured vanways at either side of the main entrance, both paved in reinforced asphalt, supplied by the Limmer & Trinidad Lake Asphalt Co., Ltd.

The southern entrance on the Albert Embankment led directly to a loading bay, whilst the northern entrance allowed through access to both the loading docks and Lambeth High Street at the rear.

Hard wearing ‘Empire’ teak wood-block floors were utilised throughout the rest of the building, sourced from the Acme Flooring and Paving Co. (1904) Ltd., based in Barking, Essex.

Pevsner described ‘Bridge House’ as being “symmetrical, with a tower a la Great West Road”, a reference to Brentford’s ‘Golden Mile’ of Art Deco buildings.

'Bridge House', Albert Embankment, S.E.1
W. H. Smith building, Albert Embankment, Lambeth, London: the tower. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

Whilst the likes of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ earlier Firestone Tyre Factory (1928) might well have provided the symmetrical inspiration, the Great West Road’s most notable ‘tower’ remains that of the Gillette Building (1937) by Sir Banister Fletcher (1866-1953), which was, in fact, designed after W. H. Smith’s building.

The iconic clock tower of ‘Bridge House’ also served a more practical purpose, however, housing the water tank that supplied the building’s sprinkler system in the event of a fire, which given the paper based products being manufactured, could have been devastating.

The tank was fed from a pump room on the ground floor, located immediately opposite the main entrance off Albert Embankment, behind the main staircase.

Atop the tower stood a flagstaff from Piggott Bros. and Co., Ltd., who continue to manufacture flagpoles today from their site in Whitham, Essex, a stone’s throw from Crittall’s current factory.

The electrically operated four-faced clock itself was manufactured by Gillett & Johnston, Ltd., renowned clock makers and bell founders, established in 1844, with their works in Croydon.

The firm also built and installed the clock for London’s Shell Mex House (1932), which overlooks Victoria Embankment and remains the largest clock face in the UK.

Other notable commissions from the era included the clock for the Imperial Airways Empire Terminal (1939) on Buckingham Palace Road, S.W.1., the tower element of which closely resembles that of ‘Bridge House’.

Once again, the family run firm is still going strong, having moved to new premises in Bletchingley, Surrey, in 2012, where they continue to manufacture bells and clocks.

With construction of the building nearing completion, W. H. Smith commissioned Claude-General Neon Lights, Ltd., to erect an installation of their ‘Cleora’ neon signs on the Albert Embankment elevation, as was fashionable at the time.

A planning application was submitted on 22nd January, 1935, with approval for the works given by the L.C.C on 28th March.

Taking centre stage, at the base of the tower, was the bookseller’s iconic egg-shaped ‘W.H.S.’ monogram, designed in 1905 by R. P. Glossop. Flanking this, on either side in 3’ 6” bold lettering was the name ‘W. H. Smith’, underneath which were the words ‘Stationery’ on the left-hand side and ‘Bookbinding’ on the right, both in 3’ high letters.

The lead coated sheet metal letters and red ‘Cleora’ tubes were all manufactured at Claudgen’s factory on the Wembley Hill Estate, Wembley, Middlesex.

‘Bridge House’ managed to survive both the Blitz and subsequent V-weapon attacks on London during the Second World War, and in 1955, plans were drawn up by the enlarged practice of Ellis, Clarke & Callanaugh from their new offices at 58, Grosvenor Street, W.1, to extend the site.

Building over an existing stores and open site at the rear, the enlarged site allowed W. H. Smith to move the book department from ‘Strand House’ to Lambeth in 1956.

By the mid-1960’s, however, ‘Bridge House’ was operating at full capacity, and losing the company money, so after much consideration, on 5th February, 1965. W. H. Smith announced that with no further opportunity to expand in London, they would be vacating the building entirely and moving their warehouse to a brand new, purpose built site in Swindon, with the hope being that the move would be funded by a subsequent sale of the Lambeth site.

Built on a 17-acre site just off the A420, which links the Wiltshire town with nearby Oxford, the new distribution centre was officially opened on 12th July, 1967 by The Mayor of Swindon, Alderman H. G. Lewis.

The move proved to be a good one for Smith’s profitability and several further departments followed during the 1970’s, once again arriving from ‘Strand House’, which was itself vacated in 1976 for a new London head office.

Adverts appeared in ‘The Times’ as early as 24th October,1966, offering for sale the freehold of the 223,350 sq. ft. ‘Bridge House’, with vacant possession.

A sale, by tender was eventually set for 21st February, 1967, with Metropolitan & Provincial Properties acquiring the site for a reported £1.88m, apparently ‘in-line with management’s expectations’ but well short of the quoted £3.25m associated with the opening of the new Swindon site, and below the £2.3m that management had initially expected.

‘Bridge House.’ was advertised ‘To Let’ almost immediately by the new owners, however, a tenant proved elusive, with adverts still appearing in ‘The Times’ throughout 1968.

The fundamental problem with the building, which likely led to its ultimate demise, was that it remained, first and foremost, a warehouse, and no amount of advertising or refurbishment could convince potential office occupiers otherwise.

Were it to still exist today, it is probable that ‘Bridge House’ would be a listed building, it’s symmetrical ‘Art Deco’ facade retained and restored, with the warehouse behind most likely redeveloped in to riverside apartments.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, however, with brand new offices being built across the capital in the new ‘International’ style, ‘Bridge House’ would have been viewed as a product of a bygone era, with companies aspiring to glass and steel, rather than glazed terra-cotta, whilst the appreciation that we have today for ‘Art Deco’ architecture was yet to materialise.

Sadly, the building only lasted through to the mid-1970’s at which point it was demolished and eventually replaced by a new headquarters building for the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 17th May, 1983, and still stands today.

Designed by Douglass Marriott, Worby & Robinson, Pevsner praised the new building for “a well proportioned composition with a more self-effacing four-storey front of yellow brick…”.

The IMO headquarters is undoubtedly a pleasing building but what was immediately lost with ‘Bridge House’, as the first of the four ‘Art Deco’ buildings to complete, was the cohesion that they brought to this short stretch of the Albert Embankment, which would be replaced by piecemeal redevelopment in the future.

Looking at the photographs on this page, it is hard to believe that such a building was ever demolished, yet as we shall see, far worse was to come.

January, 2019

3 Comments Add yours

  1. petergwyeth says:

    Great piece – keep up the good work! Regards


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