Just to set things straight from the start, the Café Matthiae was not your local greasy spoon. This café was more in the continental tradition with a reputation of having specialist pastries and cakes within a venue that you went to in order to see and be seen. It was place to go to. And if you didn’t want to rent the ballroom for your event the catering service would bring the popular delicacies to your home. There was the bakery, the shop, the banquet hall and a ballroom. The pastries were famous and there was no better place to go to. A local speciality was called the “Maid of Honour”.
If you turn right in front of the Richmond Station and head towards Kew you will not be able to overlook the fabulous Art Deco building that appears frozen in time. The cobalt blue and white façade heralds a luxurious past when smart black delivery vans were sent our all over the borough to provide the sandwiches for the workers’ elevenses.
Every detail has been styled to complement the decorative scheme. The entrance canopy to the banquet hall and ballroom is picked out in bands of chrome with its smart modern lettering to match set over a blue vitralite background. There are three large plate-glass windows that advertise the shop’s specialities within the cobalt, frosted and textured, leaded glass work above their large expanse of glazing. The black granite base has iridescent blue flecks and the discreet chrome art deco air vents are still there as well. Positioned high on the building’s frontage and in good view of those travelling below on the busy street, the shop clock is part of this pristine composition with a square white face and blue signage. No detail has been left out and everything is still in place. On the inside there is the original wood panelling, Art Deco lighting and even a dumb waiter. Only the Lloyd Loom chairs and square glass topped tables have disappeared. Until about six months ago three white tiered wedding cakes stood in one of the shop windows: a bit dusty but very ornate with tiny silver balls to set off the frosting. Someone was offended by their steadfastness and the health department had them removed.
In December the building was sold off, and if we are to believe the sales particulars of the accommodation for lease, our sleeping beauty is soon to experience a rude awakening if English Heritage does not act quickly. It would be a real shame if this rare intact 1930’s café were stripped of its fine representative interior spaces in order to provide the standard industrial shell condition on offer now to the first bidder.
We have jump started Richmond Council’s Conservation Team and the local amenity societies, who have enthusiastically embraced the cause to save this glamorous establishment. The Matthiae Café should be added to the short list of moderne buildings of Richmond that are of particular historic and architectural merit; for example the Excellent Art Deco Odeon Cinema and Lichfield Court.
I know that the ‘heritage industry’ is sometimes accused of wanting to preserve buildings – if not in the white icing mentioned above – but more usually in aspic. But we often need to save buildings from the vandalism of new development. The economic argument is never far away when our work is to be criticized as standing in the way of progress. For an empty building the use of which is no longer viable, why do we so often oppose adaptation to suit a new function? Who cares about some original interior fixtures and fittings? The café closed in 2001 and we have so many other shops and restaurants, what’s wrong with turning the building into office space or flats if that’s what sells now?
If there is any place that an upmarket eating establishment with shop at street level would be viable, it is here. We are after all only a five minute walk away from Richmond Station. There are specialist shops on the other side of the road and some excellent restaurants that have already marked this area out for those with a discerning palate and the wallet sized to match. Someone has already been whispering into Conran’s ear I have been told. That would be ideal. So sweep out the dusty cobwebs, bring back those Lloyd Loom chairs, gently kiss our sleeping beauty awake and put some new cakes into the window.