Opened in 1932, Victoria Coach Station (V.C.S.) stands on a prominent corner site at the junction of Buckingham Palace Road and Elizabeth Street, S.W.1. It is often listed among London’s most prominent Art Deco landmarks, particularly so in relation to the architecture of Transport, no mean feat given that the city is not short of standout buildings from the era.
Reflecting its significance to the capital, the building was duly listed at Grade II by Heritage England (HE) on 1st September, 2014, who noted both its architectural and historic interest but also its group value, standing as it does, opposite the Imperial Airways Empire Terminal building, a similarly striking Art Deco building by Albert Lakeman, also Grade II listed.
Sadly, time has not been fortunate to V.C.S., now in its 87th year, and despite its enduring and unquestionable presence, the prominent public building in fact stands as a shadow of its former self, when one appreciates its original form, of which few people are now aware, with its listing seemingly coming too late to save the original fabric of the building.
Victoria Coach Station was originally designed and built for London Coastal Coaches, Ltd., known simply as ‘Coastal’, a consortium of nine initial coach operating companies, who had pooled together in 1920. Rapid expansion of coach travel as a leisure pursuit over the next decade meant that by 1930, with increasing competition from other locations in the capital, and the company having outgrown its existing, temporary site on nearby Lupus Street in Pimlico, new premises were urgently needed.
On 2nd September that year, Coastal acquired the present site in Victoria, for a reported cost of £100,000, from rival operator, Coach Travel, Ltd. Plans had in fact already been worked up for a coach station with hotel accommodation above, however it was decided to start again, with Thomas Wallis (1873-1953) approached, and his firm, Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, instructed to design the coach operator a new landmark building.
Born in West Norwood, South London, Wallis, by then a Fellow of the R.I.B.A., had originally been articled to Sidney R. J. Smith (1858-1913)*, who among other commissions from Sir Henry Tate, designed the National Gallery of British Art on Millbank, now known as Tate Britain. For much of his own early career, Wallis worked for the Office of Works, designing public buildings.
His break came in 1916, when he became acquainted with Moritz Kahn, whose brother, Julius, had pioneered the ‘Kahn trussed bar’ in the United States, a patented method of concrete reinforcement. To exploit the commercial opportunity, the Trussed Concrete Steel Company of Detroit, Michigan, or ‘Truscon’ as it was better known was formed, which promoted the ‘Kahn daylight system’, a basic structure of concrete column, beam and slab, infilled by glazed units. The system was used extensively in America, primarily in the construction of large factory buildings.
Having partnered with Kahn, many of Wallis’ early instructions came from American clients looking to establish a manufacturing presence in the UK and by the early 1930’s, Wallis, Gilbert & Partners had become self-confessed ‘specialists in industrial buildings’. Today they rank among the pre-eminent architectural firms of the era, responsible for some of London’s most important, and indeed outstanding buildings of the inter-war period.
Among their most notable works are the Grade II* listed, Hoover Building in Perivale, West London, recently converted to residential use, and the former Firestone Tyre Factory, which predated V.C.S. by four years and stood on the Great West Road, Brentford. The building was senselessly demolished over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1980, a cruel fate rivaled only by the Euston Arch in terms of architectural vandalism and loss to the nation.
Plans for the new coach station were drawn up by Wallace in January, 1931 from his offices at 29, Roland Gardens, South Kensington, with construction starting soon after. Wilson Lovatt & Sons, Ltd., of Wolverhampton were appointed general contractors, with responsibility for the foundations and damp-courses, the reinforced concrete floors and sub-structure, and all of the internal joinery, including the oak-panelled boardroom.
Around 1,200 tonnes of British steel, all of it supplied by Dorman, Long, & Co., Ltd., of Middlesbrough and London, was used in the construction of the building’s steel-frame structure.
Built at a total cost of £300,000, including the acquisition of the site, the new V.C.S. was formally opened, with a golden key, and the cutting of a white ribbon, on 10th March, 1932 by the Minister of Transport, Liberal MP, Sir Percy John Pybus (1880-1935), who then hosted a luncheon with speeches for 250 invited guests.
With space to accommodate up to 80 coaches, V.C.S. was widely reported to be the largest coach station in the world at the time, and remains the largest in London today. The site operated a one-way system, with vehicles entering in from Buckingham Palace Road and exiting on to Elizabeth Street.
Whilst its streamlined profile clearly defines V.C.S. as being of the Art Deco era, the all-important architectural details that would have once confirmed its modernist credentials, have long since disappeared, something that HE admit to in their report.
