The Architecture of the Estate: Modern Times

Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1977.

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'The Architecture of the Estate: Modern Times', Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History), (London, 1977), pp. 161-170. British History Online [accessed 21 June 2024].

. "The Architecture of the Estate: Modern Times", in Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History), (London, 1977) 161-170. British History Online, accessed June 21, 2024,

. "The Architecture of the Estate: Modern Times", Survey of London: Volume 39, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History), (London, 1977). 161-170. British History Online. Web. 21 June 2024,

Modern Times

Twentieth-century development upon the London estates of the Grosvenors, as previously, has kept in general respects of pattern and style to the ordinary progress of English architecture. Thus a conservative vein, gradually shorn of its classical attributes in response to the dictates of function and cost, has long persisted, giving way only very recently to the more forthright modes of the present day. But because of its homogeneity and its special blend of domestic and commercial occupation, the Mayfair estate is a good area in which to focus upon the conflicts and trials that have beset modern urban architecture. Here, more particularly, one may ponder upon the achievements and the failures of neo-Georgianism as a style not just for our houses but also for our city centres. The contrasts are struck most starkly in Grosvenor Square, scene of one of London's most ambitious and comprehensive rebuilding projects of modern times, yet with Eero Saarinen's American Embassy at flagrant stylistic odds with its three other sides. Elsewhere, in a less dramatic instance of the same seemingly contradictory tendencies, bulky blocks of flats and offices invaded the main streets, while 'bijou' Georgian-style houses sprang up in the refurbished mews behind. Complete uniformity in so large a compass could of course be neither expected nor applauded. Yet there can be no doubt that over the last fifty years the architectural personality of the estate has been continually in question.

After the war of 1914–18, it at first looked as though the Mayfair estate might quickly resume its old role as the doyen of high-class residential areas. Despite post-war shortages and high costs of building materials, the Green Street-Park Street and South Street-Waverton Street redevelopments were soon completed and two large individual houses erected, No. 38 South Street for Henry McLaren (later Lord Aberconway) by Wimperis and Simpson (1919–21), and No. 15 Aldford Street for Cuthbert Heath by George Crawley (1919–21). No. 38 South Street, 'the last private house of great size to be built in London' (as The Times was to call it), (fn. 1) was a sophisticated essay in the mature brick manner of Lutyens for a client who knew the great architect but did not choose to employ him, possibly fearing his expense. As if to compensate for the vast, pre-war scale of the rooms, its polished interiors, partly designed by Harold Peto, were in a restrained, up-to-date style (Plate 43b). Heath's house was more old-fashioned, a staid stone mansion with a garden frontage towards Park Lane and some elaborate ironwork; its architect, George Crawley, was an amateur of some standing, who seems equally to have enjoyed designing palatial edifices in the United States and stockbroker manors in Surrey. (fn. 2) Crawley also altered Aldford House close by, and at one stage produced a complex scheme of flats for the Grosvenor House site, so his connexions with this part of Park Lane were strong. But his epoch was over; no work of Crawley's survives on the estate, which began reaping the whirlwind of change soon after these two big houses were finished.

Park Lane is the most graphic illustration of the sudden change of tack. After five years of prevarication, Grosvenor House was torn down in 1927. Aldford House followed in c. 1930, Charles Barry's No. 2 South Street and its neighbours at much the same time, and in 1936, after only fifteen or so years of existence, No. 15 Aldford Street disappeared together with all its neighbours on the present Fountain House site. So by the war of 1939–45, the whole of the Park Lane frontage of the estate south of Upper Grosvenor Street had been dramatically redeveloped and replaced by the high buildings familiar today. Further north, the rebuilding of Brook House and of Nos. 105–108 meant that only Nos. 93–99, No. 100 (Dudley House), and the two ranges between Nos. 117 and 138 including the backs of the houses in Norfolk (now Dunraven) Street (Plates 19, 21) survived as reminders of the old scale and dignity of this once charming thoroughfare. As brutally as the age of the great town house was over, the age of the high-rise block had begun.

In terms of mere extent, these big inter-war buildings were no novelty to Mayfair. Many of the ranges built during the first Duke's campaigns and, more recently, the block erected by Wimperis and Best at Nos. 55–57 (consec.) Grosvenor Street and Nos. 4–26 (even) Davies Street had been as ambitious. But (with the significant exception of Claridge's) they had been humanized by frequent subdivision, moderate height, and much plasticity, whereas now the revolution of steel-framing had unleashed a new scale of overall design. The first important example of steel-framing on the estate is the group of flats situated on the corner with Oxford Street at Nos. 139–140 Park Lane, and characterized by Goodhart-Rendel as 'much the best architecture that can be found in that thoroughfare'. (fn. 3) Erected in c. 1913–19 to the designs of Frank Verity, who had built a similar, smaller block of flats at No. 25 Berkeley Square some years earlier, the prominent Park Lane project attracted much attention and even made the favourably-inclined Grosvenor Board 'somewhat nervous as to the effect on the residents and public' (not least because the estate's only cinema was included behind). (fn. 4) Their apprehension cannot have diminished as building dragged on through the war years, but the various changes and delays did allow the capable and reliable Verity to mature an admirable set of neo-Grec elevations in stone to clothe his steel frame (Plate 48a).

