Empire House: A Preservation Success

The renovated frontage of Empire House, August 2019

2019 in Whitechapel has been a disappointing year as far as the preservation of its heritage buildings. In March the fight to preserve the former Georgian public house, known locally as Tadman’s Corner, on Jubilee Street and Stepney Way was lost and the building demolished.  Work has begun on boarding up the former London Hospital Outpatients Building on Turner Street and it has been sold off with demolition impending. There is much angst about plans to alter the use and remodel the Bell Foundry. Many other smaller battles are being joined across the district in an attempt to stop the wrecking ball and the spread of bland ‘spreadsheet’ designed buildings.

It is therefore very satisfying to relate the story of a preservation success: Empire House, on New Road.

A rather forlorn looking Empire House, prior to rennovation in 2017.

Empire House in August 2019, after renovation and refurbishment.

Empire House was designed by the architect Hume Victor Kerr (1897-1955) in 1935. For the last two years it has been undergoing extensive refurbishment, carried out in a manner which I believe preserves the important architectural features of the original but also delivers a building which will be of use for many years into the future. In fighting to retain period buildings what is often forgotten is that a building must serve a purpose to survive and cannot survive on its architectural merits alone if it has no purpose. The refurbishment of Empire House is a case in point.

I am fortunate that after an approach to the architects responsible for the project, the medusagroup, I was given access to photograph the completed refurbishment and permission to share these photographs in this article.

Empire House was originally built to replace the residence of 67-75 New Road in Whitechapel, for Morris Israel and Sons Ltd. As far as I can establish this was a dairy firm which specialised in egg distribution. I believe that the building also provided rentable space for other enterprises and I suspect many of these would have been involved in the clothing trade which formed an significant part of the manufacturing industry of the area both then and (to a lesser extent) still today.

The original architectural drawings for Empire House prepared by H V Kerr dated October 1933, found in a cupboard under the stairs during renovation of the building in 2019.

I have been researching the life of H V Kerr and it is a remarkable one as he served with distinction in both world wars. In between he found time to qualify as an architect and become a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in the early 1930s. He continued his architectural career after the war (and remained on the army reserve until 1954) but died at a relatively young age in 1955.

Kerr is responsible for four buildings in and around Whitechapel, including Gwynne House (1938) in Turner Street and a conjoined structure Commerce House and Industry House (c1934), now demolished which once stood on Middlesex Street in Aldgate. It is possible that Comfort House (now Zyclone House) on the corner of Turner and Nelson Street is also by Kerr but I have found it hard to establish if this is the case.

The finished frontage of Empire House on New Road, Whitechapel, August 2019.

When I discussed the renovation of the building with the architect responsible for the renovation, Michal Bienek, it was interesting to discover the problems arising from a dilapidated building, the solutions implemented and the need to meet modern building and lifestyle requirements.

The building was in an advanced state of dilapidation when renovation commenced. A leaking roof had led to water damage through several floors. There was no real basement structure and there was no light into the basement. Of course, there was no modern lighting, heating or ventilation – all of which must now meet environmental standards which were inconceivable only a few years ago.

Top Floor, Empire House, August 2019.

A building which contained a maze of offices and sublets has now been transformed into an open plan space. In the centre can be seen the new lift structure which has been enclosed to form secure entrance to each floor. Out of the windows to the right can be seen the recently refurbished Abernethy Building of Queen Mary University and on the left hand side the rooftops of Fieldgate Mansions.

"Exposed" - the brickwork, steel beams and services of the renovated building.

The structural steel framework has been exposed. Previously it would have been clad to meet fire regulations but new forms of fire retardant paint means they can be exposed and we can see the rivets used to join the beams together. A modern feature of new builds is to expose the services such as the lighting, cable trays and the ventilation system rather than bury it in false ceilings.

"
Room with a view" - top floor, Empire House, 2019.

Empire House is fortunate in that at present it is the tallest building in Whitechapel with a line of sight to the City. As my co-author Rachel Kolsky exclaimed when she saw this photo, “this would be my dream office window!”

The ground floor of Empire House showing the light wells which transform the space and the basement below it.

A challenge was presented by the original basement to the building, which is referred to on the architectural drawings as the 'Owners Warehouse'. Created long before regulations about natural daylight it was entirely enclosed. The space was transformed by the creation of two light wells on the back of the building. Note the use of a natural walls to bring foliage as well as light into the space.

 

New staircase to the basement, note the bike ramp on the left hand side. At the basement level the light wells include small outside patio areas.

Access to the basement was previously by means of small staircases which would not have been suitable for the renovated space. For this reason a new staircase was formed and inserted. Note the bicycle ramp for which there is storage in the basement area - which reflects an important change in lifestyle since the creation of the original building.

 

Original features (left) and new signage taking advantage of the refurbished brick surface.

As far as possible the original structure and the features which could be salvaged have remained, for example the iron work banisters in the two stairwells which flank either side of the main floors. Care has also been taken to create new signage which in my opinion is sympathetic with the 'moderne' style of the building.

 

Doorways "Before and After".

One of the many photographs I took of Empire House was the doorway (left, 2015) and this appeared in my most recent book 'Whitechapel Doors'. I liked the way the architect had created the surround of the door by use of the stepped tiling. Incidentally, referring to the architectural drawing (above), it is clear that as late as 2015 the door itself was the original dating back to the 1930s. Although it might have been a nice feature to retain such an entrance, for reasons of building security a new front entrance and fire exit was required. However as can be seen in the refurbishment (right) the original aperture and tiling has been kept along with refurbished building signage. The use of a glass panel in the renovated aperture makes the interior look inviting compared to the previous panelled door.

Empire House, completed refurbishment, August 2019.

The 'eagle-eyed' will notice that the windows of the building have been entirely replaced, which is hardly surprising given their age and also the need to 'seal' the building for both fuel efficiency and environmental purposes. However, a closer look reveals that the windows match as far as possible the original design.

I am a self confessed admirer of the architecture of Hume Victor Kerr. I find his personal life itself another area of fascination and I am determined to discover his story and bring it to a wider audience. I am very impressed at the sympathetic manner in which this building has been preserved and updated. Given the tragedy that awaits some structures in and around Whitechapel it is fantastic to see a building like Empire House updated and preserved for many years to come.

The building has already been leased and will  be occupied in the near future. I remain envious of one (almost) hidden feature of this building.

From the roof of Empire House the history of Whitechapel and the modern architectural history of the City of London is presented as a visual feast.

Many thanks to Michal Bienek of the architects medusagroup for providing access to the building. Also,many thanks to Bartoz Szymczuk of Riva Building Ltd, responsible for the renovation works, for arranging access to the building.

All photographs copyright LouisBerk.com 2019, (with the exception of the original H V Kerr architectural drawing).