The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Poole and Art Deco

Ian Andrews examines the evidence and influence of the between-wars artistic movement in Poole

Poole's Civic Centre

Poole’s Civic Centre is a fine example of Art Deco, both inside and out

I grew up in a semi-det with a ‘sunburst’ gate I could swing on, and thought nothing of it. As an impoverished student I delivered post as a Christmas ‘extra’ to a Hungarian ping-pong champion with 36 world titles and was more impressed by this than by the novel gated courtyard of the Art Deco flats he lived in. I feared the wrath of our parents in my tussles with an older brother lest one of us should damage the Clarice Cliff-style vase on the sideboard. On my route to school each day I passed flat-roofed ‘modern’ houses from pre-war days with nary a glance.

Such was my background to Art Deco when I arrived in Poole 45 years ago. Compared with Metroland, Poole has relatively little estate development from the Art Deco period (roughly, 1920 to 1939), but its influence stands out. This was more so for me as I was working in Municipal Buildings designed at a time when the movement was in full swing and when the name of the town’s pottery in its heyday took Poole all over the world. Although Victorian and Edwardian villas and residences dominated the suburbs of the Old Town, individual ‘modern’ Art Deco buildings were to be found in Lilliput, Canford Cliffs, Sandbanks and elsewhere.

Art Deco buildings of the late 1920s and 1930s were simple, elegantly proportioned and functional. They were successors to the German ‘Bauhaus’ movement that had died abruptly when the Nazis came to power. The architects didn’t stop at symmetry of geometric shapes, natural curves, repetitive motifs on the external elevation and details like grilles, but extended their concepts to the interiors and the furniture and fitments. The style came as a package that extended to sculpture, pottery, jewellery (Chanel), graphics (Erté), product design (Alessi) and furniture. The building materials favoured were man-made stainless steel and aluminium and curved glass. Interiors favoured white earthenware, lacquer and inlaid wood and granite floors.

In the UK the style quickly fell out of favour when, during World War 2, lack of maintenance to the hallmark white rendering, Crittall windows and particularly the flat roofs took its toll. In an austere post-war period many felt the style was gaudy and gave a false sense of luxury. However, traces of its resurgence have come about with glass and stainless steel structures, although this time stripped of unnecessary ornament, in the modernism of the present century.

The Municipal Buildings of 1932 (now the Civic Centre) were credited as designed for public use under the Borough Engineer, Ernest Goodacre, but were in fact the work of an assistant, L Magnus Austin, who craftily worked in a tribute to himself by incorporating his initials in the keystone at the entrance! The Civic Centre was built in the Depression as an unemployment relief scheme and shows that quality does not necessarily mean more expense. Its deeply recessed arched balcony and wide eaves, and the way it sits on a triangular site, are described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘stripped classicism’. The interior contains many repeated motifs and themed friezes, and a series of bas reliefs high up on the external walls (not usually seen unless you are on the top of a bus or they are pointed out) tells the long story of Poole from pre-historic days. A 1980s extension is in sympathy and includes further bas reliefs embracing more modern years, from flying boats to ferries and board-sailors. Flats opposite at White Lodge are from the pre-war era, and in nearby Commercial Road a brand-new office block doffs its cap to the style of its near neighbour.

Following Sandbanks Road towards Lilliput, there are some passable example flats at Whitecliff Court, but round the corner, adjoining a traditional Lady Wimborne cottage, a feast awaits. Nos 223-227, a row of houses of outstanding and differing features, come into view (opposite a new surgery for the local doctor, influenced by Art Deco features). No 227 featured on a Channel 4 TV makeover programme, which sympathetically extended the house upwards but let the side down by an inappropriate restoration of its interior.

227 Sandbanks Road Poole

227 Sandbanks Road was recently the subject of a TV makeover programme, but the exterior lost nothing of its typical Art Deco style

Continuing on Sandbanks Road, Salterns Court flats and the shopping parade at Lilliput once again reflect the jazz age, and a detour into Salterns Way and Lagoon Road reveals another six or seven examples, but up Evening Hill at Crichel Mount Road lies an absolute gem (wisely listed by Poole Council) in ‘Landfall’. Here successive proud owners (only three) have lovingly looked after a building by one of the masters of the movement, Oliver Hill.

