Saturday, October 8, 2016
Lisle Street, London
A good skin
I’m endlessly fascinated by the ability of the late Victorians to produce buildings that, while basically in a revivalist style, exude decorative added value. They had lots of different ways of doing this, using styles from Gothic to Jacobean revival, as well as a whole range of different versions of classicism – plus extra decorative bells and whistles that buildings in these styles would’t have included.
Here’s a highly ornamental late-Victorian building, but one in an unusual style: a sort of northern Renaissance, with Dutch stepped gable (and what a stepped gable), scrolls, terracotta panels, and obelisk finial – not to mention a variety of window types to enliven the frontage and no doubt the interiors too. It’s the sort of thing you’d see on the main square of a Dutch Renaissance town – Haarlem, suggests Pevsner – and even among a host of neighbouring stepped gables it would stand out.
The design was by Frank Verity and when it was finished in 1900 it housed the French Club, before being taken over by the film company Pathé, before, in 1935 it became St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. The idea of this hospital was that regular clinics were provided discreetly where members of the ‘artisan class’ could attend without it being obvious (once they’d made it through the door, presumably) that they had an embarrassing skin disease. By the 1930s the skin specialists had outgrown their premises in Leicester Square (they were treating around 1,000 outpatients a week) and had this building in Lisle Street converted for their needs. They remained here and in adjoining buildings until moving to the St Thomas’s Hospital complex in the 1980s.
At that point the lower part of the building became a pub, the Crooked Surgeon, later becoming a Slug and Lettuce. If this feels a step down, no doubt the hospital gains from its site at St Thomas’s, and the wonderful facade remains. And it still does something (pleasurable, absolutely) to the skin at the back of my neck as I pass.