Whilst I am passionate about 20th century architecture, its promotion and protection, I struggle to understand the rationale for listing V.C.S. – the 2014 report by HE is flimsy at best, and I would strongly disagree that the building is “one of the most notable surviving works by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners”.
The problems with V.C.S. are many. Cream paint, itself desperately in need of a fresh coat, is the enemy of the building’s exterior, masking as it does, many of the most important original features.
I have been unable to find any colour photographs of the coach station at the time of its completion in early 1932 and few survive that show the full exterior prior to modernisation, yet the building epitomised the Art Deco era and whilst hard to believe when looking at it today, would have in fact looked remarkably similar to The Hoover Building, in terms of colours, design and materials. Today, sadly, the two buildings are worlds apart.
V.C.S. originally featured an exposed grey-green Portland cement concrete exterior, interrupted by continuous horizontal runs of metal windows, themselves broken up by bands of alternating bright green and black faience tiles, the outline for which can still be determined underneath the current exterior paint. The same black and vivid green colour scheme was used by Wallis to great effect at the Daimler Hire Garage in Bloomsbury, W.C.1., which unlike V.C.S. has been restored to its original splendour and now serves as the London headquarters of the McCann advertising agency.
Red faience tiles were similarly used to accentuate key features of the building, such as at the tops of the curved ends of each block and also the top of the tower, undoubtedly the most prominent feature of the new building. Vertical bands of silver faience were also utilised, this time, tiled between each of the office floors, almost creating the impression of silver bullion.
Above the fourth floor windows, the company’s name, ‘LONDON COASTAL COACHES LTD’ ran proudly along the roof line of both blocks in a bold type, typical of the period, which has been lost to cream paint, as has the red ‘VICTORIA COACH STATION’ lettering that once adorned the tower, in a particularly unique Art Deco type, not seen on any of Wallis’ other buildings.
Understandably, the existing external signage at V.C.S. is aligned with the building’s current operator, Transport for London’s corporate Johnston typeface, which despite being among the most important typeface of the era, manages in this instance to look somewhat bland and ill suited to such a large canvas.
The most notable change to Wallis’ original design, however has been at ground floor level, with the post-war reconstruction of the main corner entrance at the foot of the tower. It was always the intention of client and architect alike that this entrance was to be a notable “feature” of the new building, providing passengers with direct access into the main booking hall.
As such, a polished concrete finish, akin to travertine in its appearance, was achieved, by mixing a ‘snowcrete’, or white cement, sourced from the Cement Marketing Co., Ltd., with coloured glass aggregate. A pair of black double doors led in to the booking office and featured exquisite chromium-plated door furniture and metalwork, all supplied by Comyn Ching & Co., Ltd.
For reasons unknown, the entire corner entrance was replaced after the Second World War with a basic, square alternative, at odds with the sweeping curves that are still evident on the floors above, principally at the ends of each block. Sadly, that also included the entrance doors, which have been replaced with a modern automatic alternative that lacks any design aesthetic.
As with so many other buildings of the age, the original metal windows have also long since been replaced with modern alternatives, which in this instance make no effort to match the ornate originals. What makes that particularly disappointing in the case of V.C.S., however is that the continuous windows were such an integral part of Wallis’ overall design for the building.
Painted to a green, or sometimes silver ‘aluminium’ finish in prominent places, the casements and window furniture, often wrongly described as ‘Crittall’, were in fact sourced from Mellowes & Co., Ltd. whose works were in Sheffield, with the glazing itself coming from A. Higginbotham & Son, Ltd. Wallis made great use of green windows, incorporating them in to many of his most successful buildings, including both the Daimler Hire Garage and the Hoover Building, both of which still retain them.
The original windows at V.C.S. featured a classic modern design configuration, with six horizontal panes per triple casement, which required 18 separate panes of glass per window. In contrast, the replacement windows are of a much more basic design, with just three horizontal panes, all of which are tinted and double-glazed, with the casements painted black, in a somewhat sombre design.
Perhaps the one saving grace in terms of the exterior is that the original metalwork that adorns the ground floor windows has been retained, at least, although like other elements of the building, it has lost its silver paint. Two of the original metal windows are still visible, within the coach exit on to Elizabeth Street, yet both have been painted black and are in a very poor state overall.
