In 2010 I went to hear science fiction writer William Gibson in conversation with Cory Doctorow to publicise his then new novel Zero History. Most authors can’t fill a venue seating nearly a thousand people but Gibson has many followers including me so the hall was almsot full. I first sat down and read a Gibson novel, Neuromancer, in 1984 sitting in Brompton Cemetery beside that large Egyptian style mausoleum. I’ve read all his books so seeing him in the flesh was one more piece in my collection. I felt no particular need to ask anything during the Q&A. Apart from anything else the questions being asked seemed very convoluted and erudite. Gibson is one of those crossover authors who attract both SF fans and literary types. I’d have just asked if he had any plans to collect his non-fiction into a book (which he subsequently did). I enjoyed the event but the venue had a particular resonance for me because I had been there before it was Cadogan Hall.
Cadogan Hall is now a venue for music and speech. In this drawing it fits the adjective usually applied to it: Byzantine. The blue sky in the background and the campanile give it an Italianate air. This night time photo makes it seem a little bit sinister.
I first entered the building in June 2000. The Cadogan Estate had recently purchased it from Mohammed Al Fayed, the then owner of Harrods, who had intended to turn it into a residential property. That plan never worked out so when Cadogan took it over it had been empty since 1996. I was involved in the Chelsea Society’s summer exhibition Places of Worship which was held on the ground, or lower ground floor of the building in this room:
Once the display boards had been put up and the exhibition made ready there was some time to explore the upper floors. I think I was alone when I first climbed those silent stairs and went into what I immediately thought of as the auditorium.
Seeing the raked seating, the gallery and what looked like a stage my immediate thought was not of a church but a cinema or a theatre. There was something exotic perhaps even transgressive about the plain interior. (I was brought up in the Church of England so any ecclesiastical interior which isn’t gothic looks odd to me). It had the whiff of the early twentieth century, which I associate with semi-occult movements like spiritualism and Theosophy. Charles Marriott in Modern English Architecture (1923) refers to “the newer forms of religion” which nails it I think. To my surprise he describes the interior as “frankly an auditorium with a wide Classic portico; the organ taking the place of the altar, and the further seats rising in semi-circular tiers in the fashion of a lecture theatre”
The building dates from 1907 and is the First Church of Christ Scientist. Christian Science came to London in 1891. The Church had first used the old Weslayan Chapel which stood on the site but as the congregation grew had decided to build a modern church. It was begun in 1904.
This postcard view shows the building in its early years. Its position on a narrow street makes it difficult to get an impression of the whole thing. and most images are of this side view showcasing the tower “with its quaint suggestion of a mosque in the domed minaret” (Marriott again).
“the idea expressed is that of universality”. A later photo shows the tower at a slightly different angle looking up Sedding Street. (Sedding Street is named for the architect of Holy Trinity Sloane Street, the “arts and crafts cathedral” which is rather less than a stone’s throw away.)
This view makes the tower look almost accessible After the exhibition was over I had the use of the library van and the help of some colleagues to move our pictures back to Chelsea Library. I had to show them what I had found so we went back to the auditorium and even higher. I’ve never been a great fan of heights so it was L___ and A_____ who climbed the final ladder and got to see a view like this:
I hardly knew the fourth member of our party K__ at that point but she now works with me in Local Studies. So both of us were taking no chances, preserving ourselves for our future work.
The roof picture was taken during the conversion, as was this one showing the very top of the tower:
The auditorium of Cadogan Hall looks quite different today. This design drawing shows the plan:
This pictures show the conversion in progress:
And how it looks now:
The organ and the wooden screen before:
You can see the very door through which William Gibson made his entrance. As I looked round the new hall, bright comfortable and crowded with people I couldn’t map it onto my memories of the former space. My church of science fiction was another kind of church once but that place is gone.
Apart from the postcard image, all this week’s pictures were provide by the Cadogan Estate so my thanks to them and especially to Camilla, whom I first asked about the possibility of finding pictures of the hall as it used to be.
By a kind of coincidence I’m just getting to the end of Thomas Pynchon’s excellent new novel Bleeding Edge. It seemed to me that Pynchon, who has been an influence on many science fiction writers has finally begun to be influenced by Gibson.
Next week my second annual Halloween story….