diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 19, 2010

There's usually one property on the Open House list which makes you go "ooh, blimey, that's never been open before, I must get in there." And this year, for anyone even vaguely tubegeeky, the hot ticket is 55 Broadway. That's London Underground HQ, for those of you whose transportnerd credentials are a little creaky. Tours filled up over a month ago so you won't get inside on spec, sorry. But for those of us who booked early, and could therefore turn up at reception this weekend clutching our special ID codes, a guided tour was free for the taking.

55 Broadway55 Broadway is the cruciform building that sits above St James's Park station [photo]. It was constructed at the end of the 1920s and has a definite Art Deco twang, although it's not officially of that style. The exterior is of Portland stone and includes a series of carvings chiselled in situ - one the first ever public commission by Henry Moore. The two largest sculptures are Epsteins, fairly brutal in style, and with genitalia which shocked prudish Westminster eighty years ago. At the heart of the building is a central tower with a flagpole on top, six storeys higher than the rest. Yes, we got to go right up there too. I told you this was a hot ticket.

There's a marvellous old piece of machinery in reception with six brass dials to show the passage of various trains around the network. It doesn't work any more, alas, and has been superseded by a electronic display-on-a-pole just as you might see in your local station. However, every effort has been made to preserve various heritage features throughout the building, from the handles on hallway doors to the mailchutes which once fed letters down to the basement sorting room. Some of the clocks are originals, and there's even a fully functioning drinking fountain on some floors from the days before Coke vending machines were de rigeur. 55 Broadway's certainly got a lot more character than the barely-functional office spaces where you and I spend our working days.

Management are housed on the 7th floor, as they have been since the place was opened. Lord Ashfield, first Chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board, had his office in a splendid high-ceilinged room at the far end of the East Wing. His deputy, design legend Frank Pick, was holed away in a smaller plainer room along the same walnut-faced passageway. These two spaces are now meeting rooms, the District and Central Rooms respectively, as the building adapts to less luxurious 21st century conditions.

On the 10th floor there's a roof terrace and a roof garden, depending on which side of the building you are. Between the two we got to enjoy a diverse exhibition from the TfL archives, although not for very long. Eighty years of passenger operation has generated a unique collection of paperwork and ephemera, including letters sent to the organisation by Sir John Betjeman and the initial sketch for the commemorative Festival of Britain bus ticket. Designs for stations, free travel passes for 1948 Olympic athletes, they're all here (unless they're being stored in a Cheshire salt mine, that is). I took the opportunity to peruse an old route diagram and check the 'official' shortest distance between two tube stations, only to discover that both Covent Garden to Leicester Square and Strand to Charing Cross were 0.16 miles apart. Sorry, did I say we weren't there for very long? Maybe not, but it was clearly long enough.

And then through a side door used normally only by maintenance staff, to ascend an increasingly insubstantial series of staircases to the very top of the tower. Some of the more elderly (or more corpulent) members of the tour party found this a struggle, but they weren't going to let physical exercise (or vertigo) put them off. Finally we emerged onto the roof, beneath a fluttering Underground flag, to admire the view across the heart of historic Westminster. There was Big Ben, the Eye and the Abbey, obviously, with the dome of St Paul's and the City shining beyond. Less delightfully, the Ministry of Justice building loomed up like a maximum security prison to the north, while to the south was the mirrored fa├žade of New Scotland Yard, which we were told not to take photos of under any circumstances.

I'd been told 'no photos' back in reception, when I asked a security guard about the six-dial train-counting contraption. The rule's for copyright reasons, apparently, which I can understand. So when we were told to drop off our bags, I left my camera too because I knew I wouldn't be needing it. Wrong. It turned out that photography was allowed, so long as it was outside on the roof, so I didn't get any photos of the fine views up there. Never mind. As I said, every tubegeek worth his or her salt has taken the same tour already, and they've managed to grab some lovely blue-sky shots to show you what you missed. Here's Ian's (and Ian's write-up). Here's londonstuff's. Here's a photo each from Tom, Chris and David. You can guarantee there'll be more by the end of this evening.

55 Broadway probably won't be part of next year's Open House - these one-off specials rarely are. But you can always step inside by wandering through the ground floor shopping mall, which used to be part of the building's offices. Or go scrutinise the exterior from the street, there are plenty of architectural surprises therein. And rest assured, next time your train is cancelled or your bus breaks down, that the people directed to keep London moving are trying their hardest from a really jolly nice building indeed.

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