Survey of London: Volume 45, Knightsbridge. Originally published by London County Council, London, 2000.
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Wilton Place to William Street
The whole of this stretch of the road is occupied by a range of shops and flats, Nos 55–93 Knightsbridge, built in the early 1900s. This redevelopment, to allow the road to be widened, was one of the first major street improvements proposed by the new London County Council in 1889. Statutory powers were initially obtained in 1891, but, to avoid the expense of buying out the lessees, the work had to wait until the last leases expired in 1902 and the freeholders, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (successors to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey), could hand over the strip of land required for the road with vacant possession. (fn. 1)
By this time the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were taking the line that the 'gradual extinction' of the renewable lease system (customary on church-owned properties) was one of the objects for which they had been appointed. New leases would be offered in the first place to occupiers only. Dismayed, head lessees saw their leases extinguished and premises on which they and their predecessors had spent heavily, often over many generations, destroyed. (fn. 2)
The old houses were demolished in the late summer of 1902, and redevelopment (nearly all of it completed during 1903) was carried out by making building agreements with the occupiers. By these agreements, leading to 80-year leases for themselves or their nominees, occupiers undertook to rebuild on approved but evidently variable plans, 'adapting' the fronts to a master elevation (which included the flank wall of No. 55. in Wilton Place) prepared by the Commissioners' architect, W. D. Caröe. Nos 83–91 were rebuilt by (Sir) William Houghton-Gastrell, occupier of one of the old houses, on a similar agreement to the rest, but he was somehow able to secure a 999-year lease, which he apparently wanted because such a long lease from the Commissioners did not require assignments to be approved. The new buildings consisted of shops with flats or maisonettes above, Gastrell's section including Wilton House, No. 87 Knightsbridge, a group of private apartments. (fn. 3)
Also affected by the road-widening was a small wedge of the Lowndes estate at the top of William Street, where the northernmost house had to be cut back. A turret was added on the corner, at No. 93, originally blending with the Caröe range but now painted over (Plate 17c).
W. D. Caröe's façade (fig. 5), perhaps the most success ful treatment of any of the late Victorian and Edwardian blocks along both sides of Knightsbridge, is carried out in two-inch brick with stone dressings. The rich and often quirky detail includes six busts, set in pediments over the first-floor windows: they portray Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, Field Marshal Lord Roberts, his secondin-command in the Boer War, Lord Kitchener, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, and the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (Plate 38b, 38c, 38d, 38e, 38f, 38g, 38h, 38i). A plaque records the year of building as that of Edward's coronation, 1902.
The whole of the tenants have, either personally or through their architects and solicitors, strenuously resisted the unheard-of and unprecedented pretensions of the architect, who, not content with having a free hand (which he has used unsparingly in erecting these ornate and costly edifices at the expense of the tenants . . .) desires to dictate and impose upon them shop-fronts totally unsuited for their trades. (fn. 4)
Businesses in the newly built block included the Byzanotype Portrait Company, art dealers, Robersons Ltd, the period-interiors specialists, a newspaper advertising agency, a theatre-ticket office, a bridge club, and one of Hamley Brothers' toy-shops. (fn. 5)
The redevelopment proved far from beneficial for some of the lessees, whose small businesses did not require large premises but who had to pay ground-rent on their buildings regardless of whether tenants could be found for their spare rooms. The problem became acute during the First World War, and by 1917 all along the new row businesses had closed; tenants decamped owing rent, and shops and flats remained empty, in some cases for several years, or were occupied at nominal rents. (fn. 6)
The Albert Café and Restaurant, an Italian-owned business founded here in the 1880s, was re-established at No. 77, but here there was a different problem: the lack of a spirits licence. In the past if diners wanted spirits a boy would run over the road to one of the public houses beside Holy Trinity Church for them, but after the pubs were demolished the Ecclesiastical Commissioners refused to allow a licence to be taken out. This became a serious hindrance to the restaurant, which passed through several hands before coming to an end during the First World War. Its last proprictor was 'Sunny Jim' Califano, who had made something of a name for himself at Romano's and the Savoy and Cecil Hotels. (fn. 7)
Within a few years of the end of the war things seem to have picked up and the block was again fully occupied. From this time the upper floors were increasingly used as offices. (fn. 8)
Since the Second World War the shops in the block have been largely occupied by clothing and footwear retailers. In the 1940s one firm. Margaret Marks Ltd, costumiers, occupied four adjacent shops, Nos 71–79, and for part of the '50s and '60s Harvey Nichols had its 'Little Shop' at Nos 73–79. (fn. 9)
In September 1975 the attempted armed robbery of the Spaghetti House restaurant at Nos 77–79 led to a six-day siege of the building, where the robbers, who were linked to the black rights movement, held hostages in the basement.