The Man Who Painted London Red
When the architecture of the Underground is discussed, it is nearly always to the work of Charles Holden that comment turns. The reasoning for this, of course, is obvious. In the likes of Gants Hill, Arnos Grove and 55 Broadway, Holden left an architectural legacy that few other 20th Century figures could match. Holden’s legacy, however, often serves to distract from the work of another young architect roughly ten years before him. A man who would arguably do more to define the public image of the London Underground than any other figure with the possible exception of Frank Pick.
That man was Leslie Green.
In four short years, Green would be responsible for the design and execution of over fifty stations spread over three separate Tube lines – a remarkable achievement for a man who was only 29 when he was first given the task and one which would, in many ways, ultimately lead to his tragically early death at the age of 33. For many his distinctive red stations would become – and indeed remain – the stereotypical template of an Underground station.
A Boy from Maida Vale
Much of Green’s life remains hidden in obscurity – no doubt in part due to his relatively early death. Indeed in contrast to the likes of Holden, Pick and Johnston, few pictures of the man are known to exist.
Born on the 6th February 1875 in Maida Vale, a career in architecture seemed likely from a very young age for Leslie Green. He was the son of Arthur William Green – a prominent architect and Crown Surveyor – and after completing his schooling Green immediately joined his father’s firm where he worked as an apprentice. In 1893, with an architectural career now a certainty, he spent a year at the South Kensington School of Art and then another studying architecture in Paris. Finally, in 1895, he returned to his father’s firm in London.
An apprentice no longer, Green would work as his father’s assistant on several major design projects but by 1897 was already moving towards practising under his own name. By 1900, now a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Green was working on his own architectural projects out of offices on the Strand and for the next three years he would quietly develop a reputation as a calm and efficient architectural operator. By 1903 Green had a fair portfolio of successful work, although one that contained no real large scale projects. That was a situation that changed almost overnight, however, when, in September of that year, he was hired by transport mogul Charles Tyson Yerkes.
The Robber Baron
It is impossible to continue Green’s story without pausing briefly to look at Yerkes himself. A man who built, then lost, then rebuilt his own personal fortune, Yerkes has become a legendary figure in his own right. By the time he arrived in London from his native USA, Yerkes had already built and lost a brokerage empire in Philadelphia, spent time in jail for financial fraud, been caught blackmailing elected officials and created Chicago’s public transport system.
Sensing an opportunity for further financial gain in London and encouraged by his friend Sir Robert Perks, Yerkes crossed the Atlantic in 1900. By 1901, backed by American money, Yerkes had effectively seized control of the then-ailing District Line. By 1902, now backed by the powerful Speyer banking family as well, he had acquired and amalgamated several planned Tube schemes and was poised to begin construction of the Piccadilly Line. He was also similarly placed to build the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (which would go on to form the basis for one branch of the Northern Line). Finally, by 1903, he had also acquired the begun-but-bankrupt Bakerloo Line.
In three short years, Yerkes had acquired a considerable amount of both London’s existing transport network and the network that would come to be.
An Epic Undertaking
Thus was the situation that September, when Yerkes laid out the scene to Leslie Green. Yerke’s company, the Underground Electric Railways Company London Ltd (UERL) had the plans and they were already being put into production. Tunnels were being cut and land acquired at an incredible pace across all three prospective new lines (the District Line would also be expanded and electrified, but that lies outside the scope of this article). What UERL didn’t have, however, was stations – and that required an architect.
Whether Green realised the sheer scale of the task he was about to undertake is unclear. What is clear, however, is that by the end of September Green had been contracted to be the Architect-in-Charge of all station design across Yerkes’ three new lines (the District would stay in the experienced hands of Harry Ford), for which his practice would be paid the sum of £2000 a year by UERL. The only stations outside his remit would be Finsbury Park (which was being constructed by the Great Northern Railway), Barons Court and Hammersmith (both of which, being District Line stations already, would fall to Ford).
Strictly speaking, Green’s contract indicated that he would only be responsible for buildings “above ground,” but it was still a mammoth task. It also soon became clear that whilst that may have been the letter of the contract, it certainly wasn’t what Yerkes saw as the spirit. Green would soon find himself playing a role in the design of signage and tiling below ground as well.
