Joe Levy and the 1960s Euston office boom

From The Making of Modern London, by Gavin Weightman and Steve Humphries:

While the 1950s had laid the foundations of a fundamental change in the fabric of London’s offices, it was only in the Sixties that it all really came to fruition. Offices often took several years to complete and, as time went by, they were built higher and higher, so that by about 1962 Londoners were becoming aware of the extent of the transformation of their city’s skyline. In that year, for example, giant offices like the Shell Centre on the South Bank and the Vickers Tower on Millbank – both almost 400 feet high – were completed.

Also at this time, there was another upsurge in the need for offices in London. Multinationals, especially booming oil companies, were expanding their operations in the capital and banks were prospering as a result of the development of currencies like the Eurodollar, attracting even more international money into the City. But the stock of bomb sites and derelict buildings cleared and built on in the 1950s was now almost exhausted. So property developers began buying up Victorian offices, warehouses, churches and terraced houses, some of them in reasonable condition, and demolishing them to make way for new offices.

During this mania for modernising, almost every celebrated building in London came under threat from one scheme or another. For example, there were plans to demolish the Houses of Parliament, St Pancras Station and the whole of the southern half of Whitehall, including the Foreign Office.

The early 1960s, then, were the era of “monster schemes” in which many old buildings would be bulldozed to make space for huge office developments. Developers were able to plan ambitious schemes like these because they were now rich men with massive reserves of capital to draw on. Joe Levy, for example, was a millionaire as a result of property deals, and his wealth gave him enormous power. His Euston Centre was typical of the new type of development: he bought up properties and parcels of land in the Euston Square area in about 400 separate deals in the 1950s and early Sixties, keeping the whole operation secret. If he had made his plans public, the price of the remaining property he wanted to buy would have spiralled, although Levy was prepared to pay way over the odds for the last few properties to needed to complete the jigsaw of land required. He recalled:

I’d spend more than ten years buying up all the land I needed. I had several million pounds tied up in it, and it came to the point where there was one more house I needed to complete it. I think it was a Cypriot who owned it. It was a run-down old place worth next to nothing, but he was holding out for as much as he could get. The agent that was working for me made him some offers and the price went up and up, but still he didn’t want to know. So, one cold morning, I went down to see him myself. He refused to do a deal to start with but I said, “There’s no point in refusing because the council will buy it compulsorily and then you’ll get next to nothing”. We came to an agreement: I would give him £50,000. He wanted cash and all the documentation done immediately. I said yes, and when it was done I asked, “Have I made you a happy man?” He said, “Yes, I’m happy now.” He was delighted with the deal, so I said, “Now I’m going to tell you something that will make you very unhappy. If you hadn’t sold to me now, I needed your home so badly I might have paid you a quarter of a million pounds for it”.

By 1963 Levy had bought up the complete proposed site and the bulldozers moved in. The residential area of Euston Square was transformed into the Euston Centre, a mixed development containing mostly offices and shops, the centrepiece of which was a high-rise office block. Home to London’s Capital Radio, this was to become the single most profitable office development in the world.

The LCC [London County Council] did little or nothing to control these new office developments. Deals were done with developers, who in return would give the LCC small plots of land for road-widening schemes, which the office boom and the subsequent increase in commuter traffic were making very urgent. In any case, the LCC was still broadly sympathetic to the idea of clean-sweep planning and often helped large developers by making compulsory purchase orders, or by letting the property bought by developers remain unoccupied and rehousing some of the displaced residents.

There’s not much need for commentary from me except, perhaps, to ask plus ça change?

The Making of Modern London is a very fine book. Buy it here.

 

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