By Anne Locker, Library and Archives Manager

What do Senate House, Piccadilly Circus underground station and Savoy Place have in common? They are all buildings that were designed (or redesigned) by the architect Charles Holden in the mid-twentieth century.

The original Savoy Place, now the London home of the IET, was designed by Stephen Salter and H Percy Adams in 1886. It had a red brick and Portland stone frontage, and was described thus in the 1957 journal:

“a most competent example of late Victorian architecture … Not everyone like the pediments on the wings, but few would disagree that the building as a whole adds a touch of distinction to the rather unsatisfactory set of structures that now flank Victoria Embankment Gardens between Waterloo and Charing Cross bridges.”

Journal of the IEE, May 1957
Savoy Place by A Bryett 1939
Savoy Place painted by A Bryett, 1939

In the 1950s, the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the IET) needed more space. The lecture theatre, designed in 1909, was not big enough for the most popular events, and there was no large reception room. The Institution had three options:

  • Move to a new site and build a new building
  • Build a new building on the old site
  • Extend the current building by 10% (which was allowed under planning laws)

All these options ran into problems. Rising prices meant that there was not enough money for options 1 and 2, and a gloomy report on the building’s foundations ruled out option 3. In 1957, a new idea was proposed: to redesign the front of the building, add a third floor and solve the problem of the lecture theatre.

Savoy Place interior of lecture theatre 1930s
Savoy Place lecture theatre, photograph taken in the 1930s

The new exterior design for Savoy Place can be seen in this architect’s drawing by the firm Adams, Holden and Pearson from 1957. The original entrance was redesigned and the building extended at the front.

Drawing of Savoy Place reconstruction, Adams Holden and Pearson 1957
Drawing of the proposed reconstruction of Savoy Place, Adams, Holden & Pearson, August 1957

Work on the inside of the building focused on the public rooms. A new reception room and kitchen was built on the third floor. In the lecture theatre, the original wooden bench seating was replaced with tip-up seats and two galleries were added on each side. A new meeting room (the Faraday Room) was built to the left of the theatre, with an ingenious sliding partition to accommodate even bigger audiences, with its own audio feed and screen.

Plan showing proposed Savoy Place works, Journal of the IEE October 1957
Plan showing proposed works on the ground floor of Savoy Place, IEE Journal October 1957

The works were carried out between 1958 and 1960. Photographs in the Archives show the extent of the works carried out in the lecture theatre: all the paneling and the floor has been removed, and you can see down into the basement.

Photograph showing works in the lecture theatre c 1959
Photograph showing works in the Savoy Place lecture theatre c 1959

The new building was described in the October 1960 edition of the IEE’s Journal. The article focuses on the changes to the lecture theatre, which was brought up to date with the latest in audio-visual technology. There was a new projection room, “with full provision for cinematograph and television equipment”. Originally, the unfortunate projectionist sat in “a tiny cell in the wall thickness over the middle door.” There was a new ceiling to improve acoustics and a projection screen – plus a permanent blackboard – behind the stage. This was covered by a tapestry showing the IEE’s coat of arms when not in use.

Savoy Place painted by Geoffrey Fletcher 1987
Savoy Place painted by Geoffrey Fletcher, 1987

The new building was a success. According to the President, it met the Institution’s “aesthetic obligations” as the tenant of a building in such a prominent position on the river. And it meant that members could enjoy the latest technology at popular lectures and events. The redesign would stand, with small additions, for over fifty years before the next major refurbishment, which was completed in 2015.