Image Credit: Jonny Fuzz – Hastings & St. Leonards On-Sea Photography

St Leonards-on-Sea: An Ode to Time and Design

St Leonards-on-Sea is a town that invites more than just fleeting glances. This seaside gem, often simply known as St Leonards, isn’t just another coastal town—it’s a testament to human ambition, a living museum of architectural marvels, and a storybook chronicling centuries of evolution. Here we delve into the captivating history that defines this beautiful town.

The Origins & Foundation of the Architecture in St Leonards-on-Sea

St Leonards-on-Sea owes its inception to the vision of one man: James Burton. An accomplished architect and property developer in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Burton had already left his architectural mark on parts of London, most notably in Bloomsbury. However, as the 1800s dawned, he set his sights on the undeveloped Sussex coast, envisioning a new seaside resort that could rival nearby Brighton and Eastbourne.

In 1828, Burton began purchasing parcels of land in the area. His dream was not just to create a town, but to design a haven for the gentry and the affluent classes. The site he chose was between the old town of Hastings to the east and the village of Bexhill-on-Sea to the west. The natural beauty of the area, with its sloping landscapes and panoramic sea views, provided the perfect canvas for his vision.

Architectural Developments

James Burton’s design vision was meticulous. St Leonards-on-Sea was to be more than just a scattering of buildings along the coastline. Burton planned wide avenues, expansive public gardens, and a promenade along the seafront. These designs catered to the tastes and leisure pursuits of the 19th-century elite, offering both relaxation and a touch of opulence.

One cannot discuss the architecture of St Leonards-on-Sea without mentioning James Burton’s son, Decimus Burton. Following in his father’s footsteps, Decimus became an architect of repute. While James laid the foundation for the town, it was Decimus who enhanced its aesthetic appeal. He designed several iconic buildings and structures, infusing a unique blend of neoclassical and early Victorian styles into the architecture.

Among Decimus’s notable contributions was the construction of the St Leonards Archway, an impressive entrance to the town, and the creation of St Leonards Gardens – a beautiful, landscaped green space that still stands as a testament to the town’s opulent origins.

By the 1830s, St Leonards-on-Sea had successfully transformed from an unspoiled stretch of coast to a fashionable resort town. Its carefully laid-out streets, squares, and terraces attracted many visitors and residents. Hotels and lodging houses sprang up to accommodate the influx, and the town rapidly became synonymous with luxury and repose.

However, beyond the architecture and town planning, what truly set St Leonards apart was its atmosphere. It was a town conceived with the intent of providing an escape from the bustling city life. Its sea breezes, leisurely strolls along the promenade, and manicured gardens gave the gentry a sense of serenity and the comfort of refined living.

Key Architecture of Note In St Leonards

With a rich history of architecture, many of these designs can be observed today. There are many notable buildings to highlight as we delve into St Leonards architectural history.

1. Marina Court

Marina Court is one of the highlights of the Burton legacy. This crescent-shaped building, with its regal facade and overlooking the sea, is a classic representation of Regency architecture. The attention to detail, the grand balconies, and the ornate finishings make it stand out as an architectural marvel.

2. St Leonards Parish Church

Though not designed by the Burtons, the St Leonards Parish Church is an epitome of Gothic Revival architecture. Its arches, vaults, and flying buttresses give it an imposing presence, yet there’s a certain elegance to its structure. The stained glass windows, in particular, are a sight to behold, casting colourful reflections on sunny days.

3. Warrior Square Gardens and Surrounding Terraces

A visit to St Leonards is incomplete without a leisurely stroll through Warrior Square Gardens. Flanked by terraced houses, these gardens are reminiscent of the Victorian love for structured recreation spaces. The terraces, with their intricate brickwork, tall chimneys, and decorative ironwork, offer a slice of Victorian architectural aesthetics.

4. The Modern Merge: The Baker Mamonova Gallery

While St Leonards has its roots deep in historical architecture, it hasn’t shied away from embracing the modern. The Baker Mamonova Gallery, housed in what used to be the old cinema on Norman Road, is a fusion of the old and the new. Its Art Deco roots are evident, but contemporary touches have breathed new life into the structure. Today, it stands not just as a gallery but as a symbol of how St Leonards marries its historical essence with modern-day needs.

5. The Royal Victoria Hotel

Overlooking the sea, the Royal Victoria Hotel is a majestic representation of Victorian architecture. With its sprawling structure, large windows, and ornate detailing, the hotel has been a prominent fixture of St Leonards for decades. It’s not just an architectural marvel but also a nod to the town’s rich history as a seaside resort for the elite.

