From Bauhaus to our house: Old Church Street 1936

I’ve borrowed part of this week’s title from the book by Tom Wolfe which is probably a little unfair as on the whole Wolfe is against “modern” architecture as practiced by the Bauhaus school. I’m looking at two houses that were distinctly modern in 1936 but are now regarded as elegant features in the varied architecture of one of the oldest streets in Chelsea. Strictly speaking only one of them is a product of the Bauhaus, the Levy house as it was known in 1936, designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry. The other, the Cohen house was designed by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff.

Although they are two distinct houses they were designed to fit together. Here they are in 1936, the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house in the foreground, the Gropius/Fry house further up the street.

street view 1936

I’ve walked past these houses hundreds of times, and always liked them. I used to think the Mendelsoh/Chermayeff house with its long street frontage looked more like a factory or an academic building, (or the location for a Kraftwerk video), than a house.

But inside they were definitely ultra modern living spaces:

MC plan - Copy

As you can see the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house was equipped with its own sunken squash court and library.

GF plan- Copy

And next door there was space for some traditional functions with rooms for the butler, the secretary and on the roof floor for three maid’s rooms. There was a viewing platform looking down on the garden. The 30s was one of the first decades of sun worship.

GF south view 1936

The plot of land the two houses were built on had once been the grounds of a single house. This was divided into two with a pair of more conventional houses on the Chelsea Square side. The two sets of architects on the Old Church Street side and their clients agreed to create one spacious garden they could share.

GF garden view 1936

The Gropius/Fry house had its long axis at a right angle to the Mendelsohn/Chermayeff house which made the garden space larger. It also means the house is mostly hidden from the street so it looks a little insignificant next to the long facade of the other house. The view above from the garden shows it best. You can see the large windows, the terrace and the covered space which links the two properties. Below is the garden terrace of the second house:

MC 1936

On the left you can see a side door and window on the southern wall of the house. The view below is from 1982.

MC 1982 01 exterior

You can almost (probably not quite) make out the glass conservatory that was built on this side in the 1970s. There have been two of those. I remember the first one from when I first lived in Chelsea. It had a rounded top like a traditional glass house and seemed to be full of thick vegetation almost to bursting point. This was replaced by a slightly more spacious square-topped conservatory. This version has now also filled out with plants.

The interiors of the houses are arguably more striking than the exteriors.

GF staircase 1936

An austere hall and staircase in 1936.

The picture below is from a magazine feature. The original owners of the Gropius/Fry house the playwright Ben Levy and actress Constance Cummings had lived there for many years and had filled the house with conventional furniture.

GF 02 detail

By contrast in 1982 minimalism was back, as you can see in this interior view of the Mendelsohn / Chermayeff house.

MC 1982 03

The white 1980s decor suits the house quite well.

MC 1982 04

The view below shows the garden terrace of the Levy house after extensive changes to the exterior.

GF 01 exterior

Some grey cladding has been added, and that viewing platform has been filled in, no doubt for a sensible reason although it does detract from the sweep of white along the street view.

You might prefer to think of it in those bright summer days of the mid-1930s, looking like a pavilion at the beach in a fictional resort like Vermillion Sands or like part of an ocean liner. This photograph seems to catch the essential optimism of these houses. (This optimism is all the more remarkable when you consider that both Mendelsohn and Gropius were in London after recently fleeing from Nazi Germany. Both of them subsequently moved on to the USA. )

GF 1936


The 1936 pictures are from the Architectural Review (Volume 80). The 1982 pictures are from the Connoisseur magazine. The other pictures are from a cutting in our collection, undated and unattributed, but possibly Good Housekeeping, and possibly from the 1950s.

Thanks to David Le Lay for his thoughts on the buildings and an explanation of the grounds. Obviously any misconceptions or errors are my own.

Finally here is a picture I took late this afternoon as the sun was going down showing the Mendelsohn / Chermayeff house with its second conservatory. The now dark grey Gropius / Fry house is just visible in the distance.

