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Architecture in Letchworth: the world’s first garden city

January 14, 2017
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Spirella Factory, Cecil Hignett, 1912-20 (all photos copyright the author)

Letchworth was the world’s first garden city. The city was the realisation of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas: an ideal city would combine the social and economic benefits of a town with the health benefits of the country. Howard never specified a physical form for the garden city, so his ideas were adaptable. By 1903, a site had been found in Hertfordshire and the winning plan drawn up by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, which is partly based on Wren’s 1666 plan for London.  I organised a tour of Letchworth for the Twentieth Century Society and here’s a few highlights.

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Spirella Factory, Cecil Hignett, 1912-20

The Spirella Factory, 1912-20, by Cecil Hignett, is one of the most impressive Arts and Crafts style factories in the UK if not Europe. It was built for Spirella, an American company that revolutionised corset design with spiral wound springs. Known locally as ‘Castle Corset’, it was a progressive factory for its day, the workrooms received maximum natural light through large metal windows and the welfare and social facilities included a choral and orchestral society, library and even a ballroom. It was refurbished in 1999 as a business centre.

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The Settlement, Parker and Unwin, 1907

The Settlement by Parker and Unwin, 1907, was originally ‘The Skittles Inn’, the ‘pub with no beer’. As a temperance inn, it served only non-alcoholic drinks, including Bournville Drinking Chocolate (Cadburys contributed to the cost), Sasparilla and ‘Cydrax’, a non-alcoholic apple wine. The temperance movement had a major effect on the Quaker-influenced Garden City and, incredibly, the town did not have a licensed premises until the 1950s. This, along with other aspects of Garden City life (vegetarianism, sandals), provoked satire and ridicule in the popular press. The Settlement contained a billiard room, skittles alley, exposed beams, cosy inglenook fireplaces and a large shaded porch (or ‘stoep’) with fixed settles. It has been an adult education centre since 1923.

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Parker and Unwin’s Former Offices, Barry Parker, 1907

Parker and Unwin’s former offices and studio, 1907, now houses the International Garden Cities Exhibition. Based on the medieval thatched hall, their drawing offices were in the main hall, which was lit by concrete mullioned windows. The steeply pitched roof is made from Norfolk Reed, the walls have a roughcast finish typical of the Arts and Crafts style and the gardens were designed in the cottage style of Gertrude Jekyll.

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Broadway Cinema, Bennett and Bidwell, 1935

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Broadway Cinema, Bennett and Bidwell, 1935

Bennett and Bidwell’s  Art Deco Broadway Cinema, 1935, contrasts nicely with the nearby  conservative Neo-Georgian buildings. The cinema has beautifully intricate traceried windows in the foyer and a concrete vaulted roof.

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Howgills, the Friends Meeting House, Bennett and Bidwell, 1907

Bennett and Bidwell worked in different styles, and also designed the Arts and Crafts Howgills, Friends Meeting House, 1907. This is partly based on Briggflatts, a 17 century meeting house in North Yorkshire, particularly the stone mullioned windows. Letchworth expert Mervyn Miller describes the wood panelled interior as “sober and beautiful”.

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The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906

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The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906

The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906, is an unusual building, which the previous Twentieth Century Society Letchworth notes* describe as “a bizarre E.S. Prior-ish confection faced in flint, Suffolk bricks and Purbeck stone facings”. Built for Miss Annie Lawrence, an enthusiast of theosophy, callisthenics and suffragism, it housed a school of psychology, but, to quote the notes again, “most people in Letchworth didn’t have a clue what it was all about and suspected that Miss Lawrence and her disciples weren’t much the wiser either”. An Art Nouveau fountain in the central hall had twin basins, the lower one divided into eight sections for ceremonial hand washing. Communal meals were taken at a marble-faced dining table raised on an altar-like dais and residents slept in hammocks in the Cloisters Garth arcade, men and women strictly separated. It is now the home of the North Herts Masonic Lodge.

*Andrew Saint and Hetty Startup, Spread the People, Twentieth Century Society Tour Notes, 1986

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