From an article for the Bucks Free Press
by Alison Bailey
Amersham Museum’s photographic collection contains many photos of landmark buildings that are now lost, and I thought I would share some of these with you today. Working with Buckinghamshire Council’s Local Heritage Listing Project Officer, we are currently evaluating Amersham’s existing buildings and their importance to ensure that future developments take into account local heritage assets and what their loss would mean to the town.
Buckinghamshire’s Local Heritage List Project
Whilst much of Old Amersham is quite rightly a conservation area with several nationally Listed Buildings, Amersham-on-the-Hill has very little protection. Nevertheless, it does contain many fine buildings from the first half of the 20th century which give the town its special “Metroland” character. These buildings contribute positively to our local identity and are valued by local people. By adding these heritage assets to the county’s Local Heritage List as Non-Designated Heritage Assets, we can ensure their local importance is recognised and considered in the planning process.
A blot on the landscape
However, as far as I am aware there was little controversy in 2002 when the Chenies Nurses Block was demolished at Amersham Hospital. This was built in the 1960s as much needed nurses’ accommodation but was usually described as a “blot on the landscape”. Nevertheless, the nurses must have enjoyed marvellous views across the rooftops of the Old Town and the Misbourne Valley from inside the flats!
Some landmarks, such as the original Free Church on Sycamore Road, were lost because they were replaced by new buildings. The church was built in 1911 by Amersham’s renowned Arts and Crafts architect Harold Kennard. By 1914, the congregation was already outgrowing the building so, the following year an extension to seat 150 people and two large classrooms for a Sunday School were added. As the church continued to grow further expansion was looked for before the church decided to invest in a new site round the corner in Woodside Road in the 1920s. Initially the land was the site of an annex to the church, a corrugated iron hut, bought complete with furniture, known as the Sycamore Hall. During WWII it became a canteen for soldiers stationed nearby. In its first 18 weeks, it served 28,600 meals and arranged 4,000 baths!
This land was owned for over 42 years before a new church building was finally designed and built here. On Sunday 30th September 1962, morning worship was held for the last time in the old building. At 4 pm, the congregation gathered there once again to walk together to the new church. The General Secretary of the Baptist Union opened the doors, and the Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council conducted an act of dedication before the new minister, Rev Neville Clark led the first evening worship in the modern building. The original church was sold for redevelopment as shops and housing which was completed around 1964 and is known today as Sycamore Corner.
Amersham Community Centre
The most recent site to be redeveloped is of course the Chiltern Lifestyle Centre. And whilst this development has been broadly welcomed in the town, some of us were sad to see much of Fred Pooley’s 1960s civic centre and library buildings being demolished. Pooley was the County Architect for Buckinghamshire for over 20 years and is best known for ‘Fred’s Fort’, Aylesbury’s Brutalist County Hall building. Amersham’s community centre was designed as part of a larger civic centre which included a library, law courts and a police station. It was brick built and largely single storey, with a double height roof for the hall area and textured tiles on one exterior wall. Joshua Abbott’s book A Guide to Modernism in Metro-land described it as typical Pooley design “small scale, approachable and well detailed. Modernism with a small ’m’”.
The Iron Horse
The loss to the town of a landmark building such as a historic public house is always regrettable. Many of you will remember the Station Hotel, known most recently as the Iron Horse, which was just after the railway bridge, directly in front of you as you approached Amersham-on-the-Hill via Station Road. After a lengthy planning dispute, the pub was demolished in 2004 and replaced with a three-storey block of flats with a restaurant below. This is now the popular Coriander restaurant.
The Regent Cinema
Finally, the demolition of Amersham’s fine Art Deco cinema, the Regent, is probably the most tragic loss to the town. This majestic cinema was designed by the architect F C Mitchell, who the following year completed the 3000 seat Savoy Theatre in Dublin. Built in 1928 with a steelwork frame and reinforced concrete construction, the building could seat 700 people, had an orchestra pit and a 30 ft deep stage for theatrical productions. The Art Deco façade of the cinema and adjoining shops reflected the latest architectural fashion and must have seemed very glamourous in Amersham.
The cinema was at the centre of Amersham’s cultural life for 40 years but when the lease expired in 1961, it was not renewed. Cinemagoers campaigned to save the Regent and presented a lengthy petition to the council. The international theatre director Basil Ashmore, who lived in Chesham Bois, came up with a viable scheme to use the building as a professional theatre but his bid was unsuccessful when approval was granted for the cinema to be replaced with a supermarket and the Regent was demolished. A poor quality flat roofed building followed which opened as the Maypole self-service supermarket.
This site was then redeveloped again in 2018 to provide ground floor retail units with 35 flats above. No one mourned the demolition of the 60s block although the Iceland store which occupied one of the previous units is still missed by many in the town.
A Guide to Modernism in Metro-land, Joshua Abbot