Fast, Fancy and Fairly Priced
Green also soon discovered that Yerkes was definitely not a “hands-off” employer. Yerkes had very clear ideas as to how he wanted the project taken forward. Foreshadowing the later branding work Frank Pick would carry out on the network, Yerkes insisted on a consistent look and feel across stations on all three of the new lines. He also believed firmly in the superiority of American engineering and construction methods and leaned heavily on Green to make use of both. Yerkes wanted his stations to be bold and distinctive – in his own words, they should be fitted out with decorative elements “fully equal to those of the best stations on the Central London Railway.”
As if the above wasn’t a tricky enough mandate for Green to achieve, Yerkes also stressed that whilst he was prepared to pay for quality where it was required (as would be the case with the brass clocks that would feature heavily throughout Green’s stations, for example), he expected Green to achieve considerable cost savings wherever possible. Finally, time would also be a major limiting factor that Green would have to deal with – construction was already well underway on the new lines, and the station production schedule would be extremely aggressive.
Green swiftly realised that the construction and design methods that had been used for stations on previous Underground lines would fall far short of meeting Yerkes’ goals. After careful consideration (and possibly thanks to prompting from Yerkes himself) Green decided that the stations would use a construction method then common in America, but rarely utilized in the UK. The stations would be two-storey buildings built out of a robust load-bearing steel frame which would then be faced off with brickwork and cladding. This would allow the stations to be constructed relatively quickly and would also maximise the space within the buildings themselves. Importantly, the steel frame would be designed to support further storeys on top of the existing two, allowing Yerkes to sell real-estate over many of the stations Green designed.
It was in his choice of cladding material, however, that Green effectively cemented his legacy. After considerable investigation, he decided that the stations would be faced with ox-blood red “Burmantoft’s Faïence” to be provided by the Leeds Fireclay Company. The faïence was relatively cheap (apparently nine shillings per visual foot), hardy, quick to produce and – importantly for Green – could be just as easily and cheaply moulded into the various decorative touches he planned on including within each individual design.
Green’s choice of material would effectively cement his design legacy. His distinctive ox-blood red stations remain a key fixture on the streets of London and are, for many, the very visual definition of an Underground station. Of the stations Green would design, only five would not carry this faïence – Golders Green (over which there is some debate as to whether it was a Green station at all), Regents Park, Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross (all of which lacked surface buildings) and the original Holborn station.
In terms of external styling, Green was not content merely to make a statement through his choice of material. Green’s stations may have all, broadly speaking, followed the same format – a series of wide bays at ground level with large arched windows above (behind which generally lurked lift equipment) – but he was determined to give each a sense individuality. A proponent of both the Arts and Crafts movement (which objected to “mass produced” visual stylings) and Art Noveau (courtesy of his time in Paris), Green endeavoured to equip each station with its own subtle selection of architectural features. Subtle tweaks to the cornice, ornate carving on window hoods and arches, the occasional carved UERL logo – all were used by Green to add individuality to the designs. He wasn’t afraid to indulge in more unique quirks either. Chalk Farm, for example, carries a Palladian window. Look carefully at the Cranbourn Street frontage at Leicester Square Station and you’ll notice wickets and a pair of cricket bats – J Wisden took the offices above the station. Knightsbridge – now sadly demolished – carried Art Noveau floral mountings across its whole frontage.
Internally, Green’s design was equally distinctive. At ticket hall level, a mixture of ornate tile and wood prevailed. The floors were generally tiled in a mosaic pattern, whilst the walls would be half-clad with green tiling topped off with a highly decorated tile layer (portraying either Acanthus leaves or Pomegranate). Fixtures and fittings – including the lifts – would be finished in carved wood and ticket hall windows generally carried highly decorative tile mouldings. Overall Green wished to convey a sense of heavy craftsmanship and care with occasional brass finishings (and the ever present clocks) adding a sense of style.
Beneath the surface, it is unclear just how much influence Green ended up having in the design. He certainly wasn’t contracted to design the subsurface layouts, and the distinctive tile patterns to be found on the platform of Green stations are mildly reminiscent of New York suggesting Yerkes may well have been involved. Upon termination of his contract in 1907, however, Green would receive an additional payment of £750 in recognition of services delivered in relation to “underground tiling.” Similarly, in his application for Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects during the same year, Green would describe his work on the Underground as follows:
Early in 1903 I was appointed Architect to the Underground Electric Railway Company of London Limited, which was formed for the construction of the Baker Street & Waterloo, the Great Northern Piccadilly & Brompton, and the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Tube Railways. Since that time I have designed and completed the erection of more than 50 Tube Station Buildings, besides designing and carrying out the decorative works to station tunnels, platforms and passages
Wherever the boundaries of his influence lie, therefore, it is clear that he played some role in the design of his stations beneath the surface as well as above. Indeed although all have their own unique touches (often attributable to whichever tiling firm actually carried out the work), it is just as easy to spot a Green station from the window of a tube train as it is from the street. Each carried stretches of cream tiling broken up by bands of colour. The name of the station would be fired directly into the wall tiles and further bands of colour would bracket signage. Geometric patterns of coloured tiles also abound.
