Today’s photographs show the former Hemel Hempstead premises of Montague Burton, Ltd., located at 22-24, High Street, HP.1. Situated in what is now termed the ‘Old Town’, the Hertfordshire store is no longer occupied by Burton, and despite retaining both its original shop front and many other period features of note, now stands in a particularly poor condition.
There are two surviving foundation stones at Hemel, which are dated 1938 and were laid by Stanley Howard Burton (1914-1991) and Raymond Montague Burton (1917-2013), two of Sir Montague’s four children. Both stones are still easily visible, with Stanley’s at the front of the building and Raymond’s to the side.
Given the date, the new store would have likely been designed under the direction of Nathaniel Martin, who had served as a Captain with the Sherwood Foresters during the First World War, and headed up the Burton Architects Department at that time, having taken over from Harry Wilson.
Like all of Burton’s new stores built during the interwar period, the two-storey Hemel Hempstead premises occupied a prime site on the historic High Street, whilst an access road to the side of the building created the customary corner that the chain attached such importance to when seeking out new development plots, so as to maximise the amount of available window space that could be used to display the firm’s wares.
Of the five Burton stores that I have written about so far, all happen to have been designed by Martin but whilst Brentwood, Forest Gate, Palmers Green and Southgate were all finished in red brick above the granite fascia, and Camden Town used white terracotta facings, at Hemel, Martin utilised the same emerald pearl polished granite to great effect across the entire front elevation, creating a particularly striking facade, just visible in the photograph below, despite the site’s relatively modest footprint, with just five architectural bays to the principal elevation.
Despite its prominent position on the High Street, the new store’s heyday was short lived, as in the immediate years after the Second World War, Hemel Hempstead was developed as a ‘New Town’, and a vast new shopping centre was built, which shoppers quickly gravitated towards.
Unsurprisingly, with footfall and in turn, sales, dwindling, Burton took the decision to vacate their premises and moved to a modern store in the New Town. Since that time, the original store of 1938 has had served several different owners, most recently as a convenience store, under a variety of different banners.
Despite its status as a Locally Listed Building in the Hemel Hempstead Old Town Conservation Area, which was first designated in 1968, the former Burton premises are currently in a very poor condition, bearing little resemblance to the modernist building of 1938.
The biggest change in appearance has been to the High Street elevation, where the granite cladding above the fascia has been lost, subsequently rendered and since painted white. Whether the original granite still exists underneath is unknown but the paint is now badly cracked and has peeled away in places.
The original window frames at first floor level have also gone, being replaced by white uPVC alternatives, which look particularly out of keeping here in the context of both the ‘Art Deco’ building itself and the broader historic High Street.
The even more ornate ‘Chain of Merit’ windows at street level remain but are far from their original condition. Only three of 15 windows still display the names of other Burton stores within the network, in this case, Baldock, Welwyn Garden City and Hertford, with the others having been crudely painted over, and the glass smashed in various places.
Sadly, Google Street View shows that much of this damage occurred at some point between 2008 and 2012, when the glass was senselessly smashed so as to allow an electrical cable to be fed through for lighting purposes.
Elsewhere, the original bronze Burton ventilation grilles have been replaced by crude modern alternatives, whilst the decorative mosaic floor tiles have been badly compromised by later utility works that have seen modern tiles of a different size, pattern and colour relaid in place of the originals.
The former Burton selling space is now occupied by the Day 1 Convenience Store, and little remains of the original interior, with the wood block flooring having been replaced with large austere tiles and the walls painted in a selection of garish colours. The general appearance of the store is extremely poor with a large and excessive sign, which serves more as an advert for Lycamobile than Day 1 itself, covering the original fascia, whilst the entrance is partially blocked by various clutter.
It is my strong opinion that in its present condition, Burton’s former building makes an undoubtedly negative contribution to the Old Town Conservation Area, and as such Dacorum Borough Council’s Conservation & Design Team should take action, encouraging the repair and refurbishment of the site, which could and should be a unique asset to the Old Town.