Saturday, 24 June 2017

Tulip Stairs


The first geometric, self-supporting spiral staircase in Britain is in the Queen's House, Greenwich. It is 'geometric' because each step supports the stair above: there is no central column. Andrea Palladio, father of the Palladian style of architecture, had described and praised such staircases, 'void in the middle'. 


Inigo Jones studied Palladio's work and followed his example in the Queen's House. Nicholas Stone, his mason, introduced a crucial innovation. Rather than relying only on the overlap between steps for support, he also introduced a rebate: a groove along the bottom of the riser, also known as an 'interlock'. 

Stamp Office staircase, Somerset House

The difference is neatly illustrated in the Stamp Office staircase at Somerset House. The lower level, with its short flights and narrow steps, did not need rebates: we can see that the steps simply rest on top of each other. The much fancier upper level, though, is rebated: you can see that each step is slotted into the one above, rather than simply sat on the one below. (As usual, you can click the picture to enlarge it.)


Stone's innovation allowed such staircases to be built more dramatically, yet remain structurally sound. Geometric staircases proliferated in the eighteenth century, falling out of fashion only with the Gothic revival in the nineteenth. 


 Why was Britain's original named the Tulip Stairs, though? It's apparently a reference to the stylised flowers in the balustrade - although these are thought to be fleurs-de-lys, not tulips at all. They were the family emblem of Queen Henrietta Marie, wife of Charles I, for whom the house was built. (In fact, when work began, it was for James I's wife Anne of Denmark - but she died during building; when work resumed, it was for Henrietta Marie.) 

After the Civil War, the Palace of Greenwich in front of the house was demolished, giving it a view across to the Thames. When a new Hospital for Seamen was established on the palace site, Queen Mary II famously insisted that the river view must remain. Thus Sir Christopher Wren designed two pairs of courts, creating the riverside vista we are now familiar with - and leaving the Queen's House view unimpaired. 

It is now part of the National Maritime Museum, housing its art collection. Visits are free, and worthwhile for the displays - but don't forget to look at (and climb) this fabulous staircase. 

St Paul's Cathedral: Geometric Staircase

London has another famous seventeenth-century example: the Geometric Staircase of St Paul's Cathedral. A three-hundred-year-old masterpiece, which has starred in Harry Potter, it can be seen on the cathedral's Triforium Tour



Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Whitgift Almshouses, Croydon


Incongruously ancient amidst the trams and chain stores, Whitgift Almshouses are an intriguing feature of central Croydon. The annual Heritage Festival offers a rare opportunity to walk through the gates and explore these historical buildings which are also very much a living community. 


John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a major benefactor to Croydon, and his name can be found on all sorts of places. Some, like the shopping centre, were built long after his time.


However, he was very much involved in establishing the almshouses, and set admission criteria which still apply today: residents must be over 60, of modest circumstances, members of the Church of England, and come from the parishes of Lambeth or Croydon or the County of Kent. Those who meet the criteria and are admitted get one of fifteen flats in sheltered accommodation, as well as use of the chapel and garden. They also receive a weekly stipend: on Friday mornings, the senior resident rings the chapel bell and each resident is given 70p (65p for men). Once a quarter, the men receive a further stipend of £3 and the women £1. 


The foundation stone was laid on 22 March 1596, after Elizabeth I gave Whitgift permission to establish the Hospital of the Holy Trinity. He had his summer residence in Croydon, and sought to address its poverty and (through founding a school at the same time) promote education.



While the flats have been modernised, converted from thirty or so individual rooms, the historical fabric of the buildings has largely survived, especially externally. Whitgift was a regular visitor to his almshouses, and his rooms remain. Their features include a staircase with alcove for a guard (the Archbishop was not always popular, especially as he was highly intolerant of Puritanism). There is a story that one night, the servant on guard fell asleep: falling down the steep stairs, he broke his neck and died. 


It's worth risking your neck on the steps, as they lead to the Audience Chamber with its original oak panelling and fireplace.



Safely back on the ground floor, the residents' common room has stained glass from various periods, including one piece spelling out a financial contribution!




Visits end where they began, in the Quadrangle. Its inclusion in the Hospital design reflects Whitgift's Cambridge connections: he was Master of Trinity College. 


The clock, which has only one hand, is from 1608. It's a reminder of the centuries which have passed in this lovely, peaceful place.



If you'd like to visit the Almshouses, there are free guided tours on Saturday 24 June as part of the Croydon Heritage Festival - book here.



