In the early 1930s, the Caravan Club was not only a basement bar and nightclub in London’s West End, but also a refuge for the gay and lesbian community at a time when homosexuality was illegal and punishable by imprisonment. In 1934, after surveying the venue for months, police raided the club, arresting more than 100 patrons, and the Caravan Club was shuttered.
Though the original structure no longer exists, the National Trust and the National Archives for the United Kingdom has re-created the Caravan Club at the nearby Freud Café-Bar as one stop on their Queer City: London tour. The venue celebrates Covent Garden and Soho’s LGBTQ club culture and the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offenses Act 1967, which partially decriminalized homosexual acts in England and Wales.
ARCHITECT recently spoke with co-designers Helen Scarlett O’Neill and Harry Ross—who have been designing site-sensitive experiences based on building and community history or legacies together since 2010 with their design and production studio O'Neill Ross—about the process of re-creating the iconic space with rich textiles, atmospheric lighting, and historic documentation of the raid.
How did you conceptualize the space?
We looked to make the space as close to the original as possible by using archival photographs, while making the most of the architectural features at Freud Café-Bar. We ended up overlaying sections of the re-creation onto the existing architecture, which played to the advantages of the live space.
Why did you select the textiles that are on display?
We used a combination of period-correct materials, and materials that were sourced in the spirit of the Caravan Club. Although the National Archives only had black-and-white photographs, we were able to discern some colors and textures from the police surveillance records. It was particularly fun to source a combination of chintz, brocades, antique rugs, and oriental silks that clashed, but also had unified density and color.
The hodgepodge nature of the space is a key narrative element. The owners of the club must have known that the future of the venue was constantly in the balance, as other pre-existing clubs met a similar fate. It was important that we got this combination right.
How have you chosen to illuminate the space?
We installed a simple ceiling rig using electric pendant lamps, which we made out of Moroccan lampshades. These followed the aesthetic of the original [fixtures]. We also deploy a hazer to decrease visibility—as smoking is no longer allowed inside.
Did you construct any elements specifically for the exhibit?
There are two wooden armchairs and two barrel chairs, which were built from photographic evidence. All of the divan seating is bespoke. There's also a wooden hanging frame enclosing the majority of the space from which we hung the ceiling and surrounding fabrics.
How do you want visitors to experience the space?
There are two different moments in the Caravan's life that we're trying to recreate. During the day, tour goers will find themselves confronted with a desolate space that has been raided the night before by the police. In one corner, a temporary police desk is situated. This is where found items are inventoried and eyewitness accounts have been typed up—a way for us to exhibit the facsimile documents we selected with the National Archives. As the space is in post-raid state, there are cigarette butts littering the floor and soiled drinking vessels and other human detritus that was cited in the police reports or visible in the photographs.
In the evening we bring the club to life in collaboration with actor Ralph Bogard and a nightly roster of some of London's best cabaret performers. They have all read through the archival material and have based their performances on some of the documented interactions. The atmosphere is liberal and permissive. A safe space, but on the edge.
Queer City tours and evening events will be available through March 26.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.