The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Sutton House: ‘the Harrods of pawnbroking’

Distinctively marked by the three pawnbroker’s gilded spheres, a symbol probably originating from the balls on the Medici coat of arms and generally adopted in England in the mid-C18, Sutton House quietly tells its 75-year history on its site at 156–158 Victoria Street, in Westminster. At the very top of the elevation one can read the year of the building’s erection, ‘1935’, and, further down, the inscription ‘T M Sutton Ltd’ reveals the building’s long association with a high-class international establishment and one of London’s oldest pawnbrokers —‘the Harrods of pawnbroking’, as noted in a recent article in the Daily Mail.

Faced in dark red brick and Portland stone with grey brick dressings, the top five floors of the building’s facade are organized symmetrically in three bays. On the ground floor, the shop front’s facetted bronze stallrisers, black granite plinth, and etched glass transom lights with a stylised Vitruvian scroll pattern are nicely detailed and well preserved.

The entrance to the offices is to the left, through a panelled door. In the interior, the ground floor is particularly interesting as most of the shop fittings survive along with three privacy booths at the rear. More original features survive both in the basement and on the upper floors too.

Put forward for spot-listing by the Society in April 2008, following information about proposals for its
demolition being submitted as part of the ‘Victoria Transport Interchange 2’ scheme, the building was eventually listed at Grade II less than a year ago, in August 2009. Designed by architect Reginald W Lone, who mainly designed industrial buildings, English Heritage’s assessment of Sutton House noted its ‘striking and well-detailed Moderne facade’ and ‘good, intact, shop front’. That a pawnbrokers shop would receive so much architectural attention makes Sutton House truly exceptional. That a ‘wealth of interior fittings’ survives further qualifies this as a rare case among inter-war commercial buildings, whereas the privacy booths are possibly unique. As a purpose-built pawnbroker’s shop and pledge offices built in 1934–35, and therefore marking a ‘fact of everyday life… in the inter-war depression years’, Sutton House was listed for its historic interest too.

The listing of Sutton House was naturally welcomed by the Society. As a decision made after the current redevelopment scheme was submitted for planning permission, we hoped this offered
some guarantee for the retention of the building.

Examples of successful redevelopment cases in which spot-listed buildings were retained and incorporated as integral parts of the new schemes are not lacking. No. 16 at St Martin’s Le Grand, in the City of London, is such an example. The 1925 office building by Leo Sylvester Sullivan was spot-listed at Grade II in 1989 whilst a redevelopment scheme had been proposed for an area including its site. The buildings by Gunton and Gunton to either side were indeed redeveloped, yet the listed building was retained.

Despite such positive precedents, the survival of Sutton House is at present uncertain. Sadly, the recognition of the architectural and historic interest of the building has not deterred the developer from submitting a listed building consent demolition application, arguing that its proposals would bring substantial community benefits which would justify the loss of this rare heritage asset.

The Society believes that a design for the redevelopment of the site should be able to accommodate that which is of architectural value, which adds to the sense of distinctiveness of the area and which serves as a memory of the development of that area. The opening paragraph of the Planning Policy Guidance for the Historic Environment (PPG15) clearly stresses how it is the actual ‘presence’ of the ‘physical survivals of our past’ that ‘adds to the quality of our lives, by enhancing the familiar and cherished local scene and sustaining the sense of local distinctiveness which is so important an aspect of the character and appearance of our towns, villages and countryside’.

Trustees and staff of the Society visited Sutton House in early March 2010. We were very pleased to see the good condition in which original features survive to date. As the visit took place during working hours, we were able to get a strong feel of the building’s continuing history. From reinforced safe doors to front shop fittings and privacy booths in the rear, historical references were merged into lively present-day activities. Still occupied by the same firm, three quarters of a century since its erection, Sutton House is far from a museum piece. The continuity of its use makes the building part of
the city’s living history and adds a new dimension to the visual contribution to the cityscape that its physical presence marks.

The developer has offered to have the building recorded, should the proposed demolition of Sutton house be granted permission, and the Society understands that English Heritage is investigating options for the dismantling of the building and its potential re-erection elsewhere. We do not consider this to be an acceptable solution, or even to offer any significant mitigation. The building’s survival in good condition makes it all the more precious and we strongly believe that this needs to be safeguarded for future generations.

What is more, the remarkably recent date of its listing—and therefore its compliance with the most up-to-date listing criteria—makes this a case that could set a very dangerous precedent. English Heritage has previously successfully argued for call-in when relocation has been offered, and has argued cogently against this on the grounds of damage and loss of historic fabric as well as loss of context (e.g. Old Farmhouse at Lodge Farm, Hollington, Derbyshire). As C20 is going to press (April 2010), the future of Sutton House remains uncertain. English Heritage is taking the case to its London Advisory Committee on 25 March, before it lets Westminster City Council know its position and a decision is made on the listed building consent application currently pending consideration. We have already written to Westminster City Council and urged English Heritage to direct refusal. I am hoping to have happy news to report—but will I?

Christina Malathouni