Elegy for a building

The building is still there, holding its head high, but it’s fatally wounded. It is plain to see that it won’t be with us for much longer. NIMR, Mill Hill – with its iconic copper green roof visible across north London; its 1930s art deco features; its massive presence on The Ridgeway NW7 – that building will very soon be flattened.

The main NIMR building on 14 June 2018. From some angles it looks almost untouched.

But in reality it is in tatters

I took one last stroll around there on a fine summer evening two weeks back. I walked along the roads and footpaths that allow you to circle the site. I enjoyed the green trees and the meadows, the birdsong and the flapping of birds in flight, the occasional sound of a car (reminding you that their sound is mostly absent from this green haven). I inhaled the desiccating smell of concrete dust and plaster, products of the demolition.

Fields behind the NIMR site

Fields and trees behind the site

Footpath leading from the back gate of the NIMR site.

Peering through the back gate into the NIMR site

Nearly all of the site is flattened now. There are mounds of rubble where buildings once were. I think I identified one pile where there used to be grad student houses. Large rollers are levelling some of the site.

A mound of rubble?

A roller


The oak trees along the Ridgeway

The oak trees at the front along The Ridgeway are still standing, and there are plenty more trees and green space to appreciate at the sides and back of the site. But even there one’s eye is inescapably drawn to the awful spectacle of Maxwell Ayrton’s grand 1930s building in a state of disarray.

View of NIMR from the fields at the back

View of NIMR building from the back, including sports pavilion.

Artists impression of the largest block to go up on the site, courtesy of Barratt Homes.

I’ll be happier when it’s all gone, and we can see the site alive with activity again, with 275 Barratt Homes raised up. One of the buildings will have a similar exterior appearance to the main NIMR building so it should look impressive once more.

Spot the shelves through the open windows

Insides laid bare, eviscerated

If you have good eyesight you can see the enquiry desk up there somewhere

Meanwhile it’s tantalising to see familiar parts of the interior laid bare and exposed to the elements. On the fourth floor, where the Library was, I could see some shelves (empty, of course) and the main enquiry desk.

I have already mourned the demise of NIMR. I have come to terms with the fact that my time in that particular job, in that particular environment, is over.  I have mourned the great historical resource that the NIMR Library collections constituted. There are some positives to set against the losses. I am lucky to have a (slightly altered) role in the Francis Crick Institute in its grand, brand new, building where I am gaining new experiences and developing new knowledge, and where many of my colleagues from Mill Hill now are.

After walking round the site I went into the Adam and Eve pub nearby to have something to eat. I saw a familiar face in there – an ex-NIMR employee – and said hello. While I was eating my dinner one of the songs that the live music trio played was “Nothing gonna change my world”, which seemed kind of ironic.

When I walked back to the bus stop I saw another familiar face – a past PhD student, with his parents who were visiting from China. He came to show them the place where he had worked/studied and was sorry to see the building in its current state.

My last view of NIMR

Some people have asked me whether it is ‘poignant’ or ‘weird’ to see the building reduced thus. I don’t think it is for me, surprisingly. My memories of 27 years going to work in that building are not located on the plot of land or in the building but are in my head, and they are still there. A little diminished perhaps by my fading powers of memory, but unaltered by bulldozers.

NIMR at night, ca 1950.

A Flickr album contains all the photos I took that evening.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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7 Responses to Elegy for a building

  1. Anthony Helm says:

    This is a valuable article and reminds me of my strong connections with “Mill Hill” and the good times I spent visiting.

  2. Jon Marsh says:

    The Institute was my working life of 42 years and I feel as if part of me has gone. Not sure if I can go there anymore now

  3. Daid Woodland says:

    So sad, the developers win the day again.

  4. Frank Johnson says:

    Sad to see, have got some very fond memories of working there. Will they reopen the public footpath that runs from the back fields up past the main building to the main road? Closed off when the security fencing went up due to ALF activity.
    It amazes me they are pulling it down to replicate it if the artist’s drawing is to be believed?

    • Frank Norman says:

      Hi Frank. I’m not exactly sure about that path, but the site will be open to visitors, with ornamental gardens and a lake. Barnet Council have insisted on that I believe, so I guess that path will be reopened.

      I don;’t know for sure but I can imagine that the main building as it was is not ideal for accommodation – those two small lifts, all that space on the 4th and mezzanine floors. I guess rebuilding gives them more flexibility.

  5. Dougie Coull says:

    Great write up. All who worked there have nothing but great memories and they can never take those away from us.

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