The Survey of London
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    The Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street

    By the Survey of London, on 17 March 2017

    The present synagogue was built to designs by C. Edmund Wilford & Sons in 1956–8, replacing its bomb-damaged predecessor of 1869–70.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland street, Marylebone, Greater London. Exterior view from north east. Taken for the Survey of London.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, Greater London. Exterior view from north east. Taken in 2013 for the Survey of London by Chris Redgrave. © Historic England

    Jewish West Enders were obliged until well into the nineteenth century to attend long-established places of worship in the City of London, notably the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place, Aldgate. In 1842 the Reform congregation broke this tradition with a modest synagogue in Burton Street, Bloomsbury, moving to Margaret Street in 1849. Fearing loss of worshippers to this convenient address, the Committee of the Great Synagogue agreed in 1850 to fund a new branch synagogue in the West End. The site selected lay behind 43–47 Great Portland Street, but the building there soon proved too small and could not be extended. In 1866 a Great Synagogue subcommittee headed by Sir Anthony de Rothschild was appointed to find a new site near by and build afresh for 800 worshippers, with two ministers’ houses attached. They promptly secured the houses at 133–141 Great Portland Street. The budget was ample, as the synagogue was prospering; Messrs Rothschild had promised £4,000. The committee decided against a competition and chose as architect Nathan Solomon Joseph, son-in-law to Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi and creator of the United Synagogue, the federation to which the Central, as the congregation was by now called, adhered from 1870. Joseph presented a Moorish design in 1867, arguing that Gothic and Classical styles were both unsuitable, whereas the Moresque was well adapted to an ‘ecclesiastical’ building yet had advantages of ‘elasticity’ and economy. He was asked to present an alternative Italianate version, but the original was preferred, with modifications. That design was built in 1869–70.

    Survey of London (Marylebone). 40-36 Hallam Street, Westminster, London. View from west.

    40-36 Hallam Street, Westminster, London. View from west. Photographed in 2014 by Lucy Millson-Watkins for the Survey of London © Historic England

    The Central has been described as the first thoroughly Oriental-style synagogue, not just in Britain but beyond. The Great Portland Street front was an eccentric confection in brick and two types of stone, culminating at the north end in a tower-like feature over an entrance porch with a horseshoe arch. The interior, spacious, high and light, faced south like the present building, culminating in a richly decorated apsidal space for the ark. Windows and arches were round-headed, with an orientalizing horseshoe profile above the arches over the galleries, and round clerestory lights incorporating Star-of-David tracery. Cast-iron columns, painted at first, marble-clad from 1876, carried the galleries and roof, which was divided by ribs. The rabbis’ houses at the back along Hallam Street (Nos 36–40) survive, their two-tone brickwork and Moorish detail having a hint of the Great Mosque at Cordoba.Embellishments took place over the years, the grandest being the replacement of the central almemar with an elaborate new one in marble, presented in 1928 by the 2nd Lord Bearsted in memory of his parents; Joseph’s original almemar (or bimah) was relegated to the Margate synagogue. But the building was burnt out by a fire bomb on 10 May 1941, the congregation returning to a temporary building on the site in 1948.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street,Marylebone, Greater London, Interior view from south east.Taken for the Survey of London.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, Greater London. Interior view from south east. Photographed in 2013  for the Survey of London by Chris Redgrave. © Historic England

    Meanwhile plans for a full rebuilding were hatching. The architects Shaw & Lloyd worked up a radical proposal in 1947, with the synagogue turned across the axis from Great Portland Street to Hallam Street, set over social space and flanked by narrow courts, with a taller block at the back facing Hallam Street, presumably for letting. Having done all the war-damage costings and negotiations, in 1954 S. John Lloyd presented a fresh scheme for a 1,028-seater, to be built of reinforced concrete with a Portland stone front to Great Portland Street.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street,Marylebone, Greater London. Detail of theTebah from north east. Taken for the Survey of London.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, Greater London. Detail of the Tebah from north east. Photographed in 2013 for the Survey of London by Chris Redgrave. © Historic England

