The Oysterhouse Lighthouse, Kings Cross
A lighthouse? In Kings Cross? Surely not!
(Photos/words © urban75, Otober 2007, updated November 2008)
In desperate need of a facelift and quietly rotting away is this remarkable building on Gray's Inn Road, right next to Kings Cross railway station.
From street level there's nothing unusual to see, although the Fish and Chip shop has been closed for years.
Stuck right on top of the building is what looks like a lighthouse, complete with a wrought iron balcony for gazing out over the sea of, err, humanity at Kings Cross.
Looking closer, you can see the level of decay, with two sections of railing already fallen away.
The story is that the building originally served as an oyster house - oysters being the fast food of the day - with eateries often being marked by a lighthouses, much like McDonalds (spit!) uses the familiar Golden Arches to catch the eye of hungry punters.
Thing is, if the lighthouse motif was used as a commonly recognisable symbol for snack-seekers, how come no others survive?
Was it an Oyster House?
It seems no one knows for sure, but there's no shortage of opinions.
In 'Eccentric Britain', by Benedict le Vay, the author comments about the structure: "Some claim it was once a helter-skelter tower but it would have been impossibly, and improbably, moved up there.
Inspections of the interior, say Camden Council, show that it can't have been a clocktower or a camera obscura. Obscurer are its origins indeed, and maybe it was a totally useless architectural flourish."
The February 2000 newsletter of the Greater London Industrial Society offers this insight:
"To the south east of King's Cross main-line railway station on top of a narrow building, sometimes referred to as the flatiron building (probably with North American examples in mind), stands an architectural folly some people think of as a windmill or lighthouse. It has looked much as it does today since 1884 but its date of building and original purpose are unknown.
A recent excellent article by David Hayes in Camden History Review (Vol 23) attempts to unravel the mystery but comes to no definite conclusions. Apparently GLIAS visited the 'lighthouse' in 1984 but there is no reference to this in the index to the GLIAS newsletter. Does anyone remember taking part? The official view used to be that the 'lighthouse' was an advertising feature intended to promote Netten's oyster bar which was immediately beneath on the ground floor. This is now shown to be unlikely."
Muddying the waters further, a poster on our bulletin board tracked down a similar looking lighthouse structure in Walthamstow, north London - but this time it was on top of a Methodist church with ne'er an oyster in sight!
Read the full story here: Lighthouse Methodist Church
The building - appropriately enough - apparently belongs to P&O (that's the shipping line which regales under the full name of The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company).
The roof in a rum old state.
It seems that redevelopment/restoration of the building has stalled in an unpleasant mess of legal issues, freehold rights, access issues, battles with the Local Authority over new building restrictions, social housing implications etc.
Although there's no denying that you couldn't wish for a more central building, its close proximity to the daily grime of Kings Cross and the endless roar of traffic outside may not please well-heeled executive flat seekers looking for a new 'lifestyle choice.'
An architectural practice called Richard Griffiths has been charged with redeveloping the area, so it's already spawned a suitably gentrification-friendly, nom-de-plume, 'The Regent's Quarter.'
According to their diagrams, the 'Lighthouse Block' will be retained and restored as the area goes 'vibrant', although there's no mention of when this is actually going to happen.
Discussion of the Kings Cross development on our bulletin boards:
Kings X Redevelopment: Community Politics & Transport
Community activist site
Kings Cross Local Environment
UPDATED PHOTOS, NOV 2008
The old Oyster House in the rain, June 2003.
Oyster House, July 2003.
A vintage view of the Lighthouse taken from the fabulous 1955 Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers (pic and additional research courtesy of: metblogs)
UPDATE: APRIL 2009
"Latitude Architects has won planning permission from Camden Council for a £13 million internal reconstruction of the grade II listed Lighthouse Building in King's Cross, London.
The building, which formerly housed offices and shops at ground level, has been empty for 20 years and has appeared on English Heritage's buildings at risk register.
Latitude's scheme retains the building's listed facade and creates 2,000sq m of offices, with 900sq m of retail and restaurant space on the ground floor.
A new stepped and vaulted zinc roof will accommodate a new floor for the building, and has led to the design being called a 'hunchback armadillo'.
Developers UK Real Estate, Latitude and The London Planning Practice have been negotiating with English Heritage and Camden Council for more than 18 months to develop the design."
Discussion on the Kings Cross Lighthouse
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