Industry and espionage: the history of the UK’s serviced apartment buildings

Written by on 11th October 2011
Category: Business Travel

I was surprised recently when, in the middle of a book I was reading, I found the name of one of London’s most prominent serviced apartment blocks – particularly because, as a memoir of a bourgeois Iraqi family, its subject matter was as far away from my work at SilverDoor as you could get. But mentions of the apartment building at several points in the text – first as a business opportunity and then, years later, as accommodation for exiled family members – demonstrated the development’s rich, cosmopolitan history.

The building, which houses Dolphin Square, lies between the River Thames to the south and Pimlico, occupying a prime spot in central London. It caused quite a stir when it opened in the mid-1930s, with its array of on-site amenities which to this day includes a restaurant, shops, a bar and a tennis court. American travel writer Temple Fielding described it as a “mini city”, while law reform activist A.P. Herbert rapturously concluded that with so many facilities nearby, “fortunate wives will not have enough to do”. Well, it was the 1930s.

Since then, the apartments have housed many an illustrious resident, most notably MPs, thanks to the property’s proximity to Westminster. In 1940 the Free French occupied part of the building; it’s been home to spies (both British and Soviet), comedians and the music hall star Bud Flanagan, who sang the theme tune to Dad’s Army. It’s also housed a few sinister residents, such as extreme right-wingers William Joyce and Oswald Mosley, both prominent members of the British Union of Fascists in the late 1930s. The rules dictating who can live in the development are less strict than they used to be and its residents are now more likely to be business people than spies (or fascists, for that matter), although it can still be a good place to spot Britain’s political elite.

Many serviced apartment blocks across the UK have had very different previous incarnations; their irregularities, character and eccentricities bear hints of their varied history and, in turn, changing lifestyles in the UK throughout the 20th century. A number of them, for example, are housed in buildings which, 100 years ago, were fully functioning warehouses or factories. Gate House Apartments in London are housed in a former brewery near Tower Bridge and are designed to encompass many original features including high ceilings, exposed brick and wooden beams, combined with contemporary fixtures and fittings.

There are a number of properties in Manchester housed in such buildings, reflecting the city’s former importance as a centre of industry in the UK: Romzzz Manchester City Apartments, for example, are in a former cotton works and The Place Apartments are in a former warehouse. All look simultaneously to Manchester’s past as an industrial powerhouse and to its future as a centre of commerce, combining period features with clean lines and contemporary furnishings – and making full use of the high ceilings and light, open spaces.

Nowhere combines past and present more creatively than Town Hall Apartments in London. They’re housed within a grand former town hall, built in Edwardian times, which fell out of use in 1993 and was, until recently, kept alive through the films and TV programmes that were filmed inside (including Atonement and Brideshead Revisited). The property’s historic features are enhanced by contemporary design from Rare, who’ve made the most of the high ceilings and period features by using a mixture of contemporary and vintage-style design. The designers have taken elements of the original Art Deco design to shape the contemporary furnishings, such as a pattern on one of the original fittings which is now used throughout the building, including as screens covering the kitchens in the studio apartments. In a city where space is always at a premium, they show the ways in which modern serviced apartments can make creative use of their building’s history through an inspiring mix of old and new.