For a few years it looked as though Verity's kind of idiom, with its capacity for easy translation into the smart Egyptian, Assyrian and Aztec modes of the 1920's, might have a future in Mayfair. But the only building overtly of this nature was the reinforced concrete garage in Balderton Street (1925–6, surprisingly by Wimperis and Simpson with strong support from structural engineers). Bolder and more conspicuous ventures of the Selfridges type do not seem to have been welcome on the estate. Nevertheless, one or two large stone-faced and steelframed buildings did appear in the immediate post-war years. One, Brookfield House at Nos. 62–64 (even) Brook Street on the corner with Davies Street, was among the first purpose-built office buildings on the estate, with a bank on the ground floor. It had been projected in 1917, but when it was built in 1922–3 its architect Delissa Joseph was asked to make its elevation, at least towards Brook Street, 'as much as possible bear the appearance of a private residence'. (fn. 5)

Another and more meritorious example of steel-framing on the estate is the range of shops and offices at Nos. 415–419 (odd) Oxford Street, between Duke Street and Lumley Street (Plate 48b). This composite free-standing block, begun in 1923–4 with No. 419 designed by G. Thrale Jell (architect of the Piccadilly Arcade), was completed as one range in the same style by Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie (No. 415 in 1926–7, No. 417 in 1935), but the overall design is probably Jell's. Because of its location on a candidly commercial street he was able to adopt the principles of Chicago, with plenty of window space for shops below and showrooms and offices above. America henceforward was to be an important factor in Grosvenor estate buildings. Just a little further east, another hint of changes to come occurred when in 1924 Charles Holden (of Adams, Holden and Pearson) did one of his earliest jobs for London's transport, the modest but prototypical remodelling of the exterior of Bond Street Tube Station with a neat stone frame, a canopy, and illuminated signs. It should be added that the station was no longer on the estate, as the site had been conveyed to the Central London Railway in 1897, so the Duke was in no way responsible for Holden's employment here.

For the core of the estate, still a distinctly domestic neighbourhood, those in architectural control had other ideas. Whatever frictions arose between Edmund Wimperis as estate surveyor and the second Duke's secretary Detmar Blow, they and their allies (Wimperis's partners W. Begg Simpson and L. Rome Guthrie, and Blow's old associate Fernand Billerey) were agreed in their adherence to a more or less classic style for future developments, and specifically to the type of reduced neo-Georgianism of 'Wrenaissance' embraced by Lutyens and his school for London buildings. These men, with the possible exception of Billerey, were broadly speaking architects of texture rather than structure. In the early 1920's their feeling was still primarily for domestic work, and they were firm believers in a refined neo-Georgian brick architecture as the right treatment for both private houses and flats. And by now, more flats were an inevitability. The too-great size of many of the old houses on the estate may have been just one of several factors contributing to a southward movement of the epicentre of fashionable Mayfair, to the more resilient areas of Hill Street and Charles Street. Something had to be done to keep the Grosvenor estate up to date, and flats and smaller dwellings were the most obvious answer. Thus for instance No. 7 Grosvenor Square was converted from one house into four in 1925, and in Upper Brook Street, where a grand house had been destined for the site of No. 42 before the war, what eventually went up in 1928–9 was a small luxury block of flats by T. P. Bennett. In a somewhat different vein of multi-occupation, No. 86 Brook Street was virtually rebuilt in 1922 to the discreet designs of C. H. Biddulph-Pinchard, becoming the headquarters of a team of consulting physicians and surgeons and gaining an elegant new front to Binney Street. There were still a few optimists, notably in the square, who were keen to expand their houses. One was Major Stephen Courtauld of No. 47 Grosvenor Square, for whom Vincent Harris added a music room (1926) and, further behind the house, a 'racquets court' (1924). Several such private courts appeared on the estate during these years, but this is the only one to survive conspicuously; its cheerful brick-and-pantiled façade can still be seen on the west side of Carlos Place, sandwiched between two large blocks. Again, as late as 1936 Collcutt and Hamp added bedrooms and radically altered the interior at No. 25 Grosvenor Square for Lady Cecilia Baillie. But subdivision and conversion were the commoner trends.

Still, conversion and infilling could by no means satisfy the demand. Therefore the firm of Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie, who took the lion's share of major commissions on the estate in the mid 1920's, had like so many architects of the period to change the tenor of their work. A few words on the character of this firm are worth including. By this time Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie were developing into one of the busiest and most respected practices in London, specializing in large commercial commissions throughout the West End, though the Grosvenor estate was their stronghold. The partners were Edmund Wimperis, still until 1928 the estate surveyor and ever the dignified and courteous Edwardian gentleman; W. Begg Simpson ('Simmy'), always dapper with a carnation in his buttonhole, and increasingly occupied by the business work of the firm; and L. Rome Guthrie, a Scot, son-in-law of William Flockhart, and established as a well-known architect before he joined the practice in 1925. At their office (just off the estate in South Molton Street) this trio presided benignly over an assiduous body of underlings. New jobs were normally assigned to one particular partner or another, though it is rarely possible to say which job went to whom. But it does appear that from the time of Guthrie's arrival he gradually took on more of the most important designing work, while Wimperis especially began to reduce his commitments. (fn. 6)

