From the late 19th century until the mid 1970s Kensington High Street had three classic department stores: Barkers, Derry & Toms and Pontings.
Barkers bought Pontings in 1906 and Derry & Toms in 1920, but continued to run all three as separate entities. Plans were laid for a phased redevelopment of both stores during the 1930s, setting Barkers back by thirty feet to reduce the acute congestion in Kensington High Street. Architect Bernard George was commissioned to produce designs for both stores, and work on Derry & Toms began immediately, greatly disturbing the trade.
The new Derry & Toms store (above) was opened in march 1933, amidst a fanfare of press publicity – ‘a beautiful store to sell beautiful things.’ Arranged on six floors it was a bold and simple departure in store design, with a fine stone facade of columns and friezes and restrained interior, marble and bronze Art-Deco panels providing the only decorative features. An American designer was engaged to plan the floor layouts and Derry & Toms was consequently one of the first London stores to adopt the horizontal system. Each floor was totally open plan, whilst the absence of well-holes and central staircases reduced the risk of fire. On the fifth floor there was an elegant restaurant, The Rainbow Room, and a fashion theatre.
On top of Derry & Toms, Europe's largest roof garden area (1.5 acres) was created, consisting of three different gardens with 500 species of plants, fountains, a stream, duck, flamingos and a restaurant - said to serve the best high tea in Kensington.
The entire store was beautifully appointed with blue and gold carpets, concealed lighting and attractive display areas. In 1936 work began at the instigation of Trevor Bowen, on the famous room gardens. Opened in May 1938, the gardens comprised a sun pavilion and three discrete areas – an English woodland garden, a Spanish garden and a Tudor garden. Meanwhile the demolition team had moved in on Barkers where a new frontage was to be lined with the earlier Ball Street building. Construction began at the western end and was only two-thirds complete when war was declared.
Despite some bomb damage to Derry & Toms and extreme staff shortages, profits were maintained throughout the war.
It was not, however, until April 1955 that work was resumed on the Barker building in Kensington and the new store there was opened in September 1958.
Inside the store was designed along the same open-plan lines as Derry & Toms.
The exterior, with its curved frontage, continuous canopy and projecting tower staircases, presented a striking contrast:
In my opinion, the most interesting feature of Barkers buildings are huge reliefs above the entrance:
They leave a strange impression, close to time travel: 1950s planes and trains depicted in 1930s style. There's also a "pure" 1930s relief with a four-stacker and streamline locomotive:
And the fourth (that I'm unable to show today) features an airship!
By the early 1980s it had become clear that the store’s sales area, in excess of 600,000 square feet, was too large for the existing trade. In 1982 the number of sales floors was reduced from seven to four and architects were commissioned to refurbish and redevelop Barkers as a compact store of 140,000 square feet alongside a new arcade of nine boutiques.
The remaining part of the building was to comprise around 200,000 square feet of office space, with a spectacular barrel vaulted atrium, the largest in Europe, overlooking garden terraces. The new department store was completed by November 1986 and the shopping arcade opened in October 1987. In August 2005 House of Fraser announced the closure of Barkers store.
The building still exists. Part of the Barker premises has been taken over by American Whole Foods Market, which has opened the UK's first organic superstore there in June 2007. The rest was added to existing office space used by the headquarters of Associated Newspapers. The restaurant... well, it was photographed in 1959, when Barkers was the hottest shopping destination in London. Art Deco meeting British Beat - isn't it amazing?