London Calling - I

Art Deco Daimler Garage Repurposed as Offices for McCann Erickson Advertising Agency London (LEO Design)


If I had to pick one London neighborhood to call my own, it would be Bloomsbury—long a center of London's intellectual, scholarly, medical and literary enterprises.  I have been staying in this active, human-scaled neighborhood for decades—surrounded by students and faculty from the neighborhood's several colleges, and employees of the numerous bookshops and many creative businesses in the area.

The neighborhood was first called "Bloomsbury"—or, rather, "Blemondisberi"—in 1281, named after the French Blemond family who owned the manor here.  In time, King Edward III (who reigned from 1327-1377) acquired the property, still largely rural, and gave it to the Carthusian Monks.  Later, when Henry VIII was "disbanding the monasteries," this property was seized and given to one of the King's loyal cronies.

The neighborhood is a Who's Who of famous literary and intellectual types who lived or worked here over the last two centuries: writer Virginia Wolfe and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell (and many from the "Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers), T. S Eliot, J. M. Barrie, illustrator Randolph Caldecott, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, E. M. Forster, William Butler Yeats, portraitist Thomas Lawrence and economist John Maynard Keynes. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood also was formed here, in the Bloomsbury home of John Millais's parents.  Also born in Bloomsbury was Gothic Revival architect, Augustus Pugin (who designed the interiors of Westminster Palace and the iconic clock tower in which hangs Big Ben).

Shown above, a handsome Art Deco garage, with circling ramp, which once housed Daimler cars-for-hire.  It has been restored and converted into office space, recently the London home of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency.


Monumental Cast Iron Gas Lanterns Before the Hotel Russell, Bloomsbury, London (LEO Design)


At the center of Bloomsbury is Russell Square, laid-out in 1804 and named after the family of the Dukes of Bedford.  This park-and-garden is presided-over by the Hotel Russell, built in 1898, and clad in Thé-au-Lait (that is, "Tea with Milk") terracotta tiling.  

The Hotel Russell was designed by architect Charles Fitzroy Doll, who also designed interiors for the R. M. S. Titanic.  The dining room in this five-star hotel is nearly identical to the dining room on that ill-fated ship.  And a bronze dragon sculpture, featured in the hotel, is a duplicate of one which was aboard the Titanic.  

Next to the Hotel Russell was the slightly later Imperial Hotel (built 1905-1907), also designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll, which matched its sibling in size and design.  This building was torn-down in 1967 to be replaced with an ugly, Brutalist hotel of the same name.

A series of monumental cast iron gas lamps adorn the exterior of the Hotel Russell, shown above.  Below you can see the extraordinary sculpting of the bases—a tangle of sleeping children, holding-up the lantern.


Detail of Bases of Cast Iron Gas Lanterns Before the Hotel Russell, Bloomsbury, London (LEO Design)


One of Bloomsbury's most important institutions—love it or hate it—is the British Museum, the largest museum of human history in the world (with over eight million works).  It presents all subjects of mankind's art and invention, including some items which other countries want returned (principally the Rosetta Stone of Egypt and the Elgin Marbles of Greece).  I will not weigh-in on the propriety of its holdings but I will say this: If you love museums, as I love museums, you will adore the British Museum.

This museum was the first of its kind, a product of The Age of Enlightenment.  It was built around the private collection of Eighteenth Century physician-collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).  Its mission was the celebration of human knowledge, creation and achievement—and it was publicly-owned (not by a church or a monarch).  But much of the original collection (and subsequent acquisitions) benefitted from the (now) contentious industry of British empire and colonialism.  This very dynamic accounts for the museum's incomparable collection today.  Over four million people a year (from all over the world) visit the museum to experience this rich collection of beautifully-curated objects (from all over the world).


Neoclassical Greek Façade of the British Museum, Bloomsbury, London (LEO Design)


Shown above is the British Museum's Neoclassical façade, built in the Greek manner.


Rows of Heavy Cast Iron Decorative Columns Encircling the British Museum, Bloomsbury, London (LEO Design)


Surrounding the museum's perimeter is a fence composed of hundreds (thousands?) of substantial, decorative cast iron columns.  I have always marveled at (and been inspired by) that brief period during the Industrial Revolution when new and modern mass-production techniques were used to create high-quality, well-designed items en masse. Once an excellent model is sculpted, workers could produce infinite quantities of duplicate beautiful objects.  Any large investment in the set-up (like sculpting the original model) would be amortized over the hundreds (or thousands) of subsequent castings.


Twilight and Uplight on an Edwardian Building, Bloomsbury, London (LEO Design)


As twilight descends, some of London's wonderful uplight began to dance off of her buildings—like this Edwardian gem in Bloomsbury (near Holborn), now a boutique hotel called L'Oscar.

More from London tomorrow and in the days to come.


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