On the Grosvenor estate, the crucial buildings erected by the firm in the 1920's were not the occasional private houses like No. 38 South Street or the pert No. 64 Park Street, but their big new blocks of flats. These, like the houses, were designed with elevations of the elegantly textured red bricks (mainly from Daneshill) that were then fashionable, and for a time still sported ample classical details in stone. The first of these blocks was the justly admired Mayfair House, Carlos Place (1920–2). It was followed by three at the corner of Upper Brook Street and Park Street: Upper Feilde (1922–4), Upper Brook Feilde (1926–7), and No. 80 Park Street (1929–30). Also in the group is the important Nos. 49–50 Grosvenor Square (1925–7) in the south-east corner, precursor of much that was to follow in the square. Of these blocks of flats, Upper Feilde (at No. 71 Park Street) is worth singling out as an instructive early attempt to enliven an essentially plain six-storey elevation (Plate 49a); it embodies cleverly contrived bonding patterns, delicate diapers in the brickwork, and even a small gable or two. Close by, on Upper Brook Feilde (at No. 47 Park Street), the architects fought back against monotony by means of a giant order on the main front and, to get extra accommodation, crammed two storeys instead of one into the roof, above the line of the 'architecture' (Plate 49b). But here and in their big corner block at Nos. 49–50 Grosvenor Square, stretching back along the east side of Carlos Place, they came up against the problem then exercising half London's architects. How could a style that was domestic in scale be articulated to fit the height and density required in the new, large city buildings equipped for modern living? This was the real, practical crisis for neoGeorgianism: not the challenge of Corbusier, but its own ultimate lack of elasticity for urban buildings of scale. What so often occurred was that the style was gradually deprived of its most obvious appurtenances so as to minimize two quite distinct problems, those of cost and those of proportion. Divested of its stylistic features, it easily sank into monotony and fell prey to critics of new persuasions.

However, on the Grosvenor estates this steady tendency towards simplification was to be stoutly, if briefly, resisted at the behest of Detmar Blow, now in the ascendant at the Grosvenor Office. In an unusual step, two independent architects, Edwin Lutyens and Fernand Billerey, were called in to help on different Estate schemes of redevelopment, while a third, Frederick Etchells, was entrusted with a variety of minor employments. More than anything, it seems to have been the question of Grosvenor House, uninhabited by the Duke since the first World War and temporarily under Government occupation, that precipitated this move. As early as 1923, Billerey and Etchells had been involved by the Estate in proposals for the site, and several abortive schemes followed, notably one worked out by the New York architect Whitney Warren, and another by George Crawley and Gervase Bailey. But it was not until 1926, when proposals for a new building on the site of the old house were finally agreed upon, that Lutyens was called in.

From this time the short but vital era of architectural consultation begins. Its peak coincides in fact with Blow's heyday between 1928, when Wimperis relinquished the estate surveyorship, and his own abrupt retirement in 1933. In this period, loose but distinct spheres of interest speedily emerged. Lutyens took the big blocks ripe for redevelopment, principally Grosvenor House and Hereford House; Billerey was called in over the proposed rebuilding of Grosvenor Square; and Etchells quietly diverted himself with private commissions in the mews. At first sight the emergence of these particular individuals appears arbitrary : Lutyens, acclaimed first architect of the day and prince of English traditions of design; Billerey, reclusive and meticulous Beaux-Arts designer; and Etchells, young Vorticist painter, translator of Le Corbusier, Anglo-Catholic enthusiast, and clever amateur in all the arts. Doubtless, the heterodoxy and informality of their characters appealed to Blow, weary of the steady efficiency of the Wimperis firm. Strong individualism was a particularly necessary quality for Lutyens and Billerey, since their job was to bestow grace and style upon the exteriors of a new set of buildings, most of which had a more mundane character and function than those of earlier epochs. What is remarkable is the extent to which their answers to the problems which Blow presented to them coincided uniformly in a reinforcement of that brick-classic tradition that was now gradually vanishing from so much of urban architecture.

The most graphic example of this is Grosvenor House. In 1926 A. O. Edwards, a speculator who had gained experience on part of the site of Devonshire House, came forward with a comprehensive scheme to include a hotel and flats, his architect being L. Rome Guthrie. It is said that Guthrie brought the job with him into the office of Wimperis and Simpson, whose ranks he joined as a partner at just this time. But by the time that Guthrie's drawings were complete, Blow had brought in Lutyens and made various suggestions to him. The deliberate plainness of Guthrie's submitted elevations evidently did not appeal to the Duke's advisers, and this gave Lutyens the chance to take over, alter and dramatize the façade-composition; and also to add some extra height. So Grosvenor House, as built in 1926–30, is in its plan basically Guthrie's and in its dress mainly Lutyens's: the hand of the latter is easily betrayed by the special brand of classicism employed on the ground storeys and on the high stone pavilions, so reminiscent of his work at Delhi (Plate 48c).

But there were other influences at work as well. Grosvenor House was intended by Edwards to cater 'specifically for the American market', (fn. 7) so in the layout good note was taken of American models and the complex was broken up into several separate blocks with deep setbacks from the street between them, instead of the internal light-wells traditional to Britain. Lutyens, who in 1925 had visited the United States for the first time, discovering much to admire in contemporary architecture there, had thought the skyscrapers 'growing from monstrosities to emotions of real beauty'. (fn. 8) Ever quick to adopt and perfect an idea, Grosvenor House shows him refining the American innovation of a crowning classical storey, as in his contemporary Midland Bank, Poultry, and Britannic House, Finsbury Circus.

At Grosvenor House, Lutyens was closely confined. His attic pavilions had to be limited to the ends of the four blocks, the linking bridges he had wanted between the two main portions were omitted, and the upward recession in mass for which he constantly strove in his later civic works could hardly be realized. The result was in fact a compromise and because of its great bulk inevitably controversial. It has never been thought wholly successful. Lutyens's official chronicler A. S. G. Butler believed that the criticism really stemmed from the fact that new Grosvenor House spelt the knell of one-time fashionable Park Lane as a residential street. (fn. 9) But a shrewd contemporary article in The Times sums up the real problem: 'what is the matter with Grosvenor House is precisely that it is not designed as a big building. It is an overgrown small building, stretching a familiar and endearing style of domestic architecture beyond its capacity to please. Every architectural style has its proper scale, and it is a fairly safe general rule that, if you greatly enlarge —or diminish—scale, you must change style.' (fn. 10)

Nevertheless Lutyens had furnished the estate with a spectacular building, and was to do so again, at Hereford House in Oxford Street. Here the whole of the Victorian development of Hereford Gardens together with the open space in front was destined to disappear in favour of a grand store for Gamages with flats above, to plans by C. S. and E. M. Joseph. Lutyens provided elevations in September 1928 and building took place in 1929–30. This time, though the site was more enclosed, the design problems were not so great and Lutyens could respond to the scale with the high recessed classical features that he loved on all four sides. Towards Oxford Street he also introduced a small engaged colonnade, thus restoring to the Grosvenor estate side of the street a little of the swagger stolen by Selfridges across the way. On the whole Hereford House, though a ruinous enterprise for Gamages, turned out more satisfactorily than Grosvenor House. It was beyond even Lutyens's power entirely to redeem the problems of scale. But in each case he had given a touch of distinction to what might otherwise have been just another pair of massive rebuildings.

