Architect's proposed front elevation, IMechE by Basil Slade

ONE BIRDCAGE WALK

In May 1899, the current home of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers was opened. The Institution began not in London, but in Birmingham in 1847.  By the 1870s the Institution decided to move to London. They had been holding meetings in London since 1851 (the year of the Great Exhibition) and decided that it was time to move south. They’d be closer to parliament for lobbying, and near other engineers’ offices.

From 1877 to 1899 they rented at 10 Victoria Chambers in Westminster, but the need for the creation of a permanent headquarters became apparent. Then President, Alexander Kennedy, found a potential site on Storey’s Gate. The site faced St James’ Park, and a row of houses there were to be pulled down, leaving a prime piece of land. It was a perfect location for the Institution, and they paid £9,974.7s.6d for the 5,775 square feet plot of land. The Institution also bought the land on which the Storey’s Gate tavern stood, and some members proposed that the pub was kept on for use by the institution– but it was decided that engineers had no business running a pub.

The architect appointed to design the building was Basil Slade. However, his first designs were not for an engineering headquarters. The building had originally been intended by one Major J.A.S Cunningham as a block of luxury flats. Slade reworked a lot of the features from these original flat plans to suit the new purpose – which could be one of the reasons for the grandness of our marble hall! The building is in Portland Stone – a style popular at the time, and known as ‘Queen Anne’ or ‘streaky bacon’ due to the juxtaposition of red and white brick.

The internal design and features of the building were also impressive. The lecture hall – with its custom made furnishing designed by William Henry Maw – featured seating which could be adjusted to the size and shape of an event, a natural light supplied by a ceiling dome (this is still visible in the library) and electrical lamps. The lecture theatre also featured a 54 inch fan for ventilation.

Along with the fan and electrical lamps, the building was also home to a number of other state-of-the-art innovations of the time. It had an electrical passenger elevator, provided by the Ortis elevator company. This particular model also had the added bonus of containing a box beneath for moving coals to fireplaces on the higher floors. A Synchronome master clock controlled all of the house time pieces – ensuring they were all correct and in sync. Along with these technological developments, the Institution also had one of the first telephones – they were not commonplace for most offices at the time.

In the early 1910’s, the Institution bought up more land to create a new wing. One Birdcage Walk is actually both numbers 1 and 3 Birdcage walk. This new wing was designed by James Miller, at the same time he also remodelled the inside of the building. The Institution was rapidly expanding and needed the extra office space. Miller remained the architect to the Institution for more than 30 years. 117 years later, One Birdcage Walk is still home to the Institution.

You can view Slade’s architectural drawings for the building, and other images from the early history of our Institution on our new virtual archive.

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

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