Two Art Deco gems of the English seaside

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Chris Hughes explores two of his favourite Art Deco buildings to be found on the English seaside, and reflects on both their history and their future. It would be great to hear in the comments of any readers’ favourite buildings, wherever they might be, and especially those which have been adapted to new and different purposes…

The De La Warr Pavillion built in 1935 and the Midland Hotel built in 1933 stand on the seafronts of Bexhill-on-Sea and Morecambe, the first in the South-east and the second the North-west of England.

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The De La Warr Pavilion is an International Stylebuilding and considered by many to be in an Art Deco style. Some claim it to be the first major Modernist public building in Britain (the other option being Hornsey Town Hall). The building was the result of an architectural competition initiated by Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr, who was a committed socialist and Mayor of Bexhill, and who persuaded Bexhill council to develop the site as a public building

The Midland Hotel is a Streamline Moderne building built by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), in 1933, to the designs of architect Oliver Hill, with sculpture by Eric Gill.

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The architects selected for the Bexhill project were leading figures in the Modern Movement who used streamlined, industrially-influenced designs, often with expansive metal-framed windows, and concrete and steel construction. Construction of the De La Warr Pavilion began in January 1935 and it was opened on 12 December of the same year by the Duke and Duchess of York  who were later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

For the Midland Hotel Oliver Hill designed a three-storey curving building, with a central circular tower containing the entrance and a spiral staircase, and a circular cafe at the north end. The front of the hotel is decorated with two Art Deco seahorses, which can be viewed at close proximity from the hotel’s rooftop terrace.

The hotel stands on the seafront with the convex side facing the sea, and the concave side facing the former Morecambe Promenade railway station in homage to the railway company whose showcase hotel this was. Hill designed the hotel to complement the curve of the promenade, which allowed guests to view spectacular panoramas of the North West coast.

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During World War II, the De La Warr Pavilion was used by the military. Bexhill and Sussex in general were vulnerable if the Germans decided to mount an invasion.

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After the War, management of the Pavilion was taken over by Bexhill Corporation who made changes to the building, many of which were inconsistent with the original design and aesthetic of the building. Lack of funds also resulted in an ongoing degradation of the building’s fabric.

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The Midland Hotel and Morecambe began to lose popularity and in September 1939 the hotel was requisitioned by the Royal Navy. The navy used it until September 1947; paying £1,900 rent per year.

On nationalisation of the railways, ownership transferred to the British Transport Commission Hotels Executive. It was sold by the Hotels Executive in 1952.

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In 1986, the De La Warr Pavilion was granted a Grade I listed Building status and 1989 saw the formation of the Pavilion Trust, a group dedicated to protecting and restoring the building. Playwright David Hare notioned that the site be used as an art gallery as opposed to an expected privatised redevelopment. In 2002, after a long application process the De La Warr Pavilion was granted £6 Million by the Heritage Lottery Fund & the Arts Council, to restore the building and turn it into a contemporary arts centre. Work began in 2004 on the De La Warr Pavilion’s regeneration and a transfer of the buildings ownership to the De La Warr Pavilion Charitable Trust.

In 2005, after an extensive programme of restoration and regeneration, the De La Warr Pavilion reopened as a contemporary arts centre, encompassing one of the largest galleries on the south coast of England.

Union North were employed as architects by Urban Splash for the refurbishment and expansion of the Midland Hotel commencing in 2006. It opened its doors to the public in the summer of 2008.

The redevelopment has retained and restored the works by Eric Gill and Eric Ravilious. Eric Gill carved the two seahorses for the exterior of the hotel and circular medallion above the circular staircase. Gills main contribution is the huge bas-relief for the hotel’s entrance lounge entitled “Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa”, carved into six tonnes of Portland stone and measuring approximately 5m by 3m, it depicts a naked Odysseus stepping from the waves being greeted by Nausicaa and three handmaidens bearing food, drink and clothing – a scene meant to symbolise the hospitality being offered to guests by the hotelier. He also created the relief map of the Lancashire coast that is now found in the Eric Gill suite.

The majority of the information above has been taken from the Wikipedia entries for each building along with a number of other references. But reading about these buildings is of nothing compared to visiting them. We have visited them both in the last few weeks after many years of wanting to do so. We were not disappointed and will hopefully return to them many more times.

Fortunately these are just two of the wonderful modern buildings that have been saved and given a new lease of life for the future. But there are so many more – not just modern buildings – standing empty and unused. Old office blocks, warehouses, cinemas and many more, just waiting for redevelopment and a new use. It is hugely encouraging to see groups being formed such as Hidden Liverpool that looks for new and innovative ways of bringing new life to old buildings and encourages the public to become involved.

Let’s hope that local groups all over the UK – and indeed anywhere where the heritage of an area is threatened – go from strength to strength and more gems such as the Midland Hotel and De La Warr Pavilion return to full use and open to everyone.

(With thanks to Wikipedia and other websites for detailed information.)

Words & Pictures: Chris Hughes

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2 thoughts on “Two Art Deco gems of the English seaside

  1. Pingback: Essex Girl and Man of Kent looking for Dreamland | dianajhale

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