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Fortress House Threatened

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Fortress House Threatened
May 2006

Fortress House in Savile Row, London W1 is now under immediate threat, following the recent decision of the Secretary of State at the DCMS to issue a certificate of exemption from listing. This building was the last major work with which William Curtis Green RA (1875-1960) was involved, and  is of considerable architectural interest. It is at present the HQ of English Heritage. It is a bitter irony that ‘the statutory advisor on the built heritage’ did not object to the intended demolition of this building with which they have been so closely associated.

Fortress House was constructed in 1949/1950. It was fitted out for the intended use as the headquarters of the newly created Central Electricity Board. It was briefly occupied by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, and then from 1951 became the Ministry of Health’s “Headquarters”. English Heritage has now been in occupation for some years.

The architects were W. Curtis Green R.A., Son and Lloyd. This practice comprised William Curtis Green, his son Christopher Green, and his son-in-law Anthony Lloyd. At the time of this commission W. Curtis Green, although 75 years of age, was still the firm’s active senior partner. (He did not finally retire from practice until 1958.) The main designer of Fortress House was Anthony Lloyd, with William Curtis Green RA also involved throughout the project. Collaboration between W. Curtis Green and Anthony Lloyd in designing buildings extended back to 1927.

The symmetrical plan of the building incorporates a central rectangular block of eight stories with two wings, each of seven stories. The central block is set back behind a courtyard.  The structure has a reinforced concrete frame with solid reinforced concrete floors. The elevations to Savile Row and New Burlington Street are faced with Portland stone, with the remaining sides and internal courtyards in Uxbridge flint bricks. (The decorative sculptural motifs were carved by Laurence A. Turner.)

The building is characterised by the elegant proportionality of its component parts, including the modulated rhythms of the fenestration. The detailing is precise and fine. Notable detailing includes: a schematic dental cornice at the top of the central block; the crisply executed and precisely arranged rustication at ground floor level; and the carved sculptural decoration. The main Savile Row entrance is a dramatic and effective composition from simple classical elements. It includes the characteristic motif of a triangular pediment surmounting a recessed semi-circular headed niche previously employed by W. Curtis Green RA in his designs for the entrances to the Queen’s Hotel Leeds,1934, and the extension to New Scotland Yard, 1935.

The appearance of the exterior shows a progression from W. Curtis Green RA’s designs of the 1930s, albeit there are distinct affinities with earlier buildings, particularly the former Scottish Widows’ Building in Cornhill 1934/5 (now ‘Pitcher & Piano’) and the Queen’s Hotel. However, in Fortress House the classical decoration is further abstracted. The overall impression of the building is of great dignity, measured proportion, and ‘timeless’ classical simplicity.

Legal and General, the owners of the site has now obtained planning permissions for two alternative redevelopment schemes. Westminster Council has granted conservation area consent authorising demolition. (The Twentieth Century Society objected to demolition.) The certificate of ‘immunity from listing’ is in force till December 2010. The Society, back in 2003 backed an unsuccessful attempt to have the building listed. English Heritage has indicated that it is prepared to agree a surrender of the lease so as to facilitate early redevelopment.

SAVE Britain's Heritage is campaigning to secure the future retention of Fortress House and has devised an alternative scheme which would provide for the retention of the building and its conversion to new use. SAVE believes there alternative proposals are financially viable. (Further information can be obtained by contacting Adam Wilkinson, Secretary, SAVE Britain's Heritage on 020 7253 3500 or from the SAVE website www.savebritainsheritage.org). SAVE’s campaign is supported by The Twentieth Century Society.

Joseph Mirwitch

Joseph Mirwitch

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