Sunday, 28 May 2017

Croydon Arts and Crafts



Tucked opposite the better-known Fairfield Halls is one of Croydon's most interesting buildings, the Adult School Hall. This functional, and rather lovely, piece of Arts and Craft architecture was built in 1908, attached to the Quaker meeting house. 


While the meeting house had to be replaced after a land mine destroyed it in 1940, the Hall survives as witness to an important piece of social history. It was created to accommodate local members of the Adult School Movement, who numbered almost a thousand in Croydon at the time. 


This movement had begun at the end of the eighteenth century, providing adult education for non-conformists whose religion emphasised direct access to the Bible - and thus the skills to read it. Quaker efforts in the mid-nineteenth century broadened the curriculum, increasing their appeal, and added activities such as book clubs and saving banks. Membership was at its peak when the Croydon hall was built; it would soon decline with the coming of the First World War. After the War, adult schools never really recovered as their emphasis on bible study lost its appeal and secular alternatives such as the Workers' Education Association developed. 


The architect, William Curtis Green, had built several power stations; future commissions would include the Wolseley showrooms in Piccadilly, the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane and a number of banks. One of his final commissions was New Scotland Yard. He later served as president of the Architectural Association and vice-president of RIBA. The inclusion of the Adult School Hall in this varied portfolio was due to his wife, who was a member of the prominent Quaker family, the Crosfields, which paid for the building.  


Curtis Green's stated aim of using modern innovations while being rooted in tradition is combined with a Quaker emphasis upon simplicity and honesty. As a result, there is no elaborate decoration or fancy embellishment; but the effect is both characterful and impressive. The building surely deserves its Grade II listing. 


The loss of the meeting house in 1940 saw the adult school pressed into service to replace it until the new hall was completed in 1957. Since then, it has mainly been used for functions and events. 






Thursday, 25 May 2017

Croydon Heritage: aviation, education, inspiration!

Croydon isn't thought of as a heritage destination, but its annual Festival highlights the amazing history to be found there. As this year's festival approaches, I'll highlight a few of my favourites from earlier visits. They range from mediaeval to modernist, Arts and Crafts to aviation. If you're inspired to explore for yourself, the festival runs from 24-30 June and the programme is here.

Let's start with a look around Croydon Airport, whose open day is on 25 June. (I visited back in 2013.) And for between-the-wars glamour, where better to start than with Agatha Christie?
The midday service to Croydon had started. It contained twenty-one passengers - ten in the forward carriage, eleven in the rear one. It had two pilots and two stewards. The noise of the engines was very skilfully deadened. There was no need to put cotton wool in the ears. Nevertheless there was enough noise to discourage conversation and encourage thought.

When Agatha Christie sent the characters of Death in the Clouds on a flight home from Le Bourget airport, Paris, of course they landed in Croydon. It was the first purpose-built passenger airport in the world and a stylish destination for anyone flying into London. Famous aviators of the period also flew to and from here: this was the departure and return point for Amy Johnson's record-breaking flights to Australia and South Africa (in the Pathe newsreel below), while Charles Lindbergh landed here at the end of his solo transatlantic flight.


In these pioneering days of commercial aviation, Croydon was at the forefront of essential innovations. This was the first airport to introduce air traffic control: today's visitors walk around the first air traffic control tower in the world. In 1923, its Radio Officer, F Stanley Mockford, created the 'mayday' distress call here.  In frequent communication with Le Bourget, Paris, he chose the word for its similarity to the French m'aidez (help me). 


Beddington Airfield and Waddon Aerodrome, built during the First World War, were combined in 1920 as Croydon Aerodrome. During the following decade, the air terminal building was added, along with a hotel. When Imperial Airways, later BOAC and now British Airways, were created in 1924 by merging existing companies at the government's behest, they were based here.


There was no passenger car park: wealthier passengers arrived in chauffeur-driven vehicles while the slightly less wealthy were brought by bus from Victoria. Although flying was a more luxurious experience between the wars than it is today, waiting at the terminal was not. With no other examples to model itself upon, it was inspired by railway stations - so the booking hall had wooden benches for passengers to sit on while they waited to board. There was also a small shop: very different to the large retail areas in modern departure lounges.


In the Second World War, Croydon became a base for fighter planes and was thus important in the Battle of Britain. Although it returned to civil use after the war, its air traffic declined drastically as new, larger airports took over. In 1959, it closed altogether.


Today, the main terminal building still survives - converted into offices, but with much of its character intact and a museum in the control tower. It is well watched over by Croydon Airport Society, who are dedicated to sharing its amazing story.



Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Above the scaffolding


The stunning Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College has entered a new phase of conservation work. After the newly-bright West Wall was unveiled, cleaned and conserved, it's now the turn of the main hall. Scaffolding fills the space, giving access to the elaborately-painted ceiling. 



Thanks to the Ceiling Tours running regularly throughout the process, we have the opportunity to get incredibly close to painting we normally only get to see from ground level. Stood so close to the ceiling that you could touch it, details which are usually invisible to us can be appreciated.


The total solar eclipse of 1715 was most famously predicted by Edmond Halley (better known for his comet). However, this paper marking its passage is in tribute not to Halley but to John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal - who also correctly predicted the eclipse. In fact, it was painted the year before it happened. He must have been pleased to get credit here, since he felt his rivals had stolen it from him elsewhere: his lunar observations had been vital to the work of Sir Isaac Newton, published by Halley. Flamsteed didn't believe he was properly credited for them. Worse, Halley and Newton then printed his catalogue of the stars without his approval. This detail of the ceiling represents a small compensation!


Perhaps my favourite usually-unseen detail was this tiny dove on Queen Anne's sceptre, too small to be spotted from the floor below. 


It's perhaps just as well that some details aren't usually visible. A restorer wrote details including the date right across Queen Anne's cleavage!


There's also the chance to get a closer look at favourite details. The model for Winter was John Worley, known as one of the first and oldest pensioners in the Hospital - and one of the most badly-behaved.

 
A close look at the carved crest is an opportunity to enjoy the detail...


... a chance (which some may prefer not to take) to see just how high up we are ...


... and a reminder that normally, there's no access to it for dusting!


Unfortunately, we can also see the dirt and damage currently detracting from the painting's impact. This baroque masterpiece has been in place for three centuries, and undergone earlier restorations, so it's unsurprising that there are issues such as blanching (where fractured varnish creates the white spots visible up close), as well as the effects of city pollution, pre-electric lighting, and dinners held before the smoking ban. 


The final stages of the Painted Hall project will involve environmental control measures, as the highly variable conditions in the large, window-filled hall pose an ongoing challenge to the art.  Altogether, this work should ensure that further conservation is not needed for several generations - so the current project is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for us to get this close to the Baroque masterpiece.


Tickets for the Ceiling Tours can be booked here.



Sunday, 30 April 2017

Eiffel's Edwardian laboratory at work

Gustave Eiffel was always keen for the Eiffel Tower to be more than simply a tourist attraction. Originally built for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, it survived demolition threats once the exhibition was over because it became a radio mast for the military. 


That wasn’t the only innovative use of the Paris landmark, however. Eiffel also installed a drop test machine to measure the drag and velocity of bodies dropped from the tower. As well as proving the concept of relative motion, this cutting-edge device was also invaluable for early aviators, as was the wind tunnel he built at the tower's base.
 

When Eiffel had to move his equipment from the Tower, he was encouraged by his aeronautical associates to set up a new laboratory in order to continue these tests.


 Opened in 1912 in Auteuil, the aerodynamic laboratory and its wind tunnel are still operating today – and as I discovered when I had the luck to visit, there are signs of its rich past throughout the building. 


Unassuming premises in a quiet Paris street don’t give much of a clue as to the extraordinary machinery within.

Most of the space is taken up by a wind tunnel which runs the length of the building. The intake is 4m in diameter, narrowing to 2m at the experiment chamber end. At the other side of the chamber is a 2m-long diffuser with 23-blade fan, which pulls air through the wind tunnel.


Although the original engines are still present, modern electric ones are now used to power the wind tunnel. However, the original equipment otherwise remains in use.


To answer an obvious question about such a facility in the middle of a residential area, it is surprisingly quiet. The neighbours are not disturbed.


Marble-backed instrument panels are still in situ, although many have been superceded by modern technology. This is still very much a working lab, even if laptops have taken the place of paper records. 



The laboratory is full of models used for aerodynamic testing throughout its history. They range from the propellors of early aeroplanes to modern buildings. There is a workshop on site, with a specialist model-maker.


Other reminders of the building's long and special history include graphs and publications. They evidence Eiffel's wider interests too, which included meteorology.


In his late seventies when the laboratory opened, Eiffel nonetheless took an active interest in its activities; his desk is still there today. By the time of his death in 1923, the wind tunnel had become a pattern for others throughout the world.



Anemometer used by Eiffel to measure wind speed





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