Public library of 1926-8 designed by A N Prentice for Westminster City Council, modified in the 1950s and 1980s.
Reasons for Designation
Westminster Reference Library of 1926-28, by A N Prentice for the City of Westminster, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: it is an assured composition in Edwardian baroque by A N Prentice, executed with good quality materials and craftsmanship;
* Historic interest: for the survival of the vaulted cellars to the former house on the site lived in by Sir Isaac Newton and later by the novelist Fanny Burney;
* Degree of survival: for the high degree of exterior and interior intactness, particularly the retention of both library floors and many of their fixtures and fittings, the book hoist, main stairs and entrance hall features;
* Group value: for the proximal group value with the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery (both Grade I).
The library was built on a parcel of land leased by Westminster City Council from the Orange Street Congregational Chapel in 1925. The land was formerly the site of no. 35 St Martin’s Street, built in the late C17, and subsequently occupied by Sir Isaac Newton and later by Dr Charles Burney and his famous novelist daughter, Fanny. It is recorded that during their tenures a number of nationally important historical figures visited the house including Sir Christopher Wren, Dr Edmund Halley and Dr Johnson. A description and illustration of this C17 house in the Survey of London indicates that it had a two room plan with a projecting rear wing, and had three storeys, with a plat band between the first and second floors, and tall sash windows. The interior is noted as having bolection moulded panelling and fireplace surrounds, and a staircase with a moulded close string, turned balusters and square newels, all in keeping with the date of its construction. Newton conducted much of his research from 1710-1727 and revised his ‘Principia’ here: he built a wooden observatory on the roof, taken down in the 1860s.The building was carefully dismantled in 1913, with the intention of re-erecting it elsewhere, but it is unclear whether this ever occurred. The vaulted cellars of Newton’s house remain beneath the west elevation of the library adjacent to its basement level, and extend further to the west beneath the library’s light well and the pavement to St Martin’s Street.
After a short competition, the City Council selected the design of A N Prentice assisted by W M Dean for the library. Building work started in January 1927; the contractors were Walden and Co of Reading. The library comprised basement storage, a lending library on the ground floor and a reference library on the first. At the second floor there was a caretaker’s flat and on the third and attic floors further accommodation for City officials, most recently the City Engineer and his family. A leaflet of 1928, produced by the City of Westminster describing and celebrating the library’s opening on 8th October of that year by the Very Reverend the Dean of Westminster, states that many of the fittings came from the St Martin’s Lane library (further to the east) and were adapted for the new building.
Plans of the constructed building and later alterations are retained in the library. Minor internal modifications were made in the 1950s and 1980s. Most of the book stacks on the ground and first floors of the library have been removed and the issue desk on the ground floor repositioned. The second floor caretaker’s flat was remodelled to form offices and a specialised reference collection. The original floor covering of the hall and main stairs has been covered. The library was renamed the Central Reference Library in 1948.
A N Prentice (1866-1941) was a Scottish architect who studied under William Leiper and T E Collcutt; he opened his own office in 1891. Most of his work was designing houses including a number he extended on the High Street in Broadway, Worcestershire, listed at Grade II, and his own compositions at Little Snowfield in Kent (1912, Grade II) and the Six Bells Public House in Witham on the Hill, Lincolnshire (1905, Grade II). His largest work is the Joint Examination Halls for the Physicians and Surgeons, Queen Square, London in the ‘Wrenaissance’ style which he won at competition in 1909. He also designed interiors for steamships and metalworks.
Westminster Reference Library, built 1926-28 for the City of Westminster to the designs of A N Prentice in a simple Edwardian Baroque style.
MATERIALS: Portland stone cladding to a London stock brick structure with some glazed brick principally to the north elevation, Portland stone and red brick dressings and a slate roof. The interior fixtures and fittings are mostly of oak.
PLAN: the two library floors are served by a main stair at the north-west corner of the west-facing façade. Above the library are two former residential floors (offices in 2015) and an attic dwelling accessed additionally from a secondary entrance at the north elevation leading to back stairs and a contemporary passenger lift. At the south-east corner is the book hoist.
EXTERIOR: a four-storey building with a basement and attic, the third floor and attic set back under a hipped roof with five dormers beneath gablets, four facing west and one to the south lighting the attic accommodation. Two further flat-roofed dormers project to the east and north. Two wide chimney stacks are located at the north side of the building, one central and the other an end stack to the east. The windows are a combination of metal framed casements and timber sliding sashes.
