On 8 February, members of Ralph Hancock’s family were invited to the deserted roof gardens by Virgin for a last visit before Branson’s company handed over the keys to the freeholder. This is the Spanish Garden, still looking immaculate. All the pictures from 8 February are curtesy of the Hancock family.

What will happen to Europe’s largest roof garden?

What will happen to the unique and listed roof gardens in Kensington? They have been closed since the beginning of January. There are rumours that the freeholder has instructed an estate agent to try to find a new leaseholder, but nobody knows for sure. The head gardener, Pilar Medrano Dell, left on 23 January, the flamingos were still there on 8 February but were said to be re-homed.

Late on 2 January, The Independent announced that Virgin Limited Edition would imminently close the The Roof Gardens (commonly known as Kensington Roof Gardens) and its Babylon restaurant, which Richard Branson’s Virgin has run for 37 years. The newspaper urged all friends of the venue to rush over for a last drink. However, less than three hours later, The Roof Gardens tweeted that it already had been closed.

The very sudden closure indicates that the lease ended on 31 December and that attempts to negotiate a new lease had been going on until the very last minute. Virgin’s official reason for the closure is that “in the face of unpredictable market conditions and a challenge to remain profitable, we feel that the time has come for us to close our doors,” which sounds as if Virgin gave up a money loosing venue. However, there is a rumour that the owner refused to renew the lease although Richard Branson was willing to even pay more in rent.

Henning Conle

The building is formally owned by British Virgin Island registered Cartina Kensington Ltd since February 2014, but this is just one of several tax heaven companies fronting the real owner, the Lichtenstein-based investment company Sirosa Anstalt, which in turn is owned by the UK residing German property tycoon Henning Conle and his family. According to the financial press, Sirosa bought the property for £225 million in May 2013, outbidding the Qatar Investment Authority by paying £25 million over the £200 million asking price.

The very secretive Henning Conle has in recent years bought retail and office property in London for more than £2 billion, often paying much above the asking price. His company now owns Barkers, Liberty, Shell Mex House and a string of other highly priced period buildings. Many have wondered where the somewhat controversial Conle gets his money from, with some speculating that he may be investing money on behalf of others, possibly from Russia, something he has strongly denied.

At the moment there are no indications what Conle plans to do with the roof garden. There are rumours that an estate agent has been instructed to try to find a new leaseholder, but nobody knows for sure. The 108 trees have been protected by the council since 1976, the roof garden buildings have been Grade II* listed since 1981 (together with the rest of the building), and in 1998 the actual gardens were Grade II listed. These protections mean that it should be very difficult for anyone to drastically change things.

Trevor Bowen

Sitting atop the former Derry & Toms department store (today housed by M&S and others) on Kensington High Street, the roof gardens have been an important part of central Kensington since it was opened in 1938. The idea of creating a roof garden came from Barkers’ vice-president at the time, Trevor Bowen (1878-1964). Barkers had bought Derry & Toms in 1920 and in 1930 the company began replacing the old Derry & Toms building with a magnificent Art Deco department store, designed by Barkers’ in-house architect, Bernard George (1894-1963). The building had been intended to have seven floors, but objections from the fire brigade, whose ladders wouldn’t go up that far, meant that the it was limited to six floors. Bowen felt that a roof garden would give the building its perfect topping. Roof gardens had become very fashionable and Selfridges already had a small one, so he told Bernard George to design a tea and lunch restaurant for the roof, around which a roof garden could be built.

In 1933, the new Derry & Toms department store was opened, but the roof garden was still missing. When Bowen learned that Rockefeller Centre in New York was about to open its fifth and most ambitious roof garden in April 1935, he made a trip to New York (one of many during his 43 years with Barkers) in order to see Rockefeller Centre’s brand new “Gardens of the Nations” on the 11th floor of the RCA building. When he saw it, he felt that something like that would be perfect for Derry & Toms’ much larger roof.

Ralph Hancock

It had been created by the Welsh-born landscape architect Ralph Hancock (1893-1950), who had moved to the US in 1930 and already had designed two of the four roof gardens on top of the 6-storey country-themed buildings in the Rockefeller Centre international complex along Fifth Avenue: the almost identical gardens on La Maison Française and the British Empire Building. So Bowen contacted Hancock and convinced him to return to Britain to create the world’s largest roof garden in Kensington.

In December 1935, Hancock and his family sailed back to Britain and in early 1936 he began the design work. The long and rather narrow east-west positioned tea and lunch restaurant (eventually christened the Sun Pavilion) and the shorter and wider north-south positioned dome over the department store’s Rainbow Room restaurant (which today is used by a gym) formed a large “T” on the roof, leaving Hancock with three open areas which he turned into different gardens: the Spanish Garden, the Tudor Garden and the English Woodland Garden. The Spanish Garden was basically a variant of the Spanish Garden he had created within “Gardens of the Nations”, with the same kind of tower and with the Moorish arches cast from the same moulds, while the Tudor Garden borrowed much from the English Garden within the New York complex.

The logistics involved in the construction were impressive. Before planting and building could start, a thick bitumastic base was laid on the roof, followed by a layer of loose brick and rubble that was arranged in a fan-like pattern to aid drainage. On this topsoil was added. Except for 36in (92cm) soil in some raised flowerbeds, the soil thickness was – and still is – only 18in (46cm). Into this over 500 different varieties of trees and shrubs were planted. Water for the waterfall and stream in the Woodland Garden and for the fountains in the Spanish Garden was pumped up from Derry & Toms own artesian wells, 180 metres below the building. The total cost for the project was £25,000, which today would equal some £9 million.

Largest in the world

When the Derry Gardens (as they were first known) opened on 9 May 1938, it was the largest single roof garden in the world and became a huge attraction. Visitors were charged 1 shilling in entrance and all the money went to support the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing, St John Ambulance, the British Red Cross and several hospitals. The Queen’s Institute of District Nursing received the income from the first year, and St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross received checks for £6,000 each in June 1940. By the time Derry & Toms closed in 1973, the entrance fees had generated some £120,000 for various hospitals.

Over the next 35 years the roof garden thrived. Derry & Toms customers would take tea in the pavilion and go for a walk in the three gardens, and during World War II the gardens became a focal point for various charity events. Two visitors books, now housed in Kensington Library, contain the signatures of visiting celebrities of the period, such as John Gielgud, Leslie Howard, Cedric Hardwicke and Ivor Novello, as well as the signatures of Queen Mary, King Haakon of Norway, Queen Marie of Yugoslavia and Prince Bernard of Holland.

During the war, the gardens survived two German bombs. The first hit the Spanish Garden in 1940, destroying its clock tower and falling down one of the front main staircases to the fourth floor, where it exploded and started a fire, causing a lot of damage to stock and interior. The second bomb came in 1941. It was a large parachute bomb which landed on the tea pavilion but failed to explode. The clock tower was restored as soon as the war had ended.

In 1957, House of Fraser bought the whole Barkers empire. The Scottish department store chain sold the Derry & Toms building to the property giant British Land in 1971, with a right to continue operating Derry & Toms for two more years. So in early 1973, House of Frazer closed Derry & Toms, just as they had closed Pontings two years earlier and would eventually close Barkers in 2005.

Big Biba

At the time, the unique Biba brand – created by Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon – had captivated the younger generation, both in the UK and abroad. Beside a successful mail order operation and an international distribution deal for its cosmetics range, it was operating its only UK store in a former carpet store at 124-126 Kensington High Street (where Cos is today), almost across the street from Derry & Toms. It had been there since 1969, after having began as a small mail order company in 1963, selling Barbara’s own designs. Biba opened its first store at 87 Abingdon Road (today an office for a small import-export agency) in 1964, and in 1966 the store moved to 19-21 Kensington Church Street (today Reiss), where its low-priced unusual designs began to attract more and more young women in London.

Shortly after the 1969 move to the former carpet store on Kensington High Street, Barbara and Stephen had formed Biba Ltd together with retail giant Dorothy Perkins, with the latter owning 75% of the shares. With the financial muscle of Dorothy Perkins behind it, the company had begun a quick expansion. In 1970 it launched its own cosmetics range, Biba Cosmetics, which quickly became the most profitable and durable part of the business, and by the end of 1971 there was a Biba boutique in the Bergdorf Goodman store in New York, as well as Biba Cosmetics stands in Au Printemps in Paris, Fiorucci in Milan, Tekano in Tokyo, Bloomingdale’s in New York, the Judy’s chain in California, and in more than 300 Dorothy Perkins stores across the United Kingdom.

In 1971 British Land and Dorothy Perkins had formed a joint company to develop retail sites, with the primary target being the Derry & Toms building. The agreement meant that British Land bought the property for £3.9 million and Dorothy Perkins bought the lease from them for £3.75 million and then sub-let the building to its subsidiary Biba at a preferential rent. The affair was completed in December 1971 and the Biba staff immediately began preparing for the big move.

As soon as House of Fraser had closed the doors to Derry & Tomes in the spring of 1973, 600 workmen moved in and began the task of refurbishing and restoring the Art Deco department store in five hectic months. This included uncovering many Art Deco details that had been hidden during 35 years of redecorations. The Biba graphics design team, lead by Tim Whitmore and Steve Thomas, turned the tea pavilion into their temporary studio, designing the look of all departments and creating shop signs, posters and product packaging.

In August, on month before the grand opening, British Land bought Dorothy Perkins and thereby became the owner of Biba – a change that would eventually seal Biba’s fate.

On 10 September 1973, “Big Biba” opened, immediately attracting up to a million customers weekly and making this palace of swinging fashion one of the most visited tourist attractions in London. Shortly before the opening, the design team moved from the tea pavilion to St Albans Grove (off Victoria Road) and builders and gardeners began restoring the tea pavilion as well as the gardens. On 20 May 1974, the gardens were re-opened for customers. The ducks and the flamingos were temporarily joined by a group of penguins, and the restaurant was “open for lunch and dinner as well as morning coffee and afternoon tea“.

Sadly, Big Biba collapsed in 1975, after only two years. There were several reasons for this. The company had grown too quickly and had been caught in 1973-1975 recession, but the main reason was undoubtedly the change in ownership. During the first year, the British Land management was happy with Biba’s success, but as soon as the recession hit – not just Biba, but British Land as well – it became obvious that British Land had very different priorities and didn’t share the belief in Biba that the Dorothy Perkins management had displayed.

Regine & Virgin

After Biba, British Land split the building into several retail outlets. The roof gardens became part of the Rama Superstores lease, but they never used them and the gardens were eventually separated from that lease. In 1976, the council placed a tree preservation order on the trees, which probably prevented the gardens from disappearing during those years.

In 1978, the the tea pavilion was redeveloped into Regine’s nightclub, and in that process several of the garden features were destroyed.

In 1981, the building, including the roof garden buildings, became Grade II* listed. The same year, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group took over the roof garden lease. Legend has it that Branson bought the lease after having been refused entry to the nightclub because the doorman felt he looked too scruffy. For 20 years Virgin continued to run the pavilion as a members only nightclub, but in 2001the pavilion became the Babylon restaurant. During their 37 years as tenant, Virgin spent a lot of effort on restoring the gardens, which in 1986 became a Grade II listed. The restaurant and the gardens were often booked for weddings and other events. This meant that booking a table was always depending on if the restaurant would be open for regular guests or not that evening, which probably made it less attractive for many restaurant goers.

Still largest in Europe

While Hancock’s “Gardens of the Nations” in New York was closed to the public after only three years and now has largely disappeared, his creation on top of Derry & Toms in Kensington is still largely intact, and 80 years after its inception it is still Europe’s largest single site roof garden with its 6,070m².

The world’s largest roof garden is nowadays found in Sejong in South Korea, where a 3.6km long garden, covering 79,194m², is winding its way on top of 15 newly created government buildings, with all the roofs designed as a single roof through connecting wide walkways where the South Korean civil servants can combine lunch at several eateries with a nice walk. It opened in 2014 and features 1.17 million different plants.

The mallard family which has made the roof gardens its home, was still in the Woodland Garden on 8 February…

…and the four flamingos were still there as well. They have apparently been re-homed since then.

Inside, everything in the restaurant was still left in place when the Hancock family visited on 8 February.

Ralph Hancock’s “Gardens of the Nations” on the 11th floor of the RCA building in New York, when they were opened in 1935. Since several years back, most of that garden is gone.

Kensington High Street from the air, in September 1935. The new Derry & Toms building has opened, but work on the roof gardens is still almost a year away. And the building of the new Barkers store, which will widen Kensington High Street and remove the bottleneck in the corner with Kensington Church Street, has yet to begin.

The roof gardens as they were laid out in 1938. On this plan, the Tudor Garden is called “English Garden” and the English Woodland Garden, at the bottom, has no name on it. Most of it is the same today, although the waterfall has disappeared, as well as the six staircases with which Derry & Toms customers could reach the gardens from the floors below. There were also four lifts, in a different position from today’s two lifts.

A postcard from 1938-39, showing the original tea pavilion with its strong Art Deco lines.

This picture, from the Hancock family visit on 8 February, gives an indication of the many changes made to the pavilion when it was turned into the Regine’s nightclub in 1978. The porticos were filled up and the roof overhang seems to have been shortened.

A newsreel clip showing the roof gardens in 1938. In in some scenes the building work on the new Barkers store can be glimpsed. That work had began in 1936 but was halted with the outbreak of World War II. The construction work didn’t resume until 1955 and was finished in 1958.

In 1943 the gardens were visited by the exiled King Haakon VII of Norway (second from the left). His son, Crown Prince Olav (who in 1957 became Olav V), is on the right, and their close friend and British host, Admiral “Terry” Evans, is on the right. The happy man in the middle is Barkers’ then chairman, Trevor Bowen.

A 1951 advertisement for Barkers’ three department stores in Kensington, aimed at foreign visitors. The roof garden on top of Derry & Toms (called Derrys in the ad) is the main attraction, although the artist’s imagination has placed the roof garden buildings around and has made Kensington High Street wider than even the most ambitious city planners could have dreamed of: at least four buses side by side in each direction!

A page from a three-page Biba leaflet promoting the opening of the “Biba Roof Garden” on 20 May 1974.

Barbara Hulanicki feeding the temporary penguin guests, probably during the re-opening of the roof gardens in May 1974. Photographer unknown.

In 2013, a company offering professional drone areal video services was allowed to use the roof gardens for a promotional shoot that shows what they can offer. They then posted the video on YouTube for everyone to enjoy. It shows what it’s all about and what a great loss it would be if the roof gardens aren’t opened to the public again.

Published 27/02/2018