In the middle of London’s Soho Square, which dates back to 1681, stands a half-timbered gardener’s hut. It looks like a Tudor construction, something that might have been built four or five hundred years ago, but was actually built in 1925 as an access point to the electricity substation beneath it.
Back in the 1920s, the Charing Cross Electricity Company needed a private, above-ground entrance to its substation directly beneath Soho Square. Being such a historic part of London, and a pretty park to boot, it needed something that wouldn’t clash with its surroundings. So it decided to base its design on a Tudorbethan gardener’s hut that had previously stood in the center of the square in the 1870s (and which, according to a highly unlikely local legend, housed a secret tunnel to Buckingham Palace).
With the onset of World War II and the horrors of the Blitz, the hut, or more specifically the space beneath it, took on a far more important role: as a temporary bomb shelter. Talking to the Evening Standard in 2015, Leslie Hardcastle, president of the Soho Society, recalled what it was like to spend the night in the shelter: “It was lined with about 12 inches of brick and had concrete as a roof. It could take about 150 to 200 people initially although that became less when they put tiers of bunks in. The only facility was a toilet and it could get quite smelly with all the people down there.”
The hut made it through the war unscathed, and has since sat quietly in the center of Soho Square. About three-quarters of the shed is filled with spades, wheelbarrows, and other gardening tools used to maintain the surrounding park. A separate door gives access to the remaining space, which contains the vertical shaft that was once used to access the substation and, later, the shelter. Today, both are accessed by a far more conventional entrance on the western side of the square.
In 1992, the two-story hut was listed as a Grade II structure, ensuring its continued survival as a building of special architectural and historic interest. The cavernous 3,200-square-foot space beneath it, however, could once again take on a completely different role, from electricity substation to bomb shelter to… trendy Soho restaurant?
The space was put on the market in 2015 for £175,000 (about $242,000), with Westminster Council offering a long lease on the shelter. It soon attracted interest from three restaurant groups, as well as gym and music venue operators. So far, however, the space beneath Soho Square remains vacant and hidden from view.
Visit London with Atlas Obscura Trips
London Science Weekend: Medicine and Science in the Press
Join New York Times Journeys and Atlas Obscura for three days of scientific learning, special access and exploration in London. Accompanied by Times journalists and scientific experts, meet people contributing to the history of medicine and scientific journalism. This two-track program includes panels, exclusive visits and access to some of the best scientific minds available to concentrate on science reporting or medical history.