One of the more elegant Edwardian buildings in Lewisham is tucked away in a side-street cut-through off Lee High Road; it is now relatively up market private housing, but was designed and built as a telephone exchange in 1909.
The architect was Leonard Stokes; Stokes was brought up a Catholic and was initially articled to a firm who undertook work primarily for the Catholic Church and he continued in this line of work once he opened his own practice – his work including Holy Ghost Church, Balham, and the English Martyrs School in Walworth.
He became involved in the design of telephone exchanges following his marriage to Edith Gaine, the daughter of the General Manager of the National Telephone Company. From 1898 until 1911, when the company was taken over by the Post Office, Stokes designed twenty telephone exchanges, including the one in Gilmore Road.
Stokes was well respected amongst fellow architects and became RIBA President in 1910. It was customary for the retiring President to have their portrait painted in evening dress with their medals. However, for reasons that are unclear, Stokes was painted in an old Jaeger dressing gown. The RIBA asked the artist, William Orpen, and Stokes to change the painting but both refused and instead of being hung in a prominent position at Portland Place, it was displayed outside the gents’ toilets.
Gilmore Road is a Grade II listed building, the listing text describing it as
Early C20 probably by Leonard Stokes. 3 storeys, 4 windows. Top storey appears to be a later addition in multi-coloured stock brick with stone coped parapet and gauged brick arches to flush frame hinged windows with glazing bars. These rest on stone coping of original parapet. 2 lower floors of multi-coloured stock brick with red brick dressings, i.e. gauged brick window arches, window jambs, panels of banding between first and ground floor windows; and angles of building. Flat, stone pilasters within angles rest on stone-coped plinth and rise through moulded stone cornice and stone-coped red brick parapet to end in small capitals. Flush framed sash windows with glazing bars. 1-storey, 1-bay left entrance extension banded in red brick. Seven steps, with stone coped and banded side wall, to 5-panel door under gauged red brick arch. Similar 3-bay rear extension without pilasters or cornice.
The growth in telephone usage between the wars seems to have made the small exchange at Gilmore Road insufficient for local needs. By 1938 the Post Office had bought the freehold to Victorian houses on the corner of Lee High Road and Glenton Road, with a view to building a new exchange. World War 2 delayed the building, with the new exchange opening in 1947; it isn’t clear whether Glenton Road and Gilmore Road were ever a joint operation.
The building was later used by Nesor, a dental equipment supplier, and the now defunct British branch of the International Primate Protection League, before being recently converted into flats. At the time of writing it was still possible to view the estate agent details of the penthouse flat (sold at around £925K) and one of the other flats was available as a film location.
The telephone box within the curtilage is also listed; it is a Giles Gilbert Scott K6 that has now been painted grey and has the ‘Telephone Exchange’ lettering at the top. It is closer to the silver for urban boxes that Gilbert Scott originally intended.
The picture of Stokes is copyright of the RIBA, it was made available via the BBC’s Your Paintings Project, which in turn allows reproduction in non-commercial research – this includes blogs (page explaining this was here until mid-July 2015, but now broken link).