Art Deco in Harpenden
A heritage to be cherished
Jean Gardner has a long-standing interest in domestic architecture. Her book ‘Houses of the Art Deco years’ was published by Braiswick (an imprint of Catherine Aldous Designs) in 2004 at £9.50. This drew on examples throughout the UK. In her recent survey of Art Deco in Harpenden Jean has been alarmed to find a number of houses have either been demolished or refurbished, thereby losing their distinctive features.
All photos were taken by Jean Gardner in 2019/2020
Harpenden is not thought of as an Art Deco area but most of the features of that time can be found somewhere in the town. Art Deco is now established as an historic period in its own right peaking between the two world wars. The term comes from an exhibition in Paris in 1925 when designers from all over the world gathered to show new ideas for decorative arts. The main influences were Moorish, Aztec and Japanese art followed by nautical from the great Atlantic liners and Egyptian reflecting the interest in the tomb of Tutenkhamen. Symmetry and asymmetry vied for supremacy. Colours were bold and designs geometric. Art Deco conjures up visions of New York or Miami but ripples of these styles spread throughout the western world down to the smallest towns and Harpenden has its share.
Architects were divided between those who favoured the clean lines of Modernism and the majority who re-worked traditional styles. At the time buyers in the first owner occupier boom were cautious. Modernism was too big a risk for most people. The speculative builders answer was to mix styles without restraint to please all prospective buyers.
Doors and Porches
The entrance was the focal point of houses built during the Art Deco period. A porch drew attention to the door and provided welcome shelter for visitors. The Moorish influence prevailed. For centuries the dark archways piercing the white walls of Mediterranean houses have been an invitation to enter. Arches range from simple semi-circles through to keyholes and have one or more orders of brickwork around them some running down to the ground others just over the curved section. Many have a central keystone which dates back to Classical times. Nowhere was immune from the arch there are even tiny ones above the drainpipes on Bowers Parade.
The easiest way to identify a house built during the Art Deco period is by the windows. Bay windows were synonymous with the era. The glazed arcs were meant to catch every last vestige of daylight but although the casements were clear the fanlights would often contain traditional stained glass thus obscuring the light. Speculative builders often placed two panes of glass at right angles projecting oriel fashion taking up a minimum of wall space but allowing the maximum of light. Corner windows became popular after the development of metal window frames by Francis Crittall in the mid-twenties. Dozens of different shapes and sizes were possible using mass production techniques. Nautical influences appeared with the sweeping curves of a ship’s bridge translated as ‘Suntrap windows’ in thousands of properties regardless of the style of the building. There were some in Station Road but they have been replaced by geometric plastic frames.
Often they were complemented by portholes varying from circular to square, diamond and hexagonal shapes and found singly, in pairs, or occasionally as foursomes. Some featured four keystones representing the ropes around a nautical lifebelt; others had stained glass motifs varying from a single tulip to a full blown galleon. Overstone Road has plenty: some original and some replicas. It’s hard to believe that the houses in the road were built with horses pulling wagons loaded with building materials along rails. In contrast traditional leaded lights were used in Mock Tudor houses but the windows themselves were much larger as they were not restricted by the vertical beams of the medieval buildings.
Mock Tudor was the most popular choice of home buyers at the time. The style conjured up traditional rural living combined with modern conveniences. Locally Mock Tudor ranged from architect designed houses to speculative estates such as in the Highfield Avenue/Piggottshill area with tacked-on timbers. ‘Tudor style’ is generally applied to any house incorporating wooden beams. Such beams featured on many otherwise nondescript houses to give a veneer of tradition. They ranged from one or two on a gable to the entire upper floor and occasionally the whole house. Harpenden has some fine specimens of Mock Tudor in West Common Way built by Jarvis.
Sun Lane has a house with massive timbers below the windows reflecting the days when England was great and its galleons ruled the seas. Another is in the Wealden style familiar in Kent. As bricks came into fashion in the 16th century owners had replaced the wattle and daub between the beams with bricks. Where the beams were close together they simply inserted the bricks in diagonal patterns reflected by the designs we can see today. Southdown has an impressive Mock Tudor porch in the centre of a shopping parade featuring decorative brickwork but it’s flanked by relatively plain buildings.
Decorative brickwork was the easiest way to distinguish one pair of houses from the next on estates of otherwise identical houses. The difference could be as little as a single tile to large sections of the facade. In the Westfield Road area some houses have just four tiles set in the render between the upper and lower windows.
