When strolling along Mortimer Street, I noticed a building at numbers 34-38 that stood out from its neighbours by its blue facing on the higher floors. It is called Radiant House and a closer look revealed the name of E.E. Pither & Sons above two of the bay windows and that of W.O. Peake Ltd above the other.
In the porch at number 38, that is, on the left-hand side of the building just behind the man in the top photo, a plaque can be found telling us that the building was designed by Francis Léon Pither and erected by Ernest Eugène Pither to honour the memory of Sophia Elizabeth Pither née Bézier. The name of F.M. Elgood, FRIBA, architect, can be seen on one of the bottom tiles on the same wall. The date at the top of the plaque is 1914-1915.
So, F.L. Pither was the designer and Elgood the architect, but aren’t these two jobs the same? If you design a building, you are the architect, aren’t you? And what was the role of E.E. Pither? He apparently ‘erected’ the building. Does that mean he built it? A quick search on the Internet found various explanations for the Pither/Elgood collaboration if that was what it was. The general consensus seems to be that Pither could not be the architect as no other buildings are known to have been designed by him, so perhaps he ‘just’ designed the decorative elements. The Brick Building Society definitely attributes the building to Elgood with F.L. Pither being “the occupier of nos. 36 and 38 who had imput[sic] in the design”, although they also said that the name above two of the windows was F.L. Pither, and one wonders about their powers of observation, as it clearly says E.E. Pither.(1) As we will see, the historical facts are also against their interpretation.
Let’s start with the family. Since the people mentioned on the plaque all had the same surname, I assumed that they were related and the amount of diacritical marks suggested a French background. Since the building was erected in 1914-15, I started with the 1911 census, which gave me Francis Léon Pither (henceforth FL), architect, 57 years old, a widower, living at 91 Tollington Park with four of his children of which the eldest, Harold Francis, 24 years old, was studying to become an architect. Ernest Eugène Pither (henceforth EE), an art dealer, 55 years old, lived at 10 Steele’s Road with his wife Amelia and two sons, one a journalist, the other an engineer. This gave me a rough date of birth for the two Pithers involved in the Mortimer Street building and it was easy enough to work backwards to find their baptismal records: FL was born on 20 May 1853 and baptised on 28 July of that same year at St. Mary’s Paddington; EE was born 25 November 1854 and baptised on 9 February 1855, also at St. Mary’s. Their parents were Edward, a stationer/tobacconist and Sophia Elizabeth and they lived on the Harrow Road. Edward Pither and Sophia Elizabeth Bézier were married in 1852 at St. George’s Hanover Square. Edward died on 10 January 1866(2) and Sophia on 25 May 1891. Her sole executor was FL of 10 Regina Road, Tollington Park.(3) The 1891 census saw FL at that address with his wife Maria Louisa and his mother Sophia who was indeed of French origin and born in Paris. FL had married Maria Louisa Barratt on 26 April 1883 at St. Mary’s, Hornsey, Islington. EE had married Amelia Elizabeth Thomas a year earlier on 11 April 1882 at Holy Trinity, Brompton.
Although EE called himself an art dealer in the 1911 census, an 1895 advertisement in The Nursing Record finds him at 36 Mortimer Street selling the “ever-radiant” stove, hence – I presume – the name of Radiant House. EE died in 1936 and from his probate we learn that he had at least four sons: Frederick Ernest Leon, farmer; Robert Ernest, heating engineer; Frank Eugene, antique dealer; and Charles Edwin, accountant.(4) The heating business continued for many years, changing its name to “The (National) Heating Centre” and lasting at least till the late 1960s when one David E. Pither was the director.(5)
William Oliver Peake, who has his business at 34 Mortimer Street, dealt in good quality coats. In 1962, the firm was to merge with Aquascutum, a firm that still exists. English Heritage has a few photos of the shop’s interior which show the unusual arrangements for getting more light into the interior (see here – put ‘peake mortimer’ in the search box).
But back to FL and his Radiant House. FL never saw the completion of the house as he died on 17 December 1913.(6) From his obituary in The Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (17 Jan. 1914. p. 175), we learn that he
studied at the South Kensington and Royal Academy Schools, where he was awarded the Queen’s Prize and R.A. Silver Medal … He was articled to Mr. Henry Jones Lanchester, and was afterwards Assistant to Mr. R. Phené Spiers and Messrs. Goldie and Shield and other architects. He started practice in 1876, and from that year until 1913 had been a visiting master at University College School … His principal works were country houses and business premises, mostly in North London. Shortly before his death he was completing the plans for a block of buildings to be erected in Mortimer Street, W., the front elevation of which was to be faced with faience work. The designs gave promise of a building of unusual interest.
Well, there we are: FL was indeed the architect of Radiant House. Most likely, Frank Minshull Elgood just took over after FL’s death. EE may very well have given his brother the commission to design the building to house his heating and art businesses. The building has had a grade II listing since December 1987; you can read the listing text here and, yes, the obituary was right; Radiant House has proved to be “a building of unusual interest”.
(1) David H. Kennett, “London: Soho and Charles Dickens” [a report on a guided tour arranged and led by D.H. Kennett] in Brick Building Society, Information, 125 (December 2013), p. 19.
(2) Probate granted to widow Sophie Elizabeth Nicol Pither of Harrow Road on 9 June 1866, effects valued at £1,500.
(3) Sophia’s estate was valued at just over £907.
(4) Effects valued at over £38,000.
(5) He wrote an article “Home Central Heating: The Lessons learned in Oil” in The Financial Times, 19 September 1966.
(6) Probate granted to his son Harold Francis, architect. The estate was valued at a little over £3,000.