How St Leonard’s Architecture Is Preserved Today

In an effort to keep the integrity of St Leonards architecture, the Burton St Leonards Society and the Hastings and St Leonards Society were formed – both of which we are members.

Burton St Leonards Society is an organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of the architectural and historical heritage of the Burton St Leonards area. As mentioned earlier, James Burton was responsible for much of the development of this part of St Leonards-on-Sea. The Burton St Leonards Society exists in part to recognize his contributions and ensure that the unique architectural character and history of the area are preserved and celebrated.

The Hastings and St Leonards Society is an umbrella organization for all the other groups in the town concerned with conservation, heritage, and development. The society promotes enthusiasm for and pride in the town’s history and heritage throughout the community. The society was set up to serve as an umbrella organization for many groups in the town concerned with conservation, heritage, and development,

If you’re interested in the architectural and historical aspects of St Leonards-on-Sea or are a resident keen on preserving the unique character of the area, the Burton St Leonards Society and the Hastings and St Leonards Society play a vital role in these efforts.

A Quick Glimpse of St Leonards-on-Sea Through The Centuries

From its foundation as a haven for the elite in the 19th century, St Leonards-on-Sea has witnessed significant cultural, social, and infrastructural shifts that have shaped its present-day identity. This journey, spanning the bustling Victorian era, the tumultuous times of the World Wars, and the rejuvenation in the post-war years, paints a vibrant array of resilience, adaptation, and growth.

The Victorian Era: As the 19th century continued, St Leonards-on-Sea bloomed under the Victorian influence. The town, which began as a planned retreat for the affluent, soon caught the eye of the broader British public. The advent of the railways, especially the opening of St Leonards Warrior Square station in 1851, made the town easily accessible. This connectivity brought with it a boom in tourism. Hotels, guesthouses, and theatres sprung up, transforming the town into a bustling seaside resort. The Victorian appetite for leisure and seaside recreation gave rise to new attractions, including the West Marina Gardens and the pier. The town’s identity evolved from an exclusive enclave to a destination for the masses, without losing its architectural charm.

The World Wars: The turn of the century saw the world plunged into conflicts that would reshape nations and communities. St Leonards-on-Sea, like many British towns, felt the impact of both World Wars. During World War I, many of its grand buildings were requisitioned for use as hospitals or accommodation for troops. The town’s populace contributed to the war effort, both on the frontlines and back home.

World War II had an even more pronounced impact. Its coastal location made it vulnerable to air raids and attacks. Many residents were evacuated, and those who remained lived under the constant threat of bombings. The seafront and pier, once symbols of leisure, were barricaded and mined to deter potential landings. The post-war years left the town scarred but unbroken, with a determination to rebuild and rejuvenate.

Post-war Developments and Modernization: The aftermath of WWII was a pivotal time for St Leonards-on-Sea. The immediate post-war period was marked by repair and reconstruction. Many of the town’s historic buildings, damaged during the war, underwent restoration. The mid-20th century saw a shift in the town’s economic dynamics. The decline of the traditional British seaside holiday, coupled with increased mobility and overseas travel, meant St Leonards had to reinvent itself.

The latter part of the 20th century brought modernization. New housing developments replaced older structures, and the town began to diversify its economy, moving away from a sole reliance on tourism. The creative arts started to play a significant role in St Leonards’ identity. Artists, writers, and musicians were drawn to the town, attracted by its history, sea views, and emerging cultural scene.

Today, St Leonards-on-Sea strikes a balance between its rich history and the demands of the modern age. It retains its architectural marvels while embracing contemporary art and culture. Community-led initiatives, festivals, and events ensure that the town remains vibrant and forward-looking.

The Rich History of St Leonards-on-Sea

In the heart of England’s coast, St Leonards emerges not merely as a seaside haven but as a living testament to the passage of time and the enduring spirit of design. Its streets, echoing with tales of yesteryears, intertwine seamlessly with architectural masterpieces that stand as silent witnesses to the town’s rich heritage. From the visionary dreams of James Burton to the modern-day renaissance that colours its skyline, St Leonards serves as a poignant reminder that history and architecture are more than just relics of the past; they are the threads that connect us to our roots, inspire our present, and pave the way for the future. As the waves of the sea continue to shape its shores, so does the legacy of St Leonards, ever-evolving, ever-resilient, ever-majestic.