One of the most attractive examples of brickwork is houses in Lyndhurst Drive where all the windows and doorways are outlined by bricks. Houses have different designs making them unique. Arches of decorative brickwork above windows were popular in the town. They can be see in Roundwood Park, Bowers Way where two brick arches are set in a white facade and on the Harpenden Arms. Jarvis builders used tiles on edge to form what can only be described as a bow over windows mainly around the Station Road area. Similar thin brick features come from as far away as Tozeur on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
Decorative brickwork gives emphasis to doors/porches. Moreton Place had several unique doorways contrasting sharply with the nautical style canopies above some of the doors. Only one original doorway remains and the last canopy is almost derelict.
Such canopies were common among Modernist properties which were the most conspicuous style of the Art Deco period. Its flat roofed geometric outlines, and smooth white walls broken by large areas of glass were plainly visible. In the town centre a pair of Modernist shops stands next to Waitrose.
The white walls, metal window frames, symmetry and flat roof all shout Modernism. The roof was intended for recreation and the access doorway is just visible. In complete contrast the chevrons of the central opening light of the middle window are pure Tudor.
Modernism encompassed the Jazz Age, the bold colours of which are reflected by the green roof tiles on a house in Topstreet Way known as the Dutch house. The Dutch were at the forefront of Modernism and manufactured millions of the green tiles. This house has a roof sweeping down to the ground floor behind a typical double height Dutch gable. There was a second green tiled Spanish style house a few doors along with an arched colonnade but that now has a red roof. In nearby Meadow Walk the green tiled roof on a house came about by accident. The line of the parapet above the upper windows reveals that it originally had a flat roof. Many years ago I visited the owners who were amazed to learn that the narrow stairs leading to the third floor master suite once opened onto the roof. The house was built in 1939 which was the first of three bad winters. The owner got tired of clearing snow from the roof which leaked badly. He added the green roof only to be told by the civil defence people to cover it up because the shining tiles might attract enemy aircraft.
West Common had some fine examples of Modernism, but most have been altered beyond recognition.
Roofs and chimneys
Colourful roof tiles in warm shades of red, orange and brown replaced slates which had fallen out of favour by the end of the First World War. Different shaped roofs were another way for speculative builders to give pairs of houses an individual look. The hipped roof was most common but others had gables, dormer windows, catslides and more. A catslide where the roof covered part of the ground floor was a medieval way of covering an outside staircase to do away with the need for a ladder inside. Tiny gablets reflect medieval dwellings where two timbered structures at right angles did not quite meet. A bungalow in Browning Road has a tiled turret, a style left over from Victorian days when Scottish baronial was in vogue. Chimneys often had a decorative brick or tiled trim. There’s even Tudor diaper brickwork on a chimney in Redbourn Lane.
Extra tall chimneys emulate those of cottages where they were intended to carry sparks away from the thatch.
The exotic metalwork of New York was too avant garde for Harpenden. The best piece was the grill above the Post Office in Station Road which disappeared during renovations in the 1970s. Two small Dutch gables remain above the entrances to the shop on the corner of Thomsons Close and metal animals guard the garden of a house in Roundwood Park. Balcony railings on Bowers Parade, 31 High Street and in Sun Lane are fairly plain. Horizontal railings were popular because they echoed the streamlined nautical effect. Sun and moon motifs beloved by Japanese artists were included in railings either in wrought iron or as silhouettes. Sun ray designs were common in garden gates but I have yet to find any remaining in the town.
The Englishman’s home was truly his castle. Metal chains between posts such as around Church Green defined the boundary of a property. They were simply a watered down version of a curtain wall with towers which surrounded a medieval castle. Most of those around front gardens in the town are brick pillars with lower brick walls between them.
The Art Deco period was a time of anything goes. Take a short walk along the High Street and you can see many of the features mentioned. Bowers Parade with miniature arches above the downpipe hoppers has many contemporary features. It even has a central plaque dated 1936 confirming that, like many other houses in the town, it was built in the Art Deco Period.
Ed. We hope this page will encourage readers to walk round Harpenden, looking at the houses dating from the 1920s and 1930s and spot many more examples. Below are more of Jean’s illustrations, section by section.
More doors and porches
Crazy paving between the bay windows. oriel windows, 86-88 Station Road
Oriel windows. Dalkeith Road
Roofs and Chimneys
Metalwork on balconies
We hope you will enjoy finding these, and more examples of Art Deco features around Harpenden.