The smaller rebuildings in which Lutyens was involved need briefer comment. One was Audley House, Nos. 8–10 North Audley Street, where he provided a sketch elevation for the block of shops and residential flats planned by J. Stanley Beard and erected in 1927–9. Like Grosvenor House and Hereford House, Audley House is of red brick with some distinguishing stone dressings. But at No. 8 Upper Grosvenor Street, also in 1927–8, Lutyens surprisingly was asked to improve a single stone houseelevation. For this and two other advisory jobs on further sizeable rebuildings along Park Lane, Aldford House (1930–2) and Brook House (1933–5), he was paid a standard fee of fifty guineas each time. It must have been an ad hoc consultative procedure, for he played no known part in either the decent Nos. 105–108 Park Lane of 1930–2 (Plate 49c), designed like the new Brook House by Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie, or the inferior Nos. 56–62 Park Lane (1933–4), by Trehearne and Norman, Preston and Company. Billerey, too, was consulted on some of these sites, particularly Brook House, but there is good circumstantial evidence that neither he nor Lutyens had any substantial hand in the design of this interestingly planned block, where Guthrie once again was the principal architect. The best of all these buildings is the new Aldford House (Plate 49d), for which the architects were George Val Myer and F. J. Watson-Hart, designers of Broadcasting House. As usual, it is divided between banks and shops below and flats above, but the flats have continuous, canted balconies that form a horizontal banding to the block and contribute to a more lively and up-to-date treatment than any of its neighbours received. The receding top storeys, culminating in the surprise of end pediments and a gabled roof, suggest the possibility of a more extensive and specially constructive piece of intervention by Lutyens here, but this is not known for certain.

After Blow's eclipse, however, Lutyens was no longer used by the Grosvenor Estate as a consultant. He was briefly superseded by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was well paid for advice on Fountain House, Park Lane (1935–8, also by Myer and Watson-Hart), but this appears to have been the single instance of his consultation. In a personal capacity, Lutyens also made a number of minor domestic alterations on the estate, from those at No. 12 Grosvenor Square, probably of 1895, to those at No. 5 Balfour Place in 1934, but none was of consequence.

It is surprising, possibly even disappointing, that the job of rebuilding Grosvenor Square did not fall to Lutyens, the only designer of the period who had the stature, temperament, and needful mixture of charm and aggression to force such a bold concept through to fulfilment. Fernand Billerey had no such natural advantages. Neither his French background nor his self-effacing modesty was calculated to work to his benefit in a situation where the support and co-operation of estate managers, speculators and fellow-architects had to be secured for the elevations that he was commissioned to impose upon them. Many of the difficulties Billerey did manage to overcome, but others turned out to be insuperable.

The chronology of the long-drawn-out Grosvenor Square rebuilding has already been given (see page 77), but it remains to consider the architectural character and assess the outcome of this great scheme. Today there is no longer any need to challenge on doctrinaire grounds Billerey's choice of style for Grosvenor Square as old fashioned, since the fashion which it represents has now passed into history. His neo-Georgian, in textured brick with ample stone dressings, tested, formalized and refined through contact with the Beaux-Arts disciplines that were his own particular strength, corresponded precisely with that partial view of eighteenth-century tradition that the guardians of the estate's image cherished most dearly. Nor can Billerey be blamed in any way for the failure to complete the square. Given the leasehold system of tenure, the rupture between his ally Blow and the Duke in 1933, and the depressed economic situation that persisted through the decade, a quick completion to unified designs was impossible. But one pertinent question, having little to do with style but much to do with the history of Grosvenor Square, has to be asked. Was the conception of a unified, composed rebuilding of the square in itself a wise one?

In the eighteenth century, attempts to sustain a single composition along individual sectors of the square had succeeded on the east but failed on the north. Then in the Cundy era, though Blow and his associates probably did not know it, what appears to have been an attempt to secure uniformity by refrontings had also died the death. So a composed, classical Grosvenor Square was a recurrent theme, and because of modern leasing policies it stood real chances of success in the twentieth century. But the British, traditionally respectful of the rights of property, have been equally often rebels against formality in aesthetics and dictatorship in design, even when initiated by the very same landlords. So much the estate managers might have learned from the painful recent histories of Regent Street and Kingsway. In Grosvenor Square they were to get nearer to success, but a major factor in their frustration was to be the old conception of the London square in terms of individual, private plots. In this conception there was much aesthetic sense as well as practicality. The Grosvenor Square which the twentieth century demolished was not meant to be 'read' as one, but as a set of variations upon the domestic theme, to which the amenity of the garden gave relief. Though the old houses of that square could hardly all survive into the age of the apartment block, the case for judicious variety and gradual replacement was a strong one. Since modern developers press both for height and for breadth of frontage, the variations would certainly have been difficult to control; arguably indeed, uniform development has meant that Grosvenor Square has escaped the fate of, say, modern Golden Square or Hanover Square. But this has been at a cost. The long sides of today's square, however well composed, cannot comfortably be taken in at a glance. The thinning of trees and opening out of the central garden, though intended to pull the square together, actually draws attention to this problem. As a result, the modern visitor scurries through Grosvenor Square, absorbing little of the refined architecture that is about him, or at best fixing on the comparatively brash but finite bulk of the American Embassy upon its western side.

