This avenue in Holborn is a modern addition to the area – by London’s standards that is, as it dates from 1910. Before that, the area was a conventional block of shops and houses having been developed by the 1670s.
The impetus for demolishing the block of small buildings and building this baroque avenue comes from the redevelopment of Kingsway and Southampton Row for the tram tunnel and general slum clearance to the south. As the road at the northern end where Sicilian Avenue is today needed widening to allow space for the tram tunnel, an opportunity was taken along with the expiry of shop leases for a larger redevelopment of the whole block instead, including the avenue running through the middle.
The avenue was designed by the architect Robert Worley in 1906 on behalf of the Bedford Estates in a monumental Edwardian style, originally clad in Italian marble, which was replaced in the 1920s for reasons I haven’t been able to ascertain.
The avenue appears to have been completed in April 1910, as that’s when the first adverts for retailers using that address appear in the newspapers, and The Sphere newspaper wrote a short article about the newly opened avenue in the same month.
Not much is known about the architect, other than that he and his brother, the better known Charles Worley, worked on the London Pavilion (now part of the Trocadero Centre), Piccadilly Circus, and Albert Court, a mansion block next to the Royal Albert Hall. It does seem odd that an architect was able to win such large commissions without leaving a long line of smaller works in his wake, but whatever he did before has been lost.
The construction of the avenue came at a time when pedestrian shopping avenues were rising in popularity, mainly in the Piccadilly area, and where those were covered passages, Sicilian Avenue is unapologetically expecting Italian weather with its open passageway surmounted at each end by Romanesque columns.
Although today the avenue is mainly lined with cafes and restaurants, it used to be a major hub for booksellers. Of particular note is the shop frontages, that project forwards from the stone surrounds to allow the most amount of light in, as they were built before the widespread use of electric lighting.
John Betjeman was quite keen on the avenue, describing it at a RIBA lecture in 1954 as an architectural joke, and he approved of architectural jokes.
The avenue has a mix of styles, but overwhelmingly an English Edwardian baroque that still manages, if you squint a bit, to look vaguely Italian. Deep red brickwork peels out above the second floor, largely covered by the richly decorated tiles.
The Italian airs to the avenue may be accidental though — as it’s not really Italian architecture and was originally going to be called Vernon Arcade, after Vernon Place, the road at the north end of the passageway, but the development was renamed Sicilian Avenue part way through its construction.
Although the building above the shops is now offices, when originally built, it was for two blocks of flats, known as Vernon House and Sicilian House. They were later converted into offices, and although joined as a single block internally, still have two separate entrances at street level.
Although built for the Bedford Estates, these days avenue is owned by Holborn Links, which owns a large block of land in the area. The avenue was refurbished to a design by Tate Hindle in 2015, restoring the original street lamps — although one seems to have been damaged and removed since then, leaving a small twig of Christmas tree decoration at the moment.
A second wave of refurbishment is expected soon, to clean up the office buildings on either side and running above the avenue shops.
Unsurprisingly for a passageway with an Italian name, there’s a long standing tenant, the Spaghetti House, which has been on the corner of Sicilian Avenue since 1955.