    There were tensions at this juncture, as the United Synagogue authorities were pressing for a fresh place of worship at Marble Arch and the abandonment of the Central. Isaac Wolfson and his son Leonard, resident in Portland Place, resolved things by offering £25,000 towards rebuilding the Central, which meant that, with war-damage compensation, rebuilding would cost the congregation little. The United Synagogue sent a long list of possible architects to the building committee, who shortlisted three, not including Shaw & Lloyd. At Leonard Wolfson’s request they added an outsider, C. Edmund Wilford. It seems that Wilford had shown him some sketches which, United’s president Ewan Montague agreed, showed ‘a most interesting approach to the theme of Synagogue architecture which hitherto in our experience has tended to be somewhat hackneyed’. But when Wilford was confirmed and met the building committee, he was told that the external elevation ‘should be on traditional lines’. [1]

    Wilford had made a name with cinemas before the war. He had no known connection with the Jewish community, but may have worked for the Wolfsons’ company, Great Universal Stores. He and his assistants were directed to look at synagogues in London and perhaps also Venice. The result, built by Tersons Ltd in 1956–8, was a conventional, dignified building with close correspondences to its predecessor but an internal touch of cinematic glamour.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street,Marylebone, Greater London. Detail showing Torah Ark. Taken for the Survey of London.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, Greater London. Detail showing Torah Ark. Photographed in 2013 for the Survey of London by Chris Redgrave. © Historic England

    The Great Portland Street façade is mainly clad in Portland stone, but the plinth and the columns flanking the high and hooded windows are of red Swedish granite. At the north end the entrance doors are set back in a high frame clad in gold mosaic. There is also a subsidiary entrance from Hallam Street. The galleried interior gives a powerful impression of height and restrained opulence.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street,Marylebone, Greater London. View of east windows. Taken for the Survey of London.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, Greater London. View of east windows. Taken for the Survey of London in 2013 by Chris Redgrave. © Historic England

    The focus is on the ark at the south end, which stands in an outer surround of red mosaic embellished by flanking lions on tall pillars of gold and an inner frame of Sienna marble. The bronze metalwork to the ark doors and elsewhere, made by the Brent Metal Company, is strong, spiky and characteristically 1950s. The other main feature is the almemar, clad in red marble, with attached panels carved in low relief.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street,Marylebone, Greater London. Detail showing east stained glass window. Taken for the Survey of London

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, Greater London. Detail showing east stained glass window. Photographed in 2013 for the Survey of London by Chris Redgrave.  © Historic England

    After completion, the synagogue windows were filled over a fifteen-year period with colourful glass made by Lowndes & Drury to designs by David Hillman. There is a hall below the worship area, and the circulation spaces including the stairs to the galleries are generous.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street,Marylebone, Greater London. View of stair. Taken for the Survey of London.

    Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, Greater London. View of stair. Photographed in 2013 for the Survey of London by Chris Redgrave. © Historic England

    Reference

    [1] London Metropolitan Archives, ACC/26712/15/2334

    White Church Lane, Whitechapel

    By the Survey of London, on 21 October 2016

    White Church Lane is a last redoubt of Whitechapel’s rag trade, still (or until very recently – it’s hard to be up-to-the-minute) sporting shopfronts pertaining to manufacturers and wholesalers: Tip Top Casual Wear, K. K. Hosiery Ltd, Raw Blue Ltd, N.E.W.S. Urban, Mekyle (Bayfield Trading Ltd), Denim World, Alish (wholesale jewellery and accessories), HIP HOP Collections (wholesalers of American street wear), Senior Style Ltd, Abraham Posh Lady London. There is also an efflorescence of street art, work from 2012 facilitated by Global Street Art’s negotiations with property owners.