In the early 1960’s, an unfortunate extension was added to the Buckingham Palace Road block by T. P. Bennett & Son, which also detracts from the elegant profile of the original building, with the Bennett block completely obscuring the dramatic end profile that Wallis originally created, which was, perhaps, in many ways the building’s best side. The addition also led to the demolition of the attractive gate posts and tops, which previously marked the main entrance for coaches, which has since moved to Semley Place.
As a piece of 1960’s architecture, Bennett’s extension is perhaps worthy of its own feature, as photos of its opening show it to be a clean and modern addition, thoroughly fit for purpose as a means of extending the existing accommodation. It’s problem is that like its older sibling, it has also been left to deteriorate to the point at which it too is now in a very poor condition.
At roof level, an admittedly more sympathetic set-back attic storey has also been added to the V.C.S. building, however that too serves to reduce the impact that the tower once made, whilst also forcing the removal of the six flag poles, split evenly between the two blocks. Also lost over the years has been the main flag pole that once stood atop the tower, proudly flying the Union Jack flag.
Inside and sadly the changes are even more dramatic, with virtually no trace left of the original Art Deco interior, which has been slowly but surely replaced by a hodgepodge of later, unfortunate additions, much of it during the early 1990’s when the station underwent a much needed refurbishment.
One of the the only surviving elements of Wallis’ building still visible to the public is an unassuming wooden door at ground floor level that leads to a staff area, itself painted many times over and in somewhat poor condition. It was this very door, however that initiated my interest in V.C.S., a building I had been to many times before but without any appreciation as to the original design.
When the coach station opened in 1932, passengers would have been able to able to make use of state of the art facilities. At first floor level, there was a 200-seat restaurant and lounge bar, with the former also capable of serving as a dance floor, with double-fronted shops and a cafeteria at ground. Today, the individual retail units have been lost, with a large Pret A Manger now occupying most of the Elizabeth Street block.
Originally built primarily to serve day-trippers and holiday makers, today the coach station operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with 21 departure gates providing 13.5m passengers a year with a means of reaching destinations across the UK and Europe – that number is also set to rise, according to TfL as underlying demand for coach travel increases.
It should perhaps therefore not come as a surprise to learn that the interior of 87 years ago has changed considerably, but it is still disappointing that almost no trace of it exists today, which is rare, even among London busiest transport interchanges. Gone is the glamour that V.C.S. once brought to coach travel.
The upper floors of the building, now known simply as 172 Buckingham Palace Road, are currently used as office space by TfL, having once been occupied by the original architects themselves, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, when they were referred to as ‘the far more glamorous, ‘Coastal Chambers’.
Looking at V.C.S. more broadly and it is clear that in terms of both importance and in turn therefore, investment, coach travel is now a long way behind the other modes of public transport within the TfL stable and a far cry from either its interwar ascendancy or post-war heyday.
As London’s largest, and the UK’s most important coach station, the facilities at V.C.S. and their general appearance are woefully short of those seen elsewhere in the capital, with the building both looking and feeling like the poor relation of the major Rail and Tube stations, many of which have seen both extensive redevelopment and sensitive refurbishment and restoration of late.
The entire site is arguably now in need of a major redevelopment, something that the City of Westminster Council has started to explore, along with Grosvenor, who own the freehold of the separate arrivals site on Elizabeth Street, any redevelopment of which would have obvious ramifications for departures, which is jointly owned with TfL, and National Express, who operate around 80% of the coaches that use the station today.
With no surviving interior of any note, and both the Bennett extension and wider site deemed to be of no architectural significance, it is highly likely that the original Victoria Coach Station building would be deathmasked with only the Wallis, Gilbert and Partners frontage surviving as part of a full-scale, mixed-use scheme behind, which it would be hard for anyone to argue against. Quite where any new coach station would be moved to, likely outside of the central zone, remains to be seen, with plans for an alternative site at Royal Oak recently quashed by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
With many of the original features simply hidden behind layers of cream paint, there is every hope that any refurbishment of the facade could reveal these details again. It is worth noting recent schemes such as Orms’ No. 1 New Oxford Street, an extensive redevelopment of the former Commonwealth Building, until recently a similarly forgotten Art Deco gem that stands on a prominent corner site in Holborn, which makes great use of bright green faience tiles as part of an outstanding refurbishment.
Ironically, the most pleasing aspect of Victoria Coach Station today is found in the departures hall, where historic images of the building adorn the windows, harking back to better times. Hopefully those can return to this corner of Victoria again soon.
*Sidney R. J. Smith also designed the City & South London Railway surface building at Euston station, which was the subject of a previous blog post: Remembering Leslie Green’s Euston Station.