1 February 2021
By Chris Dodd
Simon Crosse, architect and Olympic oarsman, passed on 14 January. He redesigned London RC’s boathouse in the late 1960s, Chris Dodd writes.
Simon Crosse, who died on 14 January, at the age of 90, joined London Rowing Club in 1950 while a student at the Architectural Association. He was a giant oarsman, weighing in at 14 stone 4 lbs and standing at 6 feet 3.5 inches. Eight years later, he jumped to Colin Porter’s Barn Cottage, with whom he won a gold medal in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games on Llyn Padarn, Wales, with Porter, Mike Beresford, John Vigurs and Richard Gabriel (cox). Crosse rowed in the coxed four at the Rome Olympics in 1960, with Richard Knight, John M. Russell, John Tilbury and Terrence Rosslyn-Smith (cox), but the crew were unplaced.
Crosse joined the renowned architectural practice of Fielden and Mawson, which took him to Norwich, but when London Rowing Club decided to renovate its rotting boathouse in the late 1960s, he was the obvious choice.
The building designed by George Dunnage that opened in January 1871 was possibly the first boathouse to incorporate social facilities with boat storage. In 1969, it was in a sorry state, Crosse noting that wet rot from the first-floor loos was damaging the boats below. The shower facilities consisted of a zinc trough and a bucket of cold water. There was decayed linoleum on the floor of the changing room, icy blasts from ill-fitting windows and a mound of festering abandoned kit.
The entrance to the club was at the upstream end, giving access to a lobby full of empty barrels and bottles and a hatch through which pints were once passed to boatmen and others of that ilk not permitted to rub shoulders with gentlemen members. There was an inadequate kitchen, and the descent from the changing room was down a rickety wooden staircase with one light bulb. The cavernous boatshed had pools of mud on the floor. Tom Phelps, the club waterman, looked after the ancient fleet in conditions that would have made Fagin weep.
Peter Coni was the club’s fixer who laid out – in a typical Conigram – the problem and the solution. The members voted for extension and refurbishment, and Crosse was commissioned to design a new entrance at the downstream end of the building with a staircase leading to an office and a new club room (the Fairbairn) above new changing rooms on the ground floor.
It started well when Graham Hill, F1 world champion and sometime stroke of London RC’s Grand eight, drove an old Morris Oxford that had been purchased for £5 into the wall separating the club from Spring Passage. He took three runs at it, and the car was sold on for £15.
Rowing was moved to the Rutland boathouse in Hammersmith while work was in progress. Of course, costs soared, Spring Passage having turned out to be springier than envisaged. Parts of the scheme, such as glazing over the balcony for fine dining and enclosing the roof grandstand, were abandoned. The new copper boiler was nicked before installation and never seen again.
In 1971, costs had risen to £71,000 and funds were £14,000 short. Coni and Crosse expanded the appeal for money, and Crosse declared that Coni was his best client: ‘He knew my heart was in the right place, but nothing else. The result was that we got the building that we really wanted.’ Being architect to LRC, a place dominated by barristers, was more exacting than entering all seven events at the Olympics, Crosse told me later.
The building that reopened in June 1972 was an efficient low-maintenance shell. The boatshed had a workshop, a tank, a sloping anti-flood floor and racks for 100 boats. The first floor had a new lease of life, with a captain’s room and new kitchen. ‘No other club that I know in the country will have such facilities or so much space,’ Crosse said. ‘My prediction is that the cash turnover at the bar will soar. Beyond this, the club could do greatly increased business in letting out its clubroom and catering facilities.’ His message to the members was that ‘if you want carpets and polished floors, you must look after them yourselves and see to it that an impossible burden is not put on the steward and his wife.’
Incidentally, Crosse was not the only Fielden & Mawson connection at London RC. Barry Banyard was the firm’s interior designer when he joined the club in 1961, and later became head of interior design at Great Yarmouth college of art. Banyard, who died in 2014, was a great eccentric. He sported an enormous florid moustache and was a resident on the top floor, where he transformed his room into a wondrous chamber of modern living. He also tried his hand at sculling, with some success. He drove an old Bentley, a marque popular also with Simon Crosse.
One of Crosse’s commissions was to restore the Italianate external facade of F W Tasker’s 1877 St Patrick catholic church at Green Bank, Wapping. Notable buildings include Queen Elizabeth Close, an award-winning development of sheltered flats inside the wall of Norwich cathedral’s precinct. F&M were heavily involved in the new University of East Anglia (UEA), and Crosse designed the university’s chaplaincy, a concrete-faced blockhouse projecting into the central piazza with a flight of steps rising to a second floor that became the most used outdoor meeting place on campus.
Simon built himself a lovely house in the Cathedral Close, with the River Yare flowing past the garden where he could launch his sculling boat and row to his office. He also loved sailing and the Norfolk Broads, being owner of an Edwardian Broads sloop that he had restored. Kit Routledge, a former colleague, recalls a day out on the Swan (whose dinghy was called “Cygnet”) with skipper Simon, his young family, his cat and a large litter of kittens. ‘As a skipper he did a lot of shouting.’
Simon Courtney Crosse, born 21 May 1930, died 14 January 2021.