Billerey was in some measure alive to the dangers of an over-extended composition on the two long sides. Evidently the Place de la Concorde, most obvious of models for a large open square, was much before his Gallic consciousness. Indeed in a design of 1936 for the south side he actually divided the range into two, with a wide gateway in the centre. This was doubtless not feasible because of the sacrifice of space involved, but it was visually a good principle and makes the loss of his overall design for this side the sadder. It is only on the north, the one side completed recognizably to his design (except for the roof), that Billerey's grasp of an architecture of scale and texture, with its refinements of sculptural detail and brickwork and its small breaks and recessions to avoid monotony, can be readily appreciated (Plate 54b).

Even on this side, and much more visibly on the others, variations of detail in parts of different date can naturally be found. These variations are more dramatically apparent on the return flanks and backs of the new Grosvenor Square, some of which have an interest of their own. The return flank along North Audley Street of No. 21, part of the first block to be rebuilt (1933–4), adopts the then fashionable light-well set back from the street, whereas at the other end of the north side, Lewis Solomon, Kaye and Partners' Europa Hotel (1961–4) has an expansive façade towards Duke Street incorporating a small drive-in. Brutally different again are the rear elevations of the square's other hotel, the Britannia by Richard Seifert and Partners (1967–9) at Nos. 39–44 in the middle of the south side; here, in compensation for the loss of a modern façade or entrance to the square, the design breaks with redoubled vigour towards Adams Row into the blocky pre-cast concrete idiom so characteristic of this firm. One of the minor entertainments of modern Grosvenor Square is to stroll around the neighbouring streets and mews and note how many disparate bedfellows in the way of embassies, hotels and flats can be found snuggling together under Billerey's all-enveloping classical counterpane.

Of the architects regularly employed to advise the Estate during this period, the third, Frederick Etchells, is something of an elusive figure, and his direct work for the Estate was much less far-reaching than that of Lutyens or Billerey. A dilettante of the best and most capable kind and an associate of Blow as far back as 1911, (fn. 11) Etchells liked small jobs with which to keep himself amused, and of these the Grosvenor estate had plenty. In 1923 he had a model prepared in connexion with one of the Grosvenor House proposals, a task he again undertook for Lutyens in 1929. By 1925 he was also being paid in connexion with a variety of small commissions, sometimes matters like lettering on signboards. But by the time that Wimperis retired in 1928, Etchells was privately establishing himself as monarch of the mews, with all that this now implied.

The 'bijou' mews house in Mayfair had, perhaps surprisingly, a short pre-war history. Possibly motors took up less space than horses, for as early as 1908 the Grosvenor Board agreed to the conversion of some of the stables in Balfour Mews and Streets Mews (now Rex Place) which were letting badly, and duly in that year No. 1 Streets Mews was turned into a private house (now No. 2 Aldford Street). Then after a gap of about five years, the architects Gilbert and Constanduros added a storey at No. 1 Balfour Mews (now No. 3 Aldford Street) for Monty Mendelssohn, a small speculator, and Stanley Barrett and Driver altered No. 17 Balfour Mews (now No. 23 South Street) for two maiden ladies, in both cases with the help of Thackeray Turner, joint architect of the original stabling here. By 1915, on the strength of the many applicants he had for his conversion, Matheson (as Mendelssohn now called himself) was able to report 'great demand' for what he was already speaking of as 'bijou' housing, and after the war this rapidly increased. (fn. 12) One of the first such post-war conversions, again undertaken by Matheson with Gilbert and Constanduros at No. 1 Mount Row in about 1919, was deemed worthy to be published in Country Life four years later. (fn. 13) Characteristically, as little as possible of the exterior was changed, but the whole of the inside was gutted and made elegantly French. As mews houses became the rage, especially among chic young people, many such private works of conversion were undertaken (Plate 50c, 50d) and many must remain unrecorded. But by 1925 the Estate was beginning to explore what might be done in three minor thoroughfares, Culross Street, Mount Row and Lees Mews (later Lees Place).

The main field of Estate endeavour was the sector of Culross Street east of Park Street, where there had always been a number of small independent houses. In 1926–9 Wimperis managed to shut up the short east-west section of Blackburne's Mews, behind the north side of Culross Street, and in its place his firm laid out a narrow little garden. Both sides of the street itself were thoroughly rebuilt, with Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie undertaking No. 6 together with No. 64 Park Street, and Forsyth and Maule (with Mrs. Macindoe) Nos. 2 and 4, while much of the rest came under the sway of Etchells. He with his partner Gordon Pringle rebuilt or brushed up Nos. 1A and 5 and probably also Nos. 1, 3, 7 and 9 on the south side, and No. 14 on the north, all in a simple style enlivened with small fetching Regency details rather in the manner of Adshead and Ramsey's work on the Duchy of Cornwall Estate in Kennington (Plate 50a, 50b). Most of this took place between 1926 and 1928, and was so subtly done that it is hard to believe the transformation so complete or so modern. Further west in Culross Street there are one or two other nice mews houses (Plate 51a), for instance Ernest Cole's witty No. 25 (1929).

