Ever feel curious about various historic buildings around London? Want to take a peek inside? The annual Open House Festival is your chance. Once a year, visitors can take a look through a large number of buildings not usually open to the public. The types of buildings available include architecturally significant modern buildings, livery buildings, iconic landmarks, private businesses and public buildings. Entry to extremely popular buildings such as 10 Downing Street and the BT Tower are by ballot.
This festival tends to focus the open houses on the weekends. It’s worth to clear your schedule so you can drop in at a number of these places. There are also guided tours and talks by the architect but these get booked out quickly. This festival is facilitated by the many volunteers who act as ushers and manage the curious public. It would not be possible without their contributions.
Encircled and dwarfed by tall, modern, new-build apartments is the unassuming red-brick exterior of the Fitzrovia Chapel. The interior is a hidden gem in London. It’s stunning and full of beautifully restored marble and mosaics. This chapel used to be part of the Middlesex Hospital but now the hospital has been demolished and replaced by modern buildings but this gorgeous chapel remains.
Many times we have walked past the imposing Art Deco exterior of the Freemasons Hall and wondered at what goes on within. We had to take a peek inside at the Art Deco architecture, elaborate ceiling mosaics and the ornate rooms. There were plenty of Freemasons loitering around in their beaded aprons ready to answer any questions.
Livery buildings are the headquarters of various trade associations and guilds. Some of these trades are historic and some trades are no longer relevant. Nevertheless, many are housed in historic buildings and contain interesting artifacts. Many of these guilds use their wealth in charitable giving, for example to support students studying in a relevant trade. Examples of livery buildings we visited included that of the founders (metal casters and melters), coopers (barrel and cask makers) and The Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
In a similar vein to the liveries, are the four inns of court which is a professional association for barristers. As part of the Open House Festival, we visited 2 of these, Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn. These associations provide libraries, canteen facilities, education and training for barristers as well as space for barristers’ chambers. These inns of court are housed in incredibly historic buildings in the prime heart of London. It was quite shocking to walk around the massive, well-kept gardens of the Middle Temple knowing that this massive expanse of greenery exists in the very (expensive) heart of London and for most of the year, only barristers can enjoy it!
Not far from the Middle Temple is Two Temple Place. This building is from the 1890s but is built in the Gothic style for the wealthy American businessman, William Waldorf Astor. Astor used this building as his residence and office.
Unfortunately, photos were prohibited in the exquisite theatre of the Royal Opera House (ROH). The guided tour as part of the Open House Festival was fascinating. There is a royal box where royals would sit, less to enjoy the opera and more to be seen by the public. Behind the royal box is a room where royalty can take meals, rest or leave discretely. The stairs leading from the royal box has a very low handrail as this was designed for Queen Victoria who was of petite stature. The seats in the theatre are covered with thick red velvet as this absorbs sound in a similar way to a human body. This enables the production crew to check the sound levels in the theatre even whilst empty.
The buildings we could access this year was driven by availability. Bookings for viewings and slots for guided tours were snapped up so quickly that we missed out. The learning for next year is to secure our spots as soon as they are made available. We were too slow this year and missed out on many interesting buildings. Next year, we will try to have a peek at more modern architectural public and private buildings.
Is there a building near you that you have always been curious to look inside?