Stuart Baillie finds out about the history of a building that has always intrigued him…
I was standing on top of the East Hill at the weekend showing some friends who were visiting the town some of the landmarks of the area. They pointed west and asked, ‘what’s that?’ What they were asking about was of course Marine Court.
It brought to mind our first visit to Hastings and St Leonards way back at the end of the 1990s and how amazed I was by this incredible building that dominated the skyline, our visit probably coincided with the decision to grant Marine Court Grade 2 listed status which was officially bestowed in 1999.
Now lets not get too misty eyed and romantic. It’s fair to say that the closer you get to it the less appealing Marine Court becomes and it’s perhaps no surprise that a building that sits so close to the sea and was neglected for many years spends what seems to be a huge part of its life hidden behind scaffolding.
It’s important to remember too that Marine Court was once the subject of intense legal wrangling when the company that managed the freehold went bust and the leaseholders and tenants were forced to go it alone setting up Marine Court (St Leonards On Sea) Freeholders Limited a company that currently has six directors and runs the structure.
That was in 2010 and the building had suffered years of neglect. It is art-deco and because of its grade 2 status maintenance and repair is both expensive and complicated. All of that led to a fall-out in 2012 when some residents complained bitterly about the level of service charge which they said left them in a catch-22 situation neither able to afford to pay nor able to sell because potential buyers were being put off by the level of service charge. A spokesman for the ownership group said at the time: “The previous owners did not maintain the building and because of the nature of Marine Court and its seafront location it needs a great deal of repairs which are complicated and costly.”
But let’s go back to the beginning.
The foundation stone for Marine Court was laid on November 30 1936 by Robert Holland-Martin, chairman of the Southern Railway and the building was completed in 1938. When it opened it was the tallest block of flats in the UK and had been built by the South Coast (Hastings & St Leonards) Properties company.
It was designed by architects Kenneth Dalgleish and Roger Pullen and is an early example of steel-frame and concrete construction. For their inspiration the architects turned to the then recently commissioned Cunard White-Star Line’s Queen Mary. The east end of Marine Court is shaped to imitate the curved, stacked bridge front of the Queen Mary; the eastern restaurant served to imitate the fo’c’sle (*1) deck of the ship.
It is widely reported that it’s build cost, of close to £500,000, was way over budget and some other interesting statistics include –
- 2,000 tons of cement
- 2,500 tons of sand
- 1,400,000 building bricks
- 22,000 square feet of glass
- 14,000 tons of ballast
- 2,100 tons of steel
- 3,000 gallons of paint
The building contains
- 6 acres of partitions
- 7 miles of skirting
- 5½ acres of floors
- 14 acres of ceilings and wall plastering
- 2,000 doors
Five hundred men were directly employed on the site throughout construction while hundreds more would have been found work in the local factories and other businesses supplying the vast amount of materials needed.
When viewed from the east or west Marine Court is tall and slender, from the beach the full expanse of the building dwarfs all those on the seafront and when you look at the numbers the fact it dwarfs other buildings on the seafront is perhaps no surprise. It is 14 storeys high and from basement to roof, measures 170ft or 49m in height and from east to west is 416ft or 127 metres in length.
The front of the building – or southern elevation to give it its technical title, is vertical, with balconies imitating the promenade deck of the Queen Mary. The upper stories are stepped-in from those beneath, like the superstructure of a ship, those beneath like the immense hull of a liner. The ground floor shop frontages were originally black while the external walls of the upper floors were painted white – again echoing the colours of the great liner on which the design was based.
Plans to build Marine Court were not universally welcomed in St Leonards. Indeed the original proposal was for a building that would have been even larger than the one that finally appeared. The initial design proposed by the developers in 1935 was opposed by local residents. Those living in East Ascent who were to lose their sea view were particularly opposed to the plan and there was careful and detailed negotiation between residents and developers to reach agreement on the design that finally went ahead.
But once complete the building was considered to be of great beauty by some, an eyesore by others. An original drawing of Marine Court was hung in the Royal Academy something the copy-writers who crafted the original sales literature were keen to highlight when they wrote: “No greater tribute to its beauty could be paid than the fact that the original perspective was hung in the Royal Academy.”
That piece was drawn by leading perspectivist and architect Raymond Myerscough-Walker, his illustration of the original design is particularly striking, set as it is at night with the building illuminated.
The introduction to the original sales brochure for Marine Court says the building was responsible for ‘the sweeping away of some of the picturesque and spacious but rather obsolete Georgian houses on certain portions of the front’.
Fourteen houses made way for the creation of Marine Court, they were all of a similar style to the remaining section of Marina Colonnade that is still visible today.
Marine Court was also designed to be ultra modern and was therefore ‘all-electric,’ the sales brochure talks about it ‘dispensing with coal fires and their resultant ashes, dirt and dust’. The block included thermostatic central heating, electric cooker and refrigerator, radio aerial, an internal intercom system and public telephone facilities, 24 hour centrally supplied hot water and ‘air conditioning apparatus’ that still functions via a complicated system of fans and built-in air ducts that serves all parts of the building.
The sale pitch said the flats were ‘the last word in comfort and convenience – yet well within the scope of all middle class pockets’.
It went on: “They incorporate fully all resources of cultured living today. Although each flat is in every sense a private home, it offers, when so desired, the amenities of a first class hotel. Meals can be served if desired privately from the restaurant in the building, spare rooms (now the small rear facing flats on first and second floors) are provided for unexpected guests, and tenants’ flats are kept clean for them while they are away”.
During the second wold war Marine Court was requisitioned, to be occupied by airmen and cypher clerks and therefore was seen as a legitimate target. German fighter bombers blew away three floors at the prow with major restoration of the building taking place between 1949 and 1950.
By the 1960s it had become home to The Cobweb, also known as the Witch Doctor – a nightclub that saw the likes of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and other stars of the time play on its stage.
Writing about Marine Court in 2016 Richard Coltman, an expert in the UK’s ‘built-heritage’ said: “The uniformity and clarity of the design of Marine Court has been blunted over time, with replacement windows and glazing-in of balconies in a haphazard manner blurring the vision of the architects.
“Over time the general condition of the exterior suffered from the sea, air and general neglect; the shop fronts on the ground floor have had their external finishing altered and changed. Efforts have been made to restore the exterior, it has been repainted and the canopy edge retrimmed. Replacement windows have been installed in the former restaurant, but while similar in style to the original Crittall windows the glazing bars are much thicker, and so it is a disappointing decision.
“The glazed-in balconies and mixture of replacement windows still give a disharmonious appearance to the sea-front facade.”
With its new community ownership in 2010 dawned a new era for the building. Marine Court (St Leonards On Sea) Freeholders Limited created an improvement plan that was forecast to take several years to complete and driving past the building today it’s clear to see that work continues in restoring Marine Court to its former glory.
Here’s how a recent an estate agent recently marketed one of the flats in Marine Court