There’s more to London architecture than towers, bridges and cathedrals, you know. With a history dating back almost 1,000 years, the city’s seen its fair share of buildings thrown up during that time – from medieval taverns to modernist works of art. But you won’t find everything on a tourist map… London is full of secrets, after all.
Take a look at some of the capital’s coolest, historically fascinating, curious and just plain underappreciated “hidden gem” buildings.
Michelin House – 81 Fulham Road, Chelsea, SW3 6RD
This was built in 1910 as the UK headquarters for the Michelin Tyre Company. For a firm that essentially makes black rubber and has a Stay Puft-looking bloke for a mascot, it’s certainly grandiose (somewhere between a vaudeville-era cabaret hall and a temple to the gods of art deco). As such an extravagant building, it’s hardly discrete or hidden, but what makes it are the small details, like little Easter eggs stashed away in the building’s design. The Michelin Man stained-glass windows, tiles of famous racing cars both inside and out, etchings of Paris roads and rubber-ring turrets.
Ye Olde Mitre – Ely Court, Holborn, EC1N 6SJ
There are few pleasures in life greater than having the inside knowledge on a top-secret-but-absolutely-bloody-brilliant boozer. And Ye Olde Mitre is exactly that – a place that lives up to its near 600-year history. What’s brilliant about it is its inconspicuousness. Tucked away on Ely Court, it’s the type of place you could walk past 100 times without ever taking a second glance at. One look at its design – that sort of ye olde world wood paneling that just hollers “medieval piss-up” – and you know immediately it’s a great place to drink. Make ours a flagon of mead.
The Thin House – Thurloe Square, Knightsbridge
From the front it looks like any other decent-sized London house. From the side, you’ll quickly see how it acquired its svelte moniker – the house is just seven-feet wide, built to fit alongside an adjacent train track. The one-bedroom apartment is deceptively spacious inside. Not because it uses the same dimensionally transcendental tech as Doctor Who’s TARDIS, but because the building is a bit of an optical illusion – it’s actually triangular and widens towards the terrace side. And though it might look much thinner than your average house, it comes with a fat price tag – last year it was on the market for £900,000.
Wilton’s Music Hall – 1 Graces Alley, Whitechapel, E1 8JB
A callback to the East End’s rough-and-ready roots, but also the definition of “nothing to look at here, mate”. The exterior could be easily confused for a knackered old wall that needs a lick of paint. But inside it’s nothing short of spectacular. The oldest grand music hall in the world, it dates back to the 1690s (originally five houses transformed into an ale house and then concert hall) and has been carefully restored in recent years. There are still centuries-old features, such as the barley twist columns that prop up the balcony, and the renovators retained many others – Georgian brickwork, ceramic electrical fittings and even bits of plaster.
Adam House – Adam Street, The Strand, WC2N 6AA
This might look like the most famous number 10 in the world, but it’s not. It’s actually 10 Adam Street, just off The Strand and part of the neoclassical Adelphi Buildings created by the Adams brothers in the late 1700s. There were 24 terraced blocks originally, but most were demolished in the 1930s. It’s no wonder that 10 Downing Street is a dead ringer for its Adam Street twin – the PM’s abode was renovated around the same time, when the Adelphi style was hugely popular. Get your picture taken at Adam House to trick your mates into thinking you visited the PM to sort this Brexit business out.
10 Gresham Street – City of London, EC2V 7JD
The City of London is a tough place to stick a modern(ish) office block. Surrounded by historical buildings such as Goldsmiths’ Hall rocking the snooty old London vibe, your average office building is likely to look out of sorts. The brilliance of this Gresham Street building is that its no-nonsense, neutral-coloured design makes it inconspicuous amongst the great and good. But look upwards and you’ll see a flourish of creativity, with four limestone staircase towers that rise up like modernist castle turrets – an ode to the area’s medieval roots.
Kingly Court – 6-8 Kingly Street, Soho, W1B 5PW
A more recent addition to the list, this is more a mall than straight-up building – a three-storied enclave with 21 different restaurants, bars and cafes. It’s a well-hidden hotspot just off Carnaby Street’s fashion district, and those lucky enough to have found Kingly Court regard it as one of central London’s liveliest food and drink venues. The design is perfect for the al fresco vibe – Mediterranean-style balconies and a boutique, summery feel to the baby blue and wood-effect facades and walkways.
