This museum is part of the Ossulston Estate built between 1927 and 1931. This estate of Chamberlain, Walker and Levita Houses, was designed by architect G. Topham Forest on the model of the Karl-Marx Hof in Vienna. The radical Austrian public housing influenced the courtyards and drying rooms. The original design from 1925 imagined shops at street level, offices at the next and then two levels of superior flats and five floors of working-class accommodation above, segregated from their wealthier neighbours. The 1927 scheme held onto a mixed social profile, but was less divisive and built around the supply of light and air for all and a rooftop play area. Economic subsidy rules meant that the final scheme was exclusively for the working-class. Neville Chamberlain, Minister of Health and Housing, lent his name to one block, where we stand now, and laid the foundation stone on 1 February 1928.
A model estate, with central heating, it was a fine place to live. Over the years, it sank into and out of disrepair. Other council estates came to join it over the years, such as the low-rise Coopers Lane Estate in the 1970s. Somers Town is now dense with social housing and landmark estates. In 1973, Architectural Design journal had a special feature on the progressive nature of Camden’s social housing, including detailed plans of Oakshott Court Estate, on the site of the original Polygon.
In the 1980s, the Camden Journal and the St Pancras Chronicle, ran story after story about tenants’ dissatisfaction with the state of their homes. The Camden Journal of 17 October 1980 reported drainage problems at Levita House. Chalton Street was losing its small shops and becoming derelict. In Walker House, half of the flats were empty and boarded up. In the Camden New Journal, on 30 September 1982, there was a report of forty angry residents marching to the town hall with a jar of cockroaches from the Ossulston Estate. Squatters moved into empty flats. The inevitable eviction orders came, once the funds for renovation were received in 1984 from the GLC. But the battle to remove squatters was protracted. By the early 1990s, these blocks in Somers Town were refurbished and reopened. Now they are soon to be overshadowed by more major building projects to follow the Francis Crick and the British Library.
By Esther Leslie