Having proved that an admirer of Corbusier could play a good hand in neo-Georgianism, Etchells produced another trick from his sleeve in Mount Row. Here the young T. P. Bennett in 1926–7 had designed the charming Nos. 12–14 (Wren House), with an intricate plan including a garage on the ground floor, reception rooms above, and round 'Hampton Court' windows to the bedroom storey (Plate 51c). Not to be outdone, Etchells in 1929–31 followed on with the neighbouring Nos. 6–10 (Tudor House), an irreverent group with a pair of half-hipped gables that look as though they had dropped in on Mayfair from some smart suburban estate (Plate 51d). Such slight interludes upon the staid Grosvenor scene were what Etchells loved; another, a restoration of a run of shops along Little Grosvenor (now Broadbent) Street, sadly failed to materialize, though drawings survive (Plate 51b). Further north and west in Lees Place (as Lees Mews became in 1930), his role was smaller but his spirit of paradox as present as ever. With the pleasant neo-Georgian houses built in Shepherd's Place in the 1930's he was not involved, but in Lees Place itself he probably designed No. 14 (1930) and certainly the more formal Lees House, No. 4 (1930–1) for the Hon. Evelyn FitzGerald. Etchells was determined not to let the tall symmetrical neo-Georgian façade of Lees House be taken at its face value. In a tongue-in-cheek article for The Architectural Review, presumably written by himself, he pleaded that Lees House was a 'modern house, built for two modern people leading a highly modern life', and that its 'faint flavour of the eighteenth century . . . is as illusive and as unimportant as when Picasso, to compare small things with great, gives the world a bold experiment in the guise of an 1870 lithograph'; and in justification he pointed to the variations he had made on the 'typical London plan'. (fn. 14) The old traditional house plan was indeed at last beginning to fade away in metropolitan London, as domestic architects learned to deal with smaller sites and cope with conversions. Though Lees House and one or two other of the mews houses mentioned do still have two staircases, in most the demise of old Mayfair patterns of living was plain to behold.

In one respect the interwar period was still a golden age, and that was for interior decoration. Fashionable families who gave up their great houses and installed themselves in flats wanted and, on the whole, could still afford some compensation for their novel anonymity in the shape of good furniture and design. In this period there was probably more originality in decorating work than ever before. One little-remembered factor in the increasing separation of architecture from interior design was the apartment block, for in a flat there was no need to employ an architect but plenty of opportunity to display good taste. Decorating firms of the 1920's and '30's are recalled usually for their contributions to country houses, but blocks of flats like those in Grosvenor Square were their staple fare. Several such schemes were chattily written up in magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

Most of the Mayfair decorators of the day still adhered to the traditional styles, but many hankered for modernity in one form or another. Despite the occasional go-ahead client, like the one who employed Serge Chermayeff to redecorate a flat at No. 42 Upper Brook Street shortly before 1935, or Mr. Saxon Mills, who got Denham MacLaren to 'scramble' the walls of his flat at No. 52 Grosvenor Street, (fn. 15) the traditional concerns naturally got the better of the market. But gone were the days when French stucco-work was reeled out by the yard; instead, firms like White Allom or Lenygon and Morant now offered quiet, relatively scholarly interiors, with panelling of waxed oak or subdued colouring, and the emphasis all upon the furniture, pictures and carpets. Much borrowing from old houses went on at this time, which Philip Tilden speaks of as 'a period when all Mayfair panelled its walls with pine stripped from old discarded Georgian houses, and which were limed to greyness, or waved to honey'. (fn. 16) Such was the character of Lenygon and Morant's transformation of No. 25 Upper Brook Street of 1933 (Plate 53a), of their work at No. 9 South Audley Street (1935) and of the surviving interiors at No. 45 Upper Grosvenor Street, where date and designer are unknown. Oliver Hill was, on the whole, equally reticent in his work of 1928 for Lord Forres at No. 70 Grosvenor Street (now demolished). A less individual but similar style of work could be had from the big department stores like Whiteleys, Harrods, Waring and Gillows and Maples, all of whom sported flourishing decorating sides between the wars.

For greater originality, still within a traditional framework, it was possible to go to one of a group of amateurs and ladies who did much for interior decoration in the 1920's and '30's. 'The conversion of stables and garages was an important part of Mrs. Beaver's business' in A Handful of Dust, and for Mrs. Beaver Evelyn Waugh could have had one or several personalities in mind. In Culross Street we have already seen a Mrs. Macindoe in operation at Nos. 2 and 4, but some more familiar names were active on and around the estate. Lady Sibyl Colefax, probably the best known of these women, began her decorating practice from rooms just out of our area in Bruton Street; her only known work on the Grosvenor estate in this period was the redecoration of No. 40A Hill Street in 1938. After the war, however, she joined forces with John Fowler in Wyatville's old house at No. 39 Brook Street, the gallery of which was separated off and redecorated as a private house for Mrs. Lancaster (doyenne of 1930's taste) in Fowler's inimitable manner, while the main house remains the headquarters of Colefax and Fowler. Another celebrated shop was that of Mrs. Guy Bethell and Mrs. Dryden, partners in an interior decorating firm called E. Elden at No. 84 Duke Street, just behind No. 10 Grosvenor Square; (fn. 17) they altered No. 9 Upper Grosvenor Street in 1928, and some surviving reliefs of this date by Gilbert Bayes in the back yard must relate to their work here.

