The building housing the new Heong Gallery at Downing was built c.1903, following the decision on 1 November 1902 to replace the College’s original Wilkins-designed stable block with a smaller stable building on the East side of College near Regent Street and another, even smaller, one near Tennis Court Road. On 1 December 1902, builders Messrs Coulson & Lofts were appointed to build the new stables.
The College had decided in 1885 to remove the original Wilkins stables, which occupied roughly the site of the Maitland Robinson Library today, and re-use the materials to improve the entrance to the College. However, the prohibitive cost of demolition at that time meant that the building’s removal was postponed indefinitely. The original Wilkins stable block was not actually demolished until work began on the new stables, c.1903.
In March 1903, it was decided to extend the stable block which was being built, to add additional sheds at the end of the building. The Governing Body minutes reported that the Bursar ‘was authorised to arrange for the erection, for the gardener’s use, of a tool shed and open shed and stable, to the North of the stables that are now being erected for the Master’s use’. The minutes report that the College’s Fellows waived their rights to the use of stables, although there is, sadly, very little information on the subsequent use of the building after its completion. This photograph, taken from the window of R6 looking east towards the back of the College’s Regent Street properties in Lent 1937, is the earliest known photograph of the Edwardian stable block.
It is not known exactly when the stable block ceased to be used for its original purpose, although there is evidence that another stable was built for the Master closer to the Master’s Lodge soon afterwards.
It is likely that the need for stables decreased early in the twentieth century with developments in other forms of transport. Sir Alan Bowness, whose modern art collection was loaned to the College for the first exhibition in the Heong Gallery, remembers the building as a bicycle shed by the early 1950s when he was a student at Downing. By the late twentieth century, it had become the home of the College’s maintenance staff, with a combination of store rooms below and rooms for staff on the floor above.
When the College began planning the redevelopment of its large commercial premises, Parker’s House, on Regent Street several years ago, it was originally intended to include an art gallery within the redeveloped Parker’s House building. However, the project’s architects, Caruso St John, identified the ‘old maintenance shed’ in the courtyard behind as a possible alternative – and more publicly accessible - space for the new gallery, as part of a new court to be created near the entrance to the College. Planning permission for the new First Court project was granted in March 2013.
A new maintenance building was built in the courtyard behind Regent Street as part of the First Court project to free up the old stable block for its transformation into the new art gallery. The Heong Gallery, named by Downing alumnus Alwyn Heong, opened to the public on 6 February 2016. It has recently been voted one of the BBC’s eight ‘Buildings to look out for in 2016’.