The rear of Oliver Hill's classic 'Landfall Poole /></td></tr><tr align=

The rear of Oliver Hill’s classic ‘Landfall’

The house is shrouded by pine trees and only the curved boundary wall and stainless steel lettering are revealed to passing traffic. You can get a glimpse of the entrance and a porthole window in a curved wall, behind which lies a circular staircase. To the rear the house is almost completely glazed, with balconies supported by tubular supports and accessible by an external spiral stairway. It is a most adaptable house, all three living rooms on the ground floor opening out into one when required. There is a sunroom on the roof.

The interior furnishings have been retained or suitably replaced. Not a scrap of IKEA visible here! The fitted furniture in cedar derived from Betty Joel, who died in 1985. Betty was a leading designer of the 1930s who employed yacht fitters to create furniture in oak and teak with distinctive curved edges. Her furniture featured in many London homes (including the Park Lane houses of Lord Louis Mountbatten and Winston Churchill) and public buildings, including, until recently, the Savoy Hotel. With no fluting or moulding and recessed handles, it symbolised the rise of the modern housewife who, when servants became scarce or unaffordable, wanted ease of maintenance in her daily toil. Many famous people from the arts and society have visited the house, as evidenced by the signatures the author has seen on the inside of the door to the downstairs toilet! Poole’s own international prize-winning architect, Richard Hordern, acknowledges the influence the house has had on him, remembered from visiting it as a child.

At Sandbanks there is a different type of building: the clubhouse of the Royal Motor Yacht Club. Converted from two intended flats, it was opened in 1936 in a manner and with detail worthy of Art Deco recognition. Panorama Road is littered with other Art Deco candidates, some of them erected in the 1950s or later.

At Shore Road, a stone’s throw from the Sandbanks and Sandacres Hotels and still an enclave protected by a private road, are the terrace of houses of Chaddesley Wood Road. Up the West Hill at Haven Road two more buildings of the style and by the same architect (AJ Seal) stand next door to each other: the Harbour Heights Hotel and the flats of Conning Tower, built in 1934. The details of the Haven Close terraced houses by the same architect leave much to be desired but follow the general approach. Pevsner comments that this was what John Betjeman would call the Tel-Aviv style!

Once again the name of Ernest Goodacre, Borough Engineer, arises at Branksome Chine Café. In 1932, in a bid to raise Poole’s profile in the tourist economy, Goodacre designed the cluster of buildings which today are not just a place to enjoy a nice cup of tea but an up-market restaurant.

The Branksome Beach Poole /></td></tr><tr align=

The Branksome Beach was built as the Branksome Chine Café in 1932, at the height of the Art Deco movement

The Old Town was not by its antiquity protected from change. At least two shop fronts remain worthy of note: that of Bennetts the Bakers, with its patterned leaded glass and the name of Bright (also a baker) set in mosaic in the entrance way, and, not far away but sadly recently altered, the café formerly known to many as the leather goods shop of Thorogoods.

Bennetts Bakery,Poole /></td></tr><tr align=

This shop front would have been the last word in modern design when it was installed

One of the places where it may be a surprise to find Art Deco is in Wimborne Road. In 1934 the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ centenary coincided with the Labour Club building a new HQ, and the building has an arched entrance and the motif stepped roofline straight from the pattern books for architecture of the day. Another surprise location is in Poole Park, where the selling of ice cream has today been transferred to a safer location across the road at the new Mezza Luna Restaurant and the former ice cream kiosk tastefully restored to become an information point manned by the Friends of Poole Park.

Finally, in Hamworthy the 1936 Boat House in Lake Drive is stunningly set on the waterfront but is also remarkable in that it was designed to accommodate the panelled 2nd class dining room and cabins of the former RMS Mauretania, so is redolent of the days of luxury ocean liners. It is occasionally opened for visits by appointment during Dorset Architectural Heritage Weeks.

Dorset Directory