Near Elden's shop, behind No. 9 Grosvenor Square, Somerset Maugham's wife Syrie had in the late 1920's and 1930's a 'wildly expensive corner block with "Syrie Ltd." in gold letters', where her estranged husband once uncharitably imagined her as 'on her knees to an American m-m-millionairess trying to sell her a chamber-p-p-pot'. (fn. 18) But Syrie Maugham did serious work. She is usually remembered for her obsession with white and her love of stripped furniture, though neither taste was greatly in evidence in her three known works on the Grosvenor estate—interiors at No. 48 Upper Grosvenor Street for the Whighams (1935), at Israel Sieff's flat in the new Brook House (1935), and at No. 47 Upper Brook Street (1936) for the Leveson-Gowers. Her work for the Whighams still survives, and not untypically the room with the most panache is the bathroom, that classic inner sanctum of the sybarite of the '30's, where good taste could surrender to luxury and ostentation, and modern materials come to the fore. 'Bathrooms nowadays look more expensive than any rooms in the house', commented Vogue in 1935. (fn. 19) There were other excellent bathrooms at nearby No. 44 Upper Grosvenor Street, as done up for Leo d'Erlanger and his very fashionable wife by Jansen of Paris, and at No. 12 North Audley Street where in 1932 the mysterious Marchese Piero Malacrida (with White Allom) put in for Samuel Courtauld a witty semi-circular bathroom of temple form (Plate 53d).

If wit was a prized commodity in interior decoration of the period, nobody was the readier with it than Rex Whistler, who painted a panel for Courtauld's bedroom in North Audley Street, and designed urns for the house's great gallery. More extensive were his murals of 1937 (now removed) for Lady Mountbatten's boudoir in the large double-storey penthouse at the top of the new Brook House; this had been designed specially for the Mountbattens by L. Rome Guthrie, penthouses as much as bijou mews houses being a feature of the age. At some point also Whistler sketched an interesting and in some ways prophetic suggestion for the replanting of Grosvenor Square, with formal paths converging on a central monument.

Classicism of Whistler's variety was sometimes combined with elements from the various jazz-moderne styles to convey freshness and humour in interiors of the 1930's. Such an instance was No. 25 South Street, a big private house built in 1932–3 by E. B. Musman for Sir Bernard Eckstein, and augmented and decorated in 1936–7 by Turner Lord and Company with flamboyant painted interiors and furniture (Plate 53c). In an appropriately lower but similar key were the various extensions to Claridge's Hotel. In 1926 Basil Ionides, a pioneer in several aspects of interior design between the wars, redecorated the restaurant and with the help of William Ranken put in some pretty engraved glass and some large modelled elephants. This scheme was not to survive for long in its entirety; in 1929 Oswald Milne constructed a new entrance foyer, remodelled the restaurant again (keeping the glass and the elephants), and followed these with large extensions east of the main hotel in 1930–1 and a penthouse on top in about 1936; in the same period many of the suites were refurnished. Milne's work (Plate 52) was carried out in a gay, up-to-the-minute manner, with copious help from subordinates like Marion Dorn for carpets and the Bath Artcraft Company, R. Burkle and Son, and Gordon Russell for the furniture. Even Country Life was compelled to admire 'the beauty of the freedom afforded by the revolution of the last ten years', at least in the shape that it took at Claridge's, duly denuded of too much French Cubism or German utilitarianism by the civilizing hand of 'a humanist such as Mr. Milne'. (fn. 20)

Though the façade of the Claridge's extension towards Brook Street, an essay in the stepped-back manner of the day, is less distinctive than Milne's interiors, it is more able than most of the comparable large inter-war blocks along the main streets. At first, a majority of these had been flats, but by 1939 encroachment by office blocks was under way, especially along Grosvenor Street. The residential character of the principal streets was now under serious threat. Following their appearance on the ground floors of new blocks, shop windows were beginning to be seen upon even the major old houses; in Grosvenor Street, one (since taken out) was installed when Keeble Limited, the decorators, converted No. 34 as their Mayfair showroom in 1936, and others appeared at about this time at Nos. 18 and 58. Probably the best of these was at No. 15 North Audley Street, where Albert Richardson put in a Regency Gothick shop front for the West End branch of B. T. Batsford in 1930. There was a natural tendency for commercial concerns to move into the old houses first, because new flats often had stringent rules about occupation, whereas these had to be relaxed for the houses because only firms could fill them economically. So the influx of commerce probably saved many of these houses from destruction, though office use naturally tended to detract from their interior character, sometimes very severely.

The war of 1939–45 of course speeded up the progress of commerce and left even fewer private householders in its wake. There were not many important architectural losses by bombing, the destruction of the picture gallery and ballroom at Dudley House being the worst, but the wear and tear of war confirmed the fate of the remnants of old Grosvenor Square. Here, a number of good houses were sacrificed to the rebuilding scheme, notably Nos. 12 (1961) and 44 (1967), but outside the square few firstrate houses have disappeared since the war. Still, the onward march of commerce has led to further proliferation of office and apartment blocks. Before 1960 few of these buildings espoused an overtly modern style. Possibly the last block in the full neo-Georgian tradition was Nos. 76–78 Grosvenor Street (designed by P. Macpherson, of Hillier, Parker, May and Rowden, 1939–40), a building still in the brick manner of Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie. A comparison with the estate's first big post-war block, the unambitious British Council headquarters on the site of St. Anselm's Church at No. 65 Davies Street, designed under austerity conditions by Howard, Souster and Partners (1948–50), shows the now pressing need for a new initiative. On the British Council The Architectural Review was predictably scathing, but still had to look abroad for support for the new aesthetic: 'the many foreign visitors the Council entertains will not be impressed by the heavy Georgian-style office block illustrated herewith'. (fn. 21) But the Grosvenor Estate was still a champion of neo-Georgian, as the stonefaced Drill Hall opposite the British Council at No. 56 Davies Street by Trenwith Wills (1950) testifies. Its architectural policies, if unadventurous, were at least more mannerly than in some other parts of London. As late as 1963–5 a development in Davies Street with a frontage at No. 53 Grosvenor Street was obliged to keep this façade in reasonably decorous adherence to the brick traditions of the street.