Cressy House – Hannibal Road, Stepney Green, E1 3JE
This large red-brick mansion block was built in the late 19th century, one of many similar buildings constructed in the area at the time. It’s got a workhouse feel to it – a building that looks part old Victorian factory, part oversized servants’ quarters. Up close it’s a handsome piece of work, built around a sizeable courtyard and made up from lots of different apartments – some roomy and sensibly laid out, others like oddly-shaped triangular box rooms. It’s a perfect example of characterful estates from the old East End.
Lloyds Bank – 222 Strand, WC2R 1BB
Banks aren’t usually the most exciting places. Endless queues, charmless decor and rows of pay-in machines that don’t work properly. The Lloyds Bank on The Strand is a different story. From the outside it looks like the kind of Victorian town build that only posh city types would have cause to go in (i.e. grand but boring), but once those big doors open you’ll see it’s the sort of place Indiana Jones would have a field day rooting around inside – decorative glass, highly detailed tiles and even ornamental fountains at each end. Dating back to the 1890s, it’s more of a church than bank.
The Concrete House – 549 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, SE22
One for you cement fans out there – c’mon, you know who you are. The pitched roof and window spires and carved wooden gables are pure Victorian gothic revival, but it’s historically significant for another reason. Built from rendered concrete in 1873, it’s Britain’s only surviving example of a 19th century concrete house. The house was constructed using a cutting-edge “concrete builder” patent, which applied concrete cast techniques into stylish architecture. The Grade II-listed building was left derelict and vandalised for 20 years, but underwent a restoration after Southwark Council seized possession of it in 2010.
The Blackfriar – 174 Queen Victoria St, EC4V 4EG
You can tell this one’s old-school London because everything it was once connected to has either been bombed or demolished, leaving a plump wedge of a building that – once you spot it – sticks out like a great Edwardian sore thumb. Its unusual shape is actually due to its Art Nouveau credentials – and it features monk-based mosaics inside, with ornamental balconies scaling the exterior walls. That’s not to mention the actual stone Black Friar who’s perched high above the door, watching over all the drinkers and smokers outside and probably tutting to himself loudly.
The Eisenhower Centre – 13 Chenies St, Bloomsbury, WC1E 7EY
You’d be forgiven for walking right past this funny-looking construction near Goodge Street Tube, without a clue about what it actually is. The weirdly clinical design suggests either a public loo or miniature swimming pool. But it’s what’s beneath that makes it special. This was one of several deep-level air-raid shelters built at certain Tube stops during World War Two, designed to house 8,000 people. It’s named after General Dwight D Eisenhower, who reportedly stayed there while masterminding D-Day. A fascinating – if not necessarily attractive – piece of building history.
Sir John Soane’s Museum – 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP
Stand in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and you’ll see that number 13 stands out from the rest of the Georgian terrace. The facade is made from white Norfolk brick, a blindingly handsome contrast to grey mottle houses that stand around it. There’s little surprise it’s such a work of art. It belonged to – and the facade designed by – renowned 19th century architect Sir John Soane (the house actually incorporates numbers 12 and 14, too, which Soane snapped up and modified for his own custom-made crib). There’s more stunning architecture inside, too. The house is now a museum, displaying thousands of antiquities and artefacts from Soane’s personal collection, including architectural drawings and models.
Dennis Severs’ House – 18 Folgate Street, E1 6BX
Next time you’re in Spitalfields Market, take a detour to this little-known gem – a Grade II Georgian terrace that’s also an interactive museum and theatre experience. The exterior is like the charming face of olde English sophistication – its grand arch over the doorway, the refined mix of red and brown brick, and wooden shutter windows. It’s picturesque enough to pull off the late occupant Severs’ intended trick of making it feel like a painting you can step into. Inside it’s a living, breathing art installation, using the décor, imagery and even smells to tell the story of a family of silk weavers from the 18th to 20th centuries.
Russian Orthodox Church – 57 Harvard Road, W4 4ED
Tucked away on the outskirts of London – all right, Chiswick – and poking above the rooftops is this stunning Russian church. Or the London Russian Orthodox Church Abroad’s Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and the Royal Martyrs to give it its proper name (and that’s the English – never mind the Russian language sermons). It opened in 1999 and looks like an authentic artefact from St Petersburg itself, with its bulbous blue spire, big gold cross and assortment of bells. Proof of how awe-inspiring religious buildings can be, regardless of location, denomination or culture.
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