Decision to sell off historic buildings for new Town Hall prompts demolition fears

Art Deco-style Cheviot House
Pretty ‘vacant’: Art Deco-style Cheviot House. Photograph: Google Streetview

Fears of demolitions and loss of local heritage have been sparked by Tower Hamlets Council’s decision to sell at least five buildings to fund the renovation of a new town hall in Whitechapel.

The buildings to be put up for sale include Art Deco-style Cheviot House on Commercial Road and the Victorian Southern Grove Workhouse in Mile End.

Campaigners are concerned that there is nothing to prevent developers completely demolishing both buildings following a sale and using the land for new developments.

The Twentieth Century Society, a heritage organisation, has described Cheviot House as being “in an extremely vulnerable position” after the decision to sell it.

“If they carry on picking off all these sites one by one then we will end up with none left and history just disappears,” said Lucy Rogers, a Columbia Road resident and campaigner. “I don’t think anyone thinks that is a good idea.”

Tom Ridge, a heritage campaigner and former teacher, said: “Because Cheviot House is a good, well built and substantial historic building which will not need reinforcement for residential use, its considerable embodied energy should be retained.”

A Tower Hamlets council spokesperson said: “Cheviot House and Southern Grove have stood vacant or partially vacant for some years, whilst running up bills to ensure their safety and security.

“The property disposals were considered in order to save residents money, and considered separately from the proposal to use their receipts to for the Civic Centre project [sic].

“Development on these sites will be expected to meet the council’s planning policies.”

Asked whether it would take any steps to ensure the buildings were not demolished, such as including conditions in the contracts of sale, the Council refused to comment further.

Southern Grove Workhouse was designed by architect Richard Robert Long in 1871. Its site just off Mile End Road has been concealed behind hoardings for some time.

Cheviot House, a tall, white, Art Deco-style building at the corner of Commercial Road and Philpot Street, was built in the 1930s, with its upper floors used for manufacturing in a rare example of a multi-storey “flatted factory”.

Designed by architect GG Winbourne for East End cloth merchants Kornberg & Segal Ltd in 1937, the building was used as council offices from the 1950s but is now described as “vacant” by the council.

Property guardians – who inhabit buildings without having tenancies, in exchange for low rents – have lived in Cheviot House for several years.

An application to have Cheviot House listed was made but on 8 March Historic England recommend it not be listed.

In support of the listing application, the Twentieth Century Society said: “Cheviot House is a striking example of a smart and commercial inter-war architecture.

“The loss of Cheviot House would be a huge blow to the character of the local area and its history”.

The decision to sell and to ring-fence the money for the new “civic centre” on the site of the old Royal London Hospital was taken at a cabinet meeting in November.

The other buildings to be sold by the Council to fund the new town hall are Jack Dash House, the LEB building and Albert Jacob House.

Alternative memorials to Jack Dash and Albert Jacob are to be considered.

This article was updated at 1:27pm on 11 April, clarifying the application to list Cheviot House had been rejected.

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