But the Modern Movement finally arrived on the Mayfair estate with a bang at the United States Embassy (1956–60), inevitably a foreign achievement. Old American associations with Grosvenor Square had been renewed when the embassy moved to the east side in 1938. Throughout the war the American presence strengthened, and was confirmed in 1947 by the replanting of the central garden as a memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which led to the felling of 'over sixty five mature trees' (fn. 22) and the setting up of a statue by Sir William Reid Dick in the centre. Then the west side, substantially complete still except for bomb damage at its north end, was after years of prevarication allotted to the new American Embassy, and a limited competition was held. Great care was taken not to outrage traditional Grosvenor sentiment, so much so that the American assessors outlined in the conditions of competition the need for an undogmatic building related in scale and materials to the rest of the square, while of the competitors it is recorded that 'some. . . were certainly chosen for their moderation'. (fn. 23)

The result was a win by an experienced competitor, Eero Saarinen, the runner-up being Edward D. Stone. A third participant, Minoru Yamasaki, produced a design with a strong Gothic flavour. But though Saarinen showed respect for the neo-Georgianism around him, there was nothing really Georgian about either his style or his materials. The building itself (Plate 55b) has brought a dramatic, internationalist change to the atmosphere of the very centre of the estate, still hard to assess fifteen years after completion. Many of Fello Atkinson's original criticisms in The Architectural Review remain as pertinent as ever. The Embassy's merits in his eyes were Saarinen's sensitivity to the square's scale and his determination to design a deeply relieved façade, which was met by slotting a complex grid of Portland stone window frames into the diagonal structural system developed after he had won the competition. On the other hand, because the huge building is set back from the street line on all three of its major sides (a condition which appears to have been part of the brief), it fails to enclose the square and therefore, paradoxically, is too small; set up on a podium as it is, it appears as an austere, free-standing temple rather than the palace or fortress that embassies traditionally have been and truly are. On a third point mentioned by Atkinson time has yet to tell: Saarinen looked forward to the day when the building would darken with dirt, and the gilded aluminium of the window frames would stand out against dark stonework. (fn. 24)

Since the American Embassy, it has never been quite so easy to be conservative on the estate again. Most big developments have taken the bull by the horns, some with reasonable success. Sir John Burnet, Tait and Partners have made a pair of lively contributions to the estate scene at Nos. 15–27 (odd) Davies Street (1963–5) and 399–405 (odd) Oxford Street (1967–70); another sizeable block is Grosvenor Hill Court between Bourdon Street and Grosvenor Hill, by Westwood, Piet and Partners (1962–6); while Fitzroy Robinson and Partners have blown the brazen trumpet of comprehensive redevelopment at Nos. 455–497 (odd) Oxford Street (1961–9). The wholesale rebuilding of this area was indeed a prominent feature of Chapman Taylor Partners' Grosvenor Estate Strategy for Mayfair and Belgravia (1971). Respect for 'conservation' (distinguished, however, from 'preservation') was there expressed, and also for many of the Victorian buildings. But in execution the visual transformation of the area would doubtless have been very great, not least because of the low architectural assessment in that report of the estate's numerous twentieth-century buildings of more-or-less 'period' character. In its assumptions about the successful juxtaposition of the indigenous styles of Georgian and modern times this careful and very interesting report already seems characteristic of its period. At present (1976) there has been a retreat from a number of these premises and objectives and the estate enters a period when more extensive conservation appears, for the moment, to have gained the upper hand.


  • 1. The Times, 10 Aug. 1974. p. 14.
  • 2. Cuthbert Headlam, George Abraham Crawley, A Short Memoir, 1929.
  • 3. R.I.B.A. Journal, 3rd ser., vol. XLIV, 1936–7, p. 1071.
  • 4. GBM 39/200.
  • 5. G.O., Duke's instruction book, 1919–22, pp. 133–5.
  • 6. Information kindly supplied by Mrs. Loeb and Mrs. Carvalho, daughters of L. Rome Guthrie, and by J. R. Wilcox, Esq., assistant to Messrs. Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie.
  • 7. K. Jones and T. Hewitt, A. H. Jones of Grosvenor House, 1971, p. 24.
  • 8. Christopher Hussey, The Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens, 1950, p. 460.
  • 9. A. S. G. Butler, The Architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens, vol. III, 1950, p. 35.
  • 10. The Times, 6 Aug. 1930, p. 11.
  • 11. B.A. 3440, note from Etchells on behalf of Blow and Billerey, 21 Sept. 1911.
  • 12. GBM 42/225.
  • 13. 'No. 1, Mount Row, W. and its conversion by Messrs. Gilbert and Constanduros', by R.R.P., in Country Life, 28 July 1923, pp. 131–2.
  • 14. The Architectural Review, vol. LXXII, Sept. 1932, pp. 96 8.
  • 15. Madge Garland, The Indecisive Decade, 1968, pp. 23–4.
  • 16. Philip Tilden, True Remembrances, 1954, p. 162.
  • 17. John Fowler and John Cornforth, English Decoration in the 18th Century, 1974, p. 17.
  • 18. Beverley Nicholls, A Case of Human Bondage, 1966, pp. 51–2.
  • 19. Vogue, 13 Nov. 1935, p. 69.
  • 20. 'New Rooms at Claridge's Hotel', by C. H., in Country Life, 11 June 1932, pp. 663 5.
  • 21. The Architectural Review, vol. CVIII, Oct. 1950, p. 274.
  • 22. Ibid., vol. 141, Feb. 1967, p. 133.
  • 23. Ibid., vol. 129, April 1961, p. 254.
  • 24. Ibid., pp. 252–65.