    The road’s origins are as the north end of Church Lane, the only north-south route through the parish, in existence by the seventeenth century to link Well Close to Whitechapel High Street. The northern stretch may not have been much built up until the 1660s and back building suggests density and low status – Church Rents or Maidenhead Court (later Dyer’s Yard), and Hatchet Alley (later Spectacle Alley, now Whitechurch Passage) which had Adam and Eve Court on its south side, and there was Back Yard off the lane’s west side. All this had gone by 1800. Eighteenth-century property holders included Joel Johnson, the carpenter and architect who worked on local churches and the London Hospital. There was a sugar house near the north end and the Fir Tree public house was at the south end of the east side, adjacent to a site taken in the 1840s for John Furze’s St George’s Brewery (subsequently Johnny Walker’s St George’s Bond, now Hult International Business School). The north end of Church Lane’s east side was redeveloped in the early 1850s and the south end was obliterated by extension of the Commercial Road in 1869–70. Redevelopment since has been piecemeal, with a central section of the east side replaced in 2000-2 by the Naylor West flats, designed by Michael Squire and Partners for Ballymore Properties. That block’s artless greyness was a herald of cleansing, and sites at the street’s south end on both sides are now destined to host tower-block flats.

    Survey of London - Whitechapel Volume 4-8 White Church Lane, Whitechapel. View from west. 4-8 White Church Lane, buildings of the 1850s with street art of 2012 (© Derek Kendall).

    4-8 White Church Lane, buildings of the 1850s with painted shutters of 2012 (© Derek Kendall, 2016).

    The north end of the street’s east side is anchored by what was St Mary’s Clergy House, now a Japanese restaurant, a building of 1894–5, Herbert O. Ellis, architect, that was an adjunct to the parish church that stood on the site of Altab Ali Park (see blog post of 15 April 2016). Next door, No. 4 of 1852–3 was built to be a sale room for Isaac Bird, auctioneer. Hunto has painted its shutter. A workshop behind an entrance passage at No. 4A was built in 1899–1900 for William Nay, a mirror manufacturer, and converted to be a necktie factory in the 1920s. The front-door shutter has a figure by Tizer. Next door at No. 6 the shutter art is by 2Rise, whose tag has also been prominent on the south side of Whitechurch Passage. Nos 8 and 10 were built in 1852 by Jabez Single of New Road, houses with shops first occupied by Mark Berry, a zinc and tinplate worker, and James Fullerton Barber, a printer. Alterations and extensions to the rear were made for a bedding factory that was later a silk-screen and joiners’ workshop. Dining rooms at No. 12, run by Alfonso Pappalardo in the 1930s, were held from the early 1940s to the early 1950s by Narian Singh for one of the area’s first Asian-run restaurants. At the time Bonn & Co Ltd had a large biscuit warehouse behind Nos 16–32.

     

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    Kirstein Mansions, 34-40 White Church Lane, shops, tenements and workrooms of 1911 built for Solomon Kirstein (© Derek Kendall).

    Solomon Kirstein’s letterhead, showing 29 Commercial Road (Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, Building Control file 41978) and Kirstein Mansions, 34-40 White Church Lane, shops, tenements and workrooms of 1911 built for Solomon Kirstein (© Derek Kendall, 2016).

    A house and shop at No. 34 were the premises of Henry Bear, a tobacco manufacturer here from the 1840s to the 1880s. He acquired the freehold of the buildings on the sites of Nos 34–40 and an empty site at 29–31A Commercial Road and in 1901 a lease was transferred to Solomon Kirstein, a printer based at No. 38. By 1902 Kirstein had built three three-storey houses or workrooms with shops at Nos 29–31A, with Herbert O. Ellis as his architect. Kirstein took the shop at No. 29, living above with his wife, three children and a servant. It was not until 1911 that Kirstein redeveloped his Church Lane frontage as Kirstein Mansions, shops, tenements and upper-storey workrooms, this time with John Hamilton & Son, architects. Around 1970 David Abraham began selling knitwear at No. 34. In 2015 the David Abraham Partnership put forward a redevelopment scheme for the whole site proposing a seventeen-storey tower designed by Stock Woolstencroft.

