Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960.
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The Royal Automobile Club and Nos. 83–85 (consec.) Pall Mall
Previous history of this site is described on pages 359–68
The Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in 1897 'as a Society of Encouragement for the motoring movement and the motor and allied industries in the British Empire'. (fn. 2) From 1900 to 1902 its premises were at Whitehall Court, and from 1903 to 1911 at No. 119 Piccadilly. (fn. 1) In 1907 the name of the club was changed to the Royal Automobile Club. (fn. 2) In the same year the club began negotiations for the lease of part of the site of the old War Office with a frontage of 228 feet to Pall Mall, and in 1908 a building agreement with the Commissioners of Woods and Forests was signed. By September 1908 the site had been cleared and excavations for the basement of the new building were in progress. The architects were Messrs. Mewès and Davis in conjunction with E. Keynes Purchase. (fn. 3) Work was completed in the spring of 1911, the total cost exceeding £250,000. The contractors were the Building Construction Company of Cockspur Street (Plates 125, 126). (fn. 4)
In 1911 the Commissioners of Woods and Forests signed a building agreement with James Gilbert, surveyor, which provided for the rebuilding of the premises (now Nos. 83–85 Pall Mall) adjoining the west side of the Royal Automobile Club. This site had a frontage of 91 feet and had recently been vacated by the War Office. (fn. 5) The architects of the new building, which was completed in 1915, were Henry Metcalf and Thomas R. Greig, and the contractors were Leslie and Co. (fn. 6) The building was at first occupied by commercial users, most of whom were connected with the motor industry. Part of it is now occupied by the associates' department of the Royal Automobile Club. (fn. 1)
After Rome and Venice had provided the architectural prototypes for the great mid nineteenth-century club-houses in Pall Mall, it seems only natural that the early twentieth century—the period of the 'Entente Cordiale' and the hôtels-de-luxe of M. César Ritz—should have turned to Paris for inspiration. The Royal Automobile Club certainly enriched the stylistic galaxy of Pall Mall by adding their substantial clubhouse, a polished essay in the late French Renaissance manner. Their building, moreover, marked an important stage in the development of clubhouses, for it contains not only the usual and traditional accommodation, but offers its members a large restaurant and recreational facilities such as the swimming-bath, Turkish baths, a gymnasium and squash courts.
Planned in the Beaux-Arts tradition, with a front to Pall Mall that owes something to Jules Hardouin Mansart (Place Vendôme) and Jacques-Ange Gabriel (Place de la Concorde), and a front to Carlton Gardens that recalls a château by le Vau or François Mansart, the club-house was designed by the internationally famous firm of Mewès and Davis (in conjunction with E. Keynes Purchase). French carvers and blacksmiths were employed to give the exterior its authentically Parisian quality.
With a frontage to Pall Mall of 228 feet and a depth, in the centre, of 140 feet, the club has a plan that looks well on paper and works well in practice (Plate 125). The core of the design is a large central vestibule of oval plan, surrounded by a wide gallery at first-floor level. On the ground floor this vestibule is approached by steps from a spacious entrance hall, from which further steps lead east to a reception-room, and west to the strangers' room. Beyond the vestibule, and overlooking the garden on the south front, is a large oblong and apse-ended lounge, somewhat like a winter-garden, now used as a restaurant. From the vestibule a short corridor branches east to the restaurant, an oblong room divided by columned screens into a large central compartment flanked north and south by smaller compartments. A balancing corridor leads west, past the staircasecompartment, to the main club-room, of similar size and layout to the restaurant. On the first floor, the members' dining-room is over the restaurant (east) and the committee-room, associates' room and library are over the main club-room (west). The recreational rooms are in the basement—the swimming-bath below the lounge (south), the Turkish baths below the restaurant, and the gymnasium and three squash courts are under the main club-room. The four upper floors are given over to members' bedrooms and staff rooms.
The Pall Mall front (Plate 126a), carried out in Portland stone, is a balanced composition with a central feature of three bays projecting between wings, each six bays wide. The ground-storey face is simply rusticated, the wings being arcaded, with plain coved reveals framing the recessed casement windows. In the central feature is a handsome doorcase, surmounted by a balcony resting on rich consoles, and flanked by narrow straight-headed windows. The two upper storeys are embraced by an Ionic order with plain-shafted columns raised on unmoulded pedestals, engaged three-quarter columns being employed in the wings and freestanding columns in the central feature, where the entablature is enriched with a carved pulvinated frieze, broken by a tablet in the middle bay and surmounted by a triangular pediment, its tympanum filled with figure sculpture. The wide piers that flank the central feature and terminate the wings are adorned with oval cartouches and pendant trophies, and over them the entablature frieze is also carved. The tall casement windows of the first floor open to balconies, their balustrades linking the column pedestals, and each opening is dressed with a moulded architrave, plain frieze and moulded cornice. The second-floor windows have panelled aprons and architrave frames with moulded keystones. In each wing the main entablature has a plain frieze and is surmounted by a balustrade, and over each wide terminal pier is a tall pedestal supporting an iron flambeau-vase.
The south, or garden front (Plate 126b) is more boldly modelled than the north, but the projecting oblong mass of the two-storeyed lounge has the effect of being an addition, largely obscuring the recessed central range of the main building. Each of the projecting end pavilions has an arcaded ground storey, like the north front, but the upper face is more simply embellished with plain-shafted Doric pilasters flanking the three middle bays. Above the entablature is an attic storey, broken centrally by a tall pediment-crowned window, this feature recurring in the central pavilion. The tall French roof, domed over the central pavilion, contains two tiers of recessed dormers, and is hung with green slates and dressed with copper, now much patinated.
The well-laid-out interior presents a series of handsome rooms that typify the heyday of the 'Period' decorator, whose task it was to clothe in faultless period dress the monotonous regularity of structural steel, the ventilation ducts, and much else. The restrained classicism of Louis XV's time pervades the entrance hall, the oval vestibule, the corridors and the grand staircase, with walls lined in 'stuc' to imitate creamy stone, providing a background to the black-and-gold ironwork. This treatment is typical of Mewès and Davis's 'French' style. The upper stage of the oval vestibule is a peristyle of fluted Doric columns, carrying an entablature enriched with triglyphs and metopes, and the ceiling is a plain cove surrounding a laylight of glass and wrought iron. The lounge, or concert-room, was decorated by Boulanger, of Paris, in the Louis XIV manner, with the walls divided into bays, wide and narrow alternately, by paired Ionic pilasters carrying a Baroque entablature and a cove pierced with bull's-eye windows. The flat ceiling, painted as a sky surrounded by a perspective balustrade, lacks interest through the absence of flying figures. Lenygon and Morant, of London, were responsible for the great club-room, where the sumptuous decorative scheme incorporates a careful reproduction of the rich entablature and compartmented ceiling, suitably enlarged, from the south-west drawing-room in Brettingham's Cumberland House. The restaurant and the adjoining reception-room were decorated in the Louis XV style by Remon, of Paris, who built their scheme around some paintings in the manner of Hubert Robert, taken from a French château. The members' dining-room is in the style of Sir William Chambers, with an Ionic order, the billiard-room is in a simple Adam manner, and the swimming-bath has a Roman effect, although officially described as Greek, with the pool surrounded by a peristyle of widely spaced pairs of Doric columns, their shafts covered with scale-patterned mosaic. (fn. 4)