Copy of DSC_2712

Another postscript (June 2016)

One of the comments below leads to this excellent article about Chermayeff:

19 responses to “From Bauhaus to our house: Old Church Street 1936

  • Hasenschneck

    What a shame the original design was altered. Other than the extra space, the building gains nothing from the changes.

    • Dave Walker

      The grey cladding and the infill certainly hasn’t helped the Gropius house when you compare it to the well conserved, still pristine white Mendelsohn house. But from the street you only see the side of the house. The best view is from the garden as you can see in the two pictures from that angle, the only ones in our collection. That viewing deck would definitely be an intersting sight if it was still there.

  • » Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume one hardcover 1970

    […] From Bauhaus to our house: Old Church Street 1936 | The Library <b>…</b> […]

  • Ultra modern house | What Building?

    […] Click to reveal the name of this building […]

  • Career Case Study #7: Serge Chermayeff | misfits architecture

    […] There was also Cohen House (1935-1936). [More photos and a history here.] […]

  • csbcohen

    My father’s cousin Dennis Cohen lived there till his death in 1970 and was subsequently sold to Paul Hamlyn. I think Dennis had the first conservatory built, the current one is a much better ‘fit’

    • Chiara Vittucci

      Thank you for this great article. I am an architectural researcher studying the history of the Mendelsohn-Chermayeff partnership and would be extremely grateful if csbcohen or anyone else may be able to tell me how Dennis Cohen knew Benn Levy and what made them decide to build adjacent homes. A book by Alan Powers on Serge Chermayeff published in 2001 states that Levy and Cohen were cousins. Is this true?
      Thanks in advance!

    • MIke LEVY

      Dennis Cohen – I am researching the Kindertransport for a PhD and wondered if you could tell me more about Dennis Cohen, a publisher and later MI6 officer? His name often appears in the historical record but never with any detail

      Mike Levy

      • Colin Cohen

        I’ll help you if I can. I’m not at home, but from memory all I know about DC and the Kindertransport is from secondary sources, one of which I believe confuses DC’s role as Passport Officer in Jerusalem with Passport Control Officers as British embassies which was normally the cover to the SIS HoS there with semi-diplomatic cover.
        I don’t want to put my email online, but you will find a contact form at the url below if you want to ask more.

  • csbcohen

    Just seen your post Chiara. In my distant memory I think they were related, but I have no evidence, and there is none here [if you look in the index you can see he is also in spelt incorrectly as Levey.
    If you want to contact me directly, as WordPress does not seem to send notifications, there is an email form under contact at Relationships are extensive: Dennis was related to my father as a Salaman and his mother had 15 siblings … C

  • Jill Carin Adams

    Thank you. My husband and I live in the area and have been intrigued by the houses.
    My connection- but distant – is I worked at Push Pin Studios in NY, and friends worked at the other iconic studio, Chermayeff & Geismar. (His son, Ivan, co founded it).
    Does anyone know who resides in each house today? It wasn’t clear from the article.

    Do they ever open it to the public?


  • Chiara Vittucci

    Thank you CSB Cohen for your suggestions, I will look into the index and the link – my understanding is that Lady Hamlyn does still own and live in the house.
    Thank you to everyone for your information,

    • csbcohen

      One small addition: my memory is that Dennis added a conservatory, but the present on, much larger, was added by Paul Hamlyn. I assume that there will be planning documents for the latter, if not the former

  • Architect – Walter Gropius

    […] Bruno Taut Glass Pavillion 1914 Werkbund Exposition 1914 Bauhaus Building 1926 66 Old Church Chelsea 1936 Gropius House 1938 So forward thinking that though nothing has been moved for oh so many […]

  • Tanya Szendeffy

    My grandmother and great uncle came to the UK with the Kinder Transport in 1938 and were taken in by Ben Levy and Constance Cummings with whom they lived in the Gropius/Fry house. My great uncle may have some tales to tell if he is willing!

    • csbcohen

      I’d be fascinated to hear any tales. As I’ve mentioned before in comments here my father’s first cousin Dennis Cohen lived in the ‘other half’ of the BL/CC house with it’s shared garden behind [I have photos of that]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: