Dagenham’s civic heart

A watercolour of the Civic Centre painted by the architect E.Berry Webber, 1936.

The Civic Centre, Dagenham, is a Grade II listed building. It is situated at Beacontree Heath and backs on to Central Park. The setting is historically appropriate, as the heath is thought to have been the ancient meeting place of the Becontree Hundred administrative district.

The Civic Centre’s construction began in 1936, and it was formally opened in October 1937 by government minister Sir Kingsley Wood. The building was designed by E. Berry Webber in the art deco style. It has an impressive front entrance with a Portland stone portico and carvings, with flanking wings in mulberry stock brick to either side.

The Civic Centre’s interior offers one of London’s most dramatic ceremonial stair halls, lined throughout in champagne-coloured Botticino marble with art deco ceiling paintings. Most of the doors are mahogany with bronze fixtures. The semi-circular Council Chamber is walnut-panelled. The Mayor’s Parlour is panelled in Canadian betula veneer inlaid with sycamore, and has specially designed walnut furniture.

The Civic Centre, especially the staircase and main foyer, has often been used as a film and television location when 1930s interiors are required, for example in the ITV series Poirot. The building originally had lily ponds at each end, known as the ‘blue lagoons’ by the locals. These were illuminated by pylons and stocked with goldfish. The fish, unfortunately, were taken by herons and in 1953 the decision was made to fill in the ponds.

The building was originally intended to be part of a complex to include a fire station, library, shops, assembly hall and theatre. Although the fire station was opened in 1938 in Rainham Road North to the south-east of the Civic Centre, the rest of the grand scheme never came to fruition. The Civic Centre suffered some air raid damage during World War Two. In 1964 the building was extended to the south, providing greatly-needed extra office space.

 

21st-century refurbishment

In 2003 the Civic Centre was extensively refurbished to designs by architects Richard Griffiths & Hawkins Brown. As it is a listed building, the works had to be carefully negotiated with English Heritage so that minimum impact was made to the original features. All non-original fittings were removed and the stonework cleaned. The existing ceiling finish was scraped to uncover the original paint colours, and these were reinstated in their dazzling original tones. Specialist lighting designer Campbell Design restored and re-lamped the original fittings to modern standards of lamplife, illumination and energy, making a dramatic impact on the space.

The main Council Chamber was modernised, and supplied with new audio-visual equipment, air conditioning, a sophisticated scene-setting lighting scheme, induction loops and more flexible furniture to allow different seating plans. Also upgraded and remodelled was the area around the north corridor on the first floor which housed the Council’s other major public facilities – meeting rooms, members’ lounge, washrooms, kitchen and offices. Work here included integrating a new comfort cooling system, large-scale audio-visual display units, induction loops, acoustic-rated screens and a modern range of furniture. The building was also made fully accessible by the addition of platform lifts in the main foyer.

In 2017, the building became a satalite centre for Coventry University.