It’s time to re-name The Gherkin
One Of the most striking buildings in london has a lot more in common with the cigar industry than many people know, writes simon chase
Perhaps the most striking building to decorate the skyline of London’s main financial district, known as the City, is universally nicknamed the gherkin. Whether its architect, norman Foster, its developer, the swiss re insurance group, or some journalist impressed by the novelty of its design, came up with the sobriquet is unknown, at least to me.
Living as i do in a household where Polish influence is strong, i can always find a jar of gherkins in the fridge. When i pick one out to eat, it often strikes me just how little it resembles Foster’s innovative edifice. gherkins are green, knobbly and, almost without exception, bent. thankfully the sleek building now situated at no. 30 st. mary axe bears none of these attributes. st. mary axe is one of hundreds of small streets in the City with names like Cheapside, Poultry and Pudding Lane that reflect a history dating back more than a millennium—longer if you include the romans. surely from such a rich backdrop it would be possible to find a more suitable name for such a landmark.
From my recent research into the 225year history of hunters & Frankau, the Uk’s exclusive habanos distributor, i think i can offer a suggestion that fills the bill.
my first discovery was that st. mary axe loomed large in the story of the hunters side of hunters & Frankau. no. 55, st. mary axe was the address the company occupied for longer than any other in its extensive history. it remained there almost continuously for the 74 years from 1867 to 1941. i say almost continuously because, in 1893, the building, along with much of the street, was destroyed by fire. But within 12 months, a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing and distribution hub was erected on the site.
amongst today’s glazed towers housing thousands of computers screens attended by ambitious, white-collar executives, it is hard to imagine that the City was once a manufacturing centre. Contemporary trade press reports describe hunters’ new, light and airy, four-storey building with each floor served by a hydraulic lift. the top floor was for packing, the third for drying up to 800,000 cigars, the second was the sorting room with 50 sorters and the first was the rolling room, where 150 cigar makers turned out some 3.75 million cigars per year. the treasure was kept on the ground floor, where a vast store of havanas resided.
hunters’ tenure at “55”, as it was known
William klingenstein was a powerhouse of the 19thcentury cigar industry, and occupied nos. 24 to 28, st. mary axe.
for short throughout the company, was ended once more by fire; this time from the sky during an air raid on the night of 10 may, 1941.
Just up the street at no. 43 from 1903 up until that ill-fated night in 1941, another havana cigar importer called Braden & stark could be found. this was the company that, in 1916, bought J. Frankau & Co, the other component of hunters & Frankau, from the Frankau family. otto Braden, its chairman, was the man who undertook the long and tortuous negotiations in havana to buy the h. Upmann factory and brand, which started in 1922 and finally concluded in 1925. it was almost certainly from no. 43 st. mary axe that his journeys began.
in his obituary, which appeared in the april 1930 issue of tobacco magazine, Braden was described as “one of the leading lights (sic) of st. mary axe, the ‘Wall street’ of havana cigars.” if you haven’t realised by now which way i am heading, i am sure you do know.
at various times during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were no fewer than six other cigar companies trading in st. mary axe with names like the
the British importer for all of its brands.
In 1903, plans were afoot to construct a brand new building in St. Mary Axe for one of the City’s major institutions, the Baltic Exchange. Klingenstein’s site at Nos. 24 to 28 was chosen, so he had to leave. Providentially he was able to move literally next door to No. 30, where his business grew to become the largest importer of Havana cigars in Britain.
Although the Baltic Exchange survived the 1941 air raid, Klingenstein’s did not. The company, deprived by war-time restrictions of its supplies, was forced to merge with Hunters, trading briefly as Hunters & WK.
Fast forward to 1992, when the Baltic Exchange was irreparably damaged by an IRA bomb, and the decade-long saga of what to put in its place began in earnest.
In 2003, with an address of No. 30 St. Mary Axe, there arose a building which, if William Klingenstein, Otto Braden, Gustavo Bock or any of the other former doyens of London’s “Wall Street of Havana cigars” were alive to see it, they would deem a wholly appropriate shape to recognise their contribution to a noble trade that took place at the very same site, all those years ago. It is not a “gherkin”; it’s a beautifully tailored “Havana cigar”.