Bid to protect ‘highly significant’ Finchley office building with link to wartime Jewish refugee

Alexander House is set to be redeveloped but the Twentieth Century Society is now trying to save it, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Alexandra House, Finchley (credit Mark Fineberg)
Alexandra House, Finchley (credit Mark Fineberg)

Efforts are underway to preserve a Finchley office building after research uncovered links to Jewish refugee history and a “highly significant” mural by an Indian artist.

Alexander House, a 1950s-built office block in Shakespeare Road could be demolished to make way for a twelve-storey hotel if developer One Shakespeare’s proposals for the site are approved by Barnet Council.

The plans describe the block as a “low-quality office building” that “contributes very little to the urban design of the surrounding area”.

But the Twentieth Century Society has now applied to Historic England to have the building nationally listed for its “highly significant artwork” and “international historic links” with 20th Century Jewish refugees and the Dutch cigar trade. It also wants Barnet Council to treat it as a non-designated heritage asset for the purpose of the planning application.

The society, which focuses on preserving 20th Century architecture, says in its listing application that the building was built during the 1950s by Kurt Weinberg, the son of a German tobacco factory owner whose property was confiscated by the Nazis.

It says Weinberg came to London in 1939 on the Kindertransport – a programme to rescue Jewish children from Nazi-controlled territory before the beginning of the Second World War – and commissioned Alexander House as the base of the Anglo-Dutch Cigar Company.

Together with his wife Charlotte, he later developed Nansen Village in North Finchley, a non-profit housing development providing homes for married international postgraduate students facing housing difficulties.

According to the society’s research, the building also contains a mural designed by Avinash Chandra (1931-91), a leading twentieth-century artist who was born in Shimla, India, and lived in Golders Green from 1956.

The society says: “This is a major piece of mural art and its preservation is essential to record the importance of the Indian British artwork connection.”

Clare Price, head of casework at the society, said: “The Twentieth Century Society are thrilled to have discovered the rich history and fabulous artwork hidden in this little building in Finchley.

“Having been taken by its bright, Festival of Britain-style architecture, we were amazed at how the story has unfolded here: uncovering Alexander House’s fascinating historical connection with the Weinberg family (already well-known local heroes) through to the revelation that it houses an internationally significant mural by Avinash Chandra.”

Nationally listed buildings have extra legal protection, and special planning permission is needed to make changes to them. Local heritage assets can still be demolished but their value to the community must be considered during the planning process.

According to the council’s website, the local heritage list is updated every three years. The latest additions to the list were approved in December last year.

The mural at Alexandra House, by Avinash Chandra (credit Mark Fineberg)
The mural at Alexandra House, made by Avinash Chandra (credit Mark Fineberg)

Local architect Mark Fineberg hopes the building can be saved – or, if that is not possible, for the mural to be removed, salvaged, conditioned and reincorporated into the new building.

He said: “[The architecture] is a very under-appreciated genre. Some people love it and some people don’t get it. A lot of people walk past that building and don’t give it a second thought.

“In general terms, it is ‘Thunderbirds-Gerry Anderson architecture’ – Festival of Britain-meets-Constructivist.

“I have always loved it. It has always been a real splash of colour when there was not much around in that era of post-war austerity just before psychedelia. It is no particular genre but a plucky building that is technically very well made.

“It is not just the material – it is the context and social context that makes it significant. Abbey Road zebra crossing is listed because of its social significance.

“For me, this is a really important coming together of an emigre who has arrived in this country and with the funding from the family business left behind re-established the cigar company in Finchley […] here is a major civic champion.

“I recognise it is not ‘all or nothing’, but I just wanted to alert people to what this means. It is a cultural asset which has historical resonance and significance for Finchley.”

One Shakespeare has been approached for comment via its planning agent. Barnet Council was also approached for comment.

Update (29th August):

A spokesperson for the development team said: “We know the mural is locally significant and we are eager to do our part in maintaining this important piece of local artwork.

“We will achieve this by carefully transferring it from the current position to the new hotel lobby. This will ensure the mural is preserved and protected, with the added benefit that it can be viewed by local people and visitors to the hotel.

“We have worked closely with local stakeholders to refine the proposals for the Alexander House and we welcome any further questions they may have for us to help reassure them regarding our proposals.”

This article has been amended to clarify that the Twentieth Century Society is seeking a national listing for the building from Historic England.

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