    Survey of London - Whitechapel Volume 3 White Church Lane, with embellishments of 2012 (© Derek Kendall).

    3 White Church Lane, with embellishments of 2012 (© Derek Kendall, 2016).

    On White Church Lane’s west side a small bomb-damage replacement building of c.1960 at No. 3 was decorated in 2012. The entrance-door shutter has wings by Probs, and the south return to Whitechurch Passage a head by Hunto and ‘The Lady’, a low-relief ceramic by ChinaGirl Tile.

    Survey of London - Whitechapel Volume Whitechurch Passage, Whitechapel. Wall art of old woman raking up money, by artist "China Girl."

    ‘The Lady’, by ChinaGirl Tile (© Derek Kendall, 2016). 

    Further south, first-floor blind arcading in a little-altered stock brick front at No. 17 was built around 1840 for Charles Marshall, a veterinary surgeon who probably dealt largely with horses. The shop is infill of what was an open carriageway into the twentieth century. Stables to the rear were rebuilt for Marshall’s successors. Around 1880 Simon Cohen, a pastry cook based at No. 32 across the road, established a refuge for homeless immigrant Jews in a house at No. 19. Named the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter, its  closure as insanitary in 1885 led to fundraising that permitted the establishment of better premises on Leman Street. Other properties continued to be used as ad hoc refuges or lodging houses. In late 1885 a Shelter employee took five immigrants from Brest-Litovsk to 11 Church Lane, then occupied by Paul Meczyk, a printer, only for them to be turned out on to the street. By 1891, in which year he fell out with the Shelter Committee, Cohen had converted the house at No. 19 to be a ‘Beth Hamedresh’ (Study Circle and Synagogue). He acted as his own builder and carried out further works in 1895–6. But this did not last. In 1898–9 Jacob King redeveloped the site with 9 Manningtree (formerly Colchester) Street; Arthur C. Payne was his architect. On the corner (No. 21) there was a Horse and Groom pub by 1760. The two-storey pub that had been run by Henry Levy was rebuilt for King in 1902 to designs by Ralph J. Miller, architect. It was a Truman, Hanbury & Buxton pub by 1910.

    Survey of London - Whitechapel Volume 29 Commercial Road at junction with White Church Lane, Whitechapel. View from east.

    19-37 White Church Lane and 27 Commercial Road, demolished 2016 (© Derek Kendall, 2016). 

    Fishel K. Abrahamson converted a house at No. 29 to be a synagogue in 1895–6, and nineteenth-century houses at Nos 35–37 were part rebuilt and perhaps refronted in 1915. The four-storey corner warehouse that was 27 Commercial Road had been built in 1872–3 and more warehousing went up to its west in 1876–8 at No. 27A which accommodated Hyam Goldstein’s cap factory, then Aaram Bagel’s boot factory, Burstein Isaac & Co.’s cigarette factory, and tea packing. Nos 29–33 Church Lane and 27A Commercial Road were redeveloped in 1936–7, with George Coles as architect for M. Freedman, a gown manufacturer. Coles is best known as a cinema architect, and there was a faint echo of his Art Deco skills in the façade fenestration of the factory and showroom block. Shutter painting of 2012 here was by Malarky, Chase and Billy. A scheme for redevelopment of Nos 29–37 and 27–27A Commercial Road was prepared in 2012, approved in 2014 and refined in 2016 prior to clearance of the whole site, now complete. Plans initiated by Reef Estates Aldgate Ltd propose a 270-bedroom hotel in a 21-storey tower to be operated by Motel One, a German firm. The architects are Stock Woolstencroft.

    The Survey of London has launched a participative website titled ‘Histories of Whitechapel’. Please visit at https://surveyoflondon.org.