The four-bay façade fronts St Martin’s Street to the west and the three-bay south elevation fronts onto Orange Street; both elevations share the same treatment. The basement has wide, segmental arch windows with enlarged keystones terminating in a deeply moulded stone band, and rusticated treatment. The continuous light well to the front of both elevations is defined by a cast-iron balustrade. Above, the ground and first floors are executed in ashlar with deeply moulded panels to each bay containing tall, metal-framed casement windows of 12 glazes to the ground floor and 8 glazes to the first, both with margin lights. The ground floor windows have stone cills on scrolled brackets and a moulded pediment over. Between the first and second floors is a deep moulded cornice. The second floor is simply treated; the centrally opening casement windows have stone surrounds and an enlarged keystone. The cornice above is topped by an open stone balustrade with a moulded coping. The third floor shares the simplicity of the second, and, along with the attic, is recessed beneath the roof, providing a walkway around the west and south sides accessed by a French window on the west elevation.
The main entrance is in the northernmost bay of the façade. The entrance is framed by two stone columns with capitals detailed with ovolo mouldings and egg and dart motifs. Above, a frieze is carved with the Westminster Coat of Arms with the Latin inscription ‘CUSTODI CIVITATEM DOMINE’ (‘Guard the City O Lord’), and surmounted by a pediment, above which is a window with the words ‘Public Library’ carved in the stone apron. The two-leaf oak door, each leaf with three panels and a lion’s head knocker, is approached by two steps. Between the second and third bay of the façade is an inscription noting that Sir Issac Newton lived on a house on this site.
The northern elevation fronts Longs Court. It has a stock brick plinth, the ground and first floors above are clad with white-glazed brick terminating in the moulded cornice between the first and second floors which wraps around from the facade. Above, the elevation is of stock brick with red brick dressings. The secondary entrance is central to the ground floor; it has a moulded stone surround and flat hood on two stone corbels. The two-leaf door is partly glazed with rectangular lights over. The windows are irregularly spaced.
The east elevation is mostly blind; there is a wide, end-stack to the north.
INTERIOR: the vestibule to the entrance hall leading to the main stairs is flanked internally by two oak-framed, part-glazed booths, that to the left being the former Porter’s lodge and to the right originally a lodge for umbrellas and shoes. The original floor covering here is marble mosaic, covered with linoleum; it remains exposed in the booths. The stone, cantilevered, open-well stairs have a wrought-iron balustrade with a bronze handrail. The walls to the staircase and landings have moulded oak panels and dado rails. The landings have a moulded frieze supported by two pilasters and one central column constructed with a composite stone, with variant ionic capitals. The floor covering to all landings was originally a marble composition known as ‘biancola’, likely to remain beneath the linoleum. On the second floor landing is a wall plaque commemorating the occupants of Newton’s house.
In general, the oak doors, their architraves and other joinery are original.
The library floors: two-leaf oak, part-glazed doors lead off the landing into the ground floor and first floor libraries. Both library floors have wide-panelled coffered ceilings supported on square-section columns and pilasters incised with linear and simple greek key motifs. Both floors have wall shelving which may be original. The ground floor library has an oak gallery on the east wall (accommodating the Pavlova Memorial Library), supported with oak columns and capitals of the Tuscan order, with an oak balustrade of turned newels and a hand rail. On the first floor, galleries of the same style are against the east and north walls. The wall stacks to the galleries are original, but all other furniture is modern and mostly free standing.
At the south-east corner is the book hoist with an oak, panelled door and a moulded oak architrave; the caged cabin within is likely to have been replaced.
To the north-east of the ground floor library is a staff office with some original fittings. A separate entrance leads from the office to the back stairs accessed at the ground floor from the secondary entrance on Longs Court. This stone dog-leg stair is simpler, denoted as a service stair in Prentice's drawings, but also has a wrought-iron balustrade and bronze handrail. Adjacent to the service stair is a passenger lift, illustrated on the original plans and therefore contemporary.
The residential floors: the primary access to the second, third floors and attic is via the service stairs and passenger lift, although the main stairs provide access to all floor levels. On both the second and third floors simple plaster cornices, ceiling mouldings and joinery remain.
The second floor comprised the caretaker’s flat arranged along the west and north sides of the building and book storage above the library floors with a telephone room to the east, inserted in the 1950s. Although remodelled to form offices and an arts reference room, simple fire surrounds and joinery remain in the former residential rooms and kitchen. The book storage area has modern metal stacks. The third floor comprised four bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room and drawing room, converted into offices (by the time of the inspection in September 2015), but retaining the original layout arranged around a central corridor with a panelled ceiling and simple decorative plasterwork. In most rooms fire surrounds remain, one having colourful tiling (presumably a nursery). The attic space, a separate residential flat was not accessible.
The basement: accessed via a secondary stair to the south of the main vestibule, the basement retains many original fixtures and fittings. The stairs, remodelled at the lowest flight, are of terrazzo; a partly glazed oak screen and door led into the mess room as identified on the plans. The book storage area has modern shelving and a glass mezzanine floor; the latter was inserted in the 1950s, but was envisaged as part of the 1920s design. The flooring is parquet. The vaulted cellars to Newton’s house are accessed from the basement and are partially flooded in 2015. They are not mapped as their true extent was not apparent at the time of inspection.