The continued occupancy by London Underground of 55 Broadway, its iconic headquarters, is currently under review.
The Grade 1 listed building, which includes St James Park station, is widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest pieces of architecture – one of the lasting legacies of Frank Pick’s time at London Underground.
Pick firmly believed that the Underground’s above ground headquarters should present just as strong an image of the network’s commitment to quality as the stations below. The responsibility for designing the building was thus given over to Charles Holden, and sculptural contributions were sought from the likes of Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Allan Wyon, Henry Moore, A H Gerrard and Samuel Rabinovitch. Pick had to battle hard to keep the project true to his vision – even threatening to resign during the controversy over Epstein’s “Day” and “Night” sculptures if the Board ordered the statues’ removal.
Upon its completion in 1929, the building was London’s tallest building and has remained a key part of the area’s landscape ever since.
As part of various ongoing savings programmes, TfL have been redeploying and rationalising a number of teams and assets, but few will have expected 55 Broadway to have been on the list of options for change.
TfL have, however, confirmed that his is indeed the case and that whilst they have no intension of relinquishing the freehold, they are investigating their options:
TfL regularly reviews its property portfolio to ensure that it has the best network of buildings to run effectively. As part of this prudent management TfL is considering a range of options for properties such as 55 Broadway which might include potentially vacating the premises in the future, though the freehold would be retained. This assessment is still in the early stages with no plan of action finalised
TfL’s own statement is relatively noncommittal, but sources suggest that whilst a decision has yet to been made, the relocation of a major slice of the current activity based at the building is being strongly favoured, combined with a renovation of the building after which other occupants would be sought.
Financially it’s certainly a decision that would make a lot of sense – as anyone who has been inside it will vouch, 55 Broadway is not a building that is exactly cheap to maintain. Similarly, its age and protected status make it a complex environment in which to run a modern office.
Vacating the building might, however, be seen by many as a step to far. As was once (in)famously asserted, London Underground are running a railway, not a museum, but the Underground’s history and heritage form a key part of both what it is and how it is perceived. In that regard, abandoning such a major part of the legacy left by the some of the Tube’s most celebrated names might feel to many like a betrayal of a major part of the Underground’s past. Whilst it is highly likely that TfL would carry out such an exit with great care, unwelcome comparisons with some of the disastrous station renewal works of the past -which condemned whole swathes of the Underground’s history to the bin forever – would no doubt be made.
Ultimately, if the decision is indeed made to vacate, then no matter how good the reasoning or how sensitively it is carried out, it will be seen by many as a sad milestone in the Underground’s history.