The Work Overwhelms
Despite the success of his design and approach to construction, the hectic and heavy workload inevitably began to take its toll on Green. Although assisted by individual architects for each station, and no doubt taking a hands-off approach wherever possible, each site carried its own unique problems that needed to be overcome – whether it was a slope, the need to split the frontage around existing buildings (as at Aldwych) or the need to effectively rebuild an already half built station from scratch (as at Oxford Circus). By 1905 his health was beginning to suffer as he pushed forward to deliver the stations at the speed required and by 1907, it became clear that his health had deteriorated so much that he simply couldn’t continue any longer. In June, George Gibb – UERL’s MD (Yerkes had himself died in 1905) – informed Green that his contract would be terminated at the end of that year (although he would be retained as a Consultant Architect). In the same month, Green placed his assistant Stanley Heaps in charge of the station work and departed for France in an effort to rebuild his shattered health. A short spell in a sanatorium on the Norfolk coast served as a final effort to subvert the inevitable but it was too late. Green died – reportedly from tuberculosis – on the 31st August 1908.
An Enduring Legacy
In four short years, Green had left a mark on the Underground that few will ever rival. His distinctive red buildings and serious interiors – whether they are loved or not – are simply iconic. Sadly, however, whilst many of Green’s stations still survive, time has not been kind to most and few retain extensive original features (or at least original features in their original settings).
Green’s stations were produced before the birth of the escalator. Holloway Road was fitted with a wonderfully enigmatic double-helix “moving walkway” but it never opened to the public and the first true escalators were installed at Earl’s Court in 1911. This meant that, as lifts failed both mechanically and in terms of capacity, many of Green’s stations had to be extensively refitted inside, sometimes receiving a complete facelift in the process (Archway was redesigned by Holden in this way). In some extreme cases (such as at Knightsbridge) they were moved completely. Other Green stations such as York Road, Down Street, Brompton Road and Aldwych were closed down entirely. Today often only their still-distinctive design betrays the fact that they existed at all. Finally, from 1986 to 1989 the UTS project – which brought the automated ticket system to the Underground – meant that over 240 stations had to be refitted and rearranged in some way. This obviously included all the surviving Green stations, and many original fittings and layouts were inevitably lost.
In recent years, conservation efforts have been more kind to Green’s stations. Mornington Crescent received an extensive and very sympathetic restoration in the nineties, and at platform level the distinctive Green tiling has either been preserved or sympathetically restored. The entirely voluntary work undertaken by Douglas Rose with regards to charting and detailing the tiling of the Underground is both staggering in its complexity and in what it has achieved – preserving and uncovering tiling long thought lost for posterity both on the page and in reality.
Sadly, however, chances to see Green’s work truly as he left it are now few and far between. Holloway Road perhaps remains as the best chance to do so – a small remnant of a remarkable design achievement located in the busy heart of North London.
Despite this, Green’s legacy remains immense. It is perhaps a greater testament that his stations remain so distinctive to this day despite all their changes than it would be had they simply been preserved “as was.” It may, arguably, have cost him his life, but Green’s visual legacy cannot be understated both for the Underground and for London as a whole.
A Fitting Footnote
Indeed perhaps the strangest testament to his work lies not in reality but in fiction. In 1985, when a tube station was required in the iconic London soap opera EastEnders, the fictional station of “Walford East” was created to serve the purpose.
Obviously Walford East needed to be a station that looked exactly how people pictured an Underground station in their minds and, whether consciously or not, the set designers produced a station that is unmistakeably one of Green’s.
Of course Walford East is apparently on the District Line, and thus whilst it would certainly have been one of Yerkes’ stations in real life it would actually have been designed by Ford not Green. I suspect though that Ford wouldn’t have begrudged Green this strange – if somehow fitting – memorial.