Pullman Court: A history…
Pullman Court is a privately owned, modernist residential estate in Streatham Hill, south London. It is comprised of 218 flats that range from purpose-built studios, to two-bedroom mansion flats.
Pullman Court was designed in 1933 by Frederick Gibberd, a renowned British modernist architect who went on to design Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Regent’s Park mosque, Heathrow airport, and the town of Harlow. Pullman Court was his first major project – and undertaken at the age of 23.
It was a bold project and a bold design. In the heady days of inter-war optimism and faith in the future, Pullman Court was conceived as a thoroughly modern place for young professionals people to live – one of the first such developments in the UK.
The developer was William Bernstein. In 1983, Gibberd told BBC Desert Island Discs how he met Bernstein: “I picked a girl in a dance hall, and she was the secretary of a tycoon who wanted to put money into property. And he said: ‘Look, if you can find a site on which I can put flats for single people – which would be the alternative to the digs – I build it’ … And it has been a pioneer building. It was a time when modern architecture was first coming into this country. ”
The site found by Gibberd was at the top of Streatham Hill in south London, offering views north across the city and south towards the South Downs.
In the early 19th century, the site had been a children’s home, part of the Royal Asylum of St Anne’s Society, completed in 1829. Its mission was to provide care and education for poor children. The children’s home stood on the site for 60 years, but in 1881, the charity relocated south of London to Redhill, and then later was forced to sell the Streatham site.
Between about 1890 and 1915, the building, which had housed the children’s home, became a St Pancras’ Workhouse for the elderly and infirm, with about 600 residents. After this, it fell into disuse, until spotted by the young architect.
Gibberd was a member of the Modern Architectural Research Group and had a clear vision of how he wanted the new estate to look. Pullman Court was designed to resemble an ocean liner, composed of a number of blocks of different heights along an east-west axis.
The north and south blocks, which would form the flanks of the imaginary ocean liner, are long narrow buildings of five floors. They enclose a central courtyard of manicured gardens.
To the east is the taller mansion block, which has seven floors, and to continue the ship analogy, this would be the superstructure of the vessel.
Again, this and the others blocks were planted courtyard with gardens, along with what was Pullman Court’s swimming pool.
The name “Pullman Court” is believed to have been a reference to the legendary quality of deluxe railway carriages of the time, with Court referring to the courtyard layout of the estate.
Pullman Court was designed with quality of life in mind. Many flats look out onto the central gardens, and Gibberd was careful to ensure existing trees on the site were protected when it was built so that even early residents enjoyed the pleasing outlook onto mature gardens.
The estate was designed with a strong awareness of making the best use of natural prevailing conditions. AS well as being located on a hill, it was designed so that most flats have large south facing windows and south facing balconies – to ensure maximum light. On many flats, the windows also span the entire width of the flat making them very pleasant to live in, and also keeping energy use down.
Coupled with the modernist curves evident across the building, the roofs (which were once roof gardens) have metal railings that resemble those on an ocean liner of the period.
Today, Pullman Court is painted white. But when it was built, the colour scheme was more avant-garde, with the north and south blocks in pastel shades of pale pink and brown, and tiling chosen to be a delicate pink. The eastern block was grey and blue.
Windows were steel-framed and supplied by Crittall, which were as in most other aspects of the building, the latest in innovations in the 1930s.
The modernist design was not confined to the exterior of the buildings, with many state-of-the-art designs and technological innovations continued inside each flat. These were envisaged with elegant fittings and fixture. Each flat had built-in wardrobes and cupboards, which discreetly formed part of the internal walls. Each apartment also had an internal toilet (quite revolutionary at the time). Many of the fittings were custom made for the estate, such as light fittings by Best and Lloyd.
In terms of layout, the one-bedroom properties had a large sliding wooden wall, which dived the bedroom from the lounge areas. At night, this could be slid closed, but then opened during the day to create a much larger open-plan living space, and maximising the natural light.
Another innovation was in terms of energy provision. Pullman Court was built without fireplaces or chimneys, so there was no provision for open fires. Instead, all energy, from heating to hot water, was provided by a single boiler complex underneath the east block. This was considered both more efficient, and infinitely cleaner for residents.
Gibberd also offered matching furniture for each flat. Each flat could come with a “wireless” radio, a gas fire, which formed the focal-point of the lounge and an “icebox” or electric refrigerator.
In keeping with the concept of the modernist home, the estate was intended to offer all the amenities needed by residents onsite. These included a restaurant and social club, an open-air swimming pool. There were also roof gardens on top of each building, which coupled with the courtyard gardens made for a very green living environment. There was also said to have been a newspaper seller in the main lobby of the mansion block, and a shoeshine, as well as a florist.
The flats were intended to be rented to professionals, and ranged from rents from £68 a year for a studio (about £11,600 in today’s money) to £130 a year for a two-bedroom flat (about £22,200 today).
Richard J. Biggins of the Gibberd Partnership writes: “Internally, the flats were planned to be as ‘labour-saving’ as the technology would allow. They were heated by a central boiler plant, a great convenience compared with the traditional coal fires that were the more usual form in the 1930s. This boiler also provided constant hot water to each unit. Kitchens were compact and streamlined, and the flats were fitted with furnishings including cupboards, a wireless cabinet and a modern electric fire.
“Much of the furniture commercially available was out of scale and style for such a modern development. Frederick Gibberd designed a range of furniture perfectly in scale with the buildings, which could be purchased by tenants to complete their flats.