Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1980.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
The Rebuilding of the Square from 1926
The story of the rebuilding of the Square since the 1920's has been outlined in volume XXXIX. Its defects are there seen to spring from the lack of an overmastering ducal will to carry through against the obstacles of time and chance a coherent scheme more commendable than is now easily apparent.
The practice of applying brick-and-stone fronts in the early-Georgian domestic style to large blocks of flats which were bulkier but often smaller scaled than the houses they replaced was exemplified from the start. This was in 1926–8, with the flats and maisonettes built in the southeast corner at No. 48 and Nos. 49–50 (fn. 4) (Plate 31d and folded drawing between pages 140–1). The architects were H. W. Wills and W. Kaula, and Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie respectively. The similar elevations, however, were no doubt provided by the latter, as Edmund Wimperis was still nominally presiding over the estate as its surveyor. This similarity (in buildings on either side of Carlos Place) suggests an intention, already, to pursue uniformity in rebuilding, and so, perhaps, do references in 1931–2 to these blocks as (approximate) guides for intending lessees to the style preferred by the Estate. (fn. 5) By then, however, the project was in different hands. Wimperis resigned as estate surveyor in 1928, leaving the field to his successor, Detmar Blow, and by the following year Blow had evidently called in his former partner, Fernand Billerey, to prepare designs for the Square.
The Duke of Westminster was not eager to see the end of private houses there, especially towards the centre of the four sides. For that reason he rejected in 1930 the idea of a hotel to be built along most of the south side by the Canadian Pacific Railway. (fn. 6) But in 1931 at least seven houses were in the market, (fn. 6) and although the hope of including new houses in a rebuilding scheme was kept alive for a year or two (fn. 7) flats were, effectively, accepted as the programme in 1931. The impending expiry of leases at Nos. 19–21 on the important north side gave the question urgency at that time. So did the importunity of the nonresident lessee of an empty house at No. 14, the airship pioneer Sir Dennistoun Burney, who wanted to redevelop that site and No. 15, near the centre of the same side. His proposals included, together or separately, a motor car showroom (he was designing a Burney Streamline car), a shopping arcade, and small flats or bed-sitting-rooms, and made the alternative of big flats seem attractive. (fn. 8)
With a large and forward view the Duke declared himself in November 1931 in favour of a coherent scheme of rebuilding. It was to retain 'the original design of the Square', which he seems to have thought exemplified by No. 1, (fn. 6) and the elevation chosen for the rebuilding was in its quieter stretches a rather inflated version of that model.
As is shown in volume XXXIX this master-design for the remodelling was developed by Billerey, with Blow's support, and reached substantially its final form in September 1932. It is fairly well represented by the present north side, except for the heightening of the roof to accommodate an extra storey of dormer windows, and deformations of the skyline (Plate 32c, 32d: see also Plate 54b in vol. XXXIX). That was the work of some thirty years, from 1933 to 1964. Had Billerey's design been carried in an appropriate manner round the other sides during what it was forseen would be a very protracted building programme the result would have been in its way a worthwhile achievement. As it is, the deficiencies of the east and south sides detract from the virtues of the north range. If, even in the unspoiled design, a certain lack of force is nevertheless perceptible it is perhaps because Billerey had had to make the elevation without any certainty about the room plans that would be needed behind it.
It is, no doubt fortuitously, appropriate to the slightly artificial character of inter-war 'traditionalism' that the personal genesis of this instance of it was not homespun but French. Billerey was Beaux-Arts-trained; and, as it happens, the first and most faithful executant of his design among the lessee-entrepreneurs was Charles Peczenik, a Cambridge-educated engineer-turned-estate-developer who was himself a native of Paris and had studied under the architect René Sergent. (Peczenik's involvement in rebuilding in the Square had begun at No. 48 in the 1920's and continued into the 1950's.) (fn. 9)
Blow approved Billerey's scheme for the north side in December 1932, after arranging for Rex Whistler to draw a perspective to recommend it to the Duke. (fn. 10) (fn. 1) The Estate agreed to pay half the cost of the extra stonework required by Billerey's design at the centre and ends of the range, (fn. 11) and the building of flats at Nos. 19–21 and at No. 18 under leases to Peczenik, with first T. H. F. Burditt and then R. W. Barton as his executant architects, proceeded in 1933–5. (fn. 12) Their separate construction as two units was at Peczenik's wish. (fn. 13)
The subsequent completion of the scheme round the Square—never in fact seriously envisaged as a rapid process—was obstructed by various factors. On the north side, where attainment of the end was easiest and most desired, the convenience of the first Duke's widow at No. 16 had to be borne in mind. (fn. 14) More seriously, the buyingout of leasehold interests was not easy when at least some of the lessees were themselves extremely rich. As it was, the Estate spent over £60,000 buying up nine leases between 1925 and 1935. The difficulty presented by subsisting leases was, of course, greater when they were of recent date. At No. 7 and No. 38 long leases had been renewed so recently as 1926 and 1928, and as late as 1931 a lease of No. 4 in the centre of the east side for two hundred years was granted to an embassy a few weeks before the Duke's pronouncement in favour of coherent rebuilding: (fn. 15) Nos. 4 and 38 still stand. Then, early in 1933, Blow suddenly left the Duke's service, and any difficulties gained in force. At Nos. 19–21 the damaging duplication of Billerey's row of dormers, evidently permitted by March 1934, seems an instance of a weakened power to stick to the scheme (fn. 16) — indeed, the preservation of Billerey's symmetry here in the first days after Blow's departure appears to have owed more to Peczenik than to the Estate. (fn. 17)
At Nos. 14 and 15
At Nos. 14 and 15 on the north side Peczenik and Barton designed flats built in 1936–8 behind Billerey's centrepiece (Plate 32c), and here the Estate made it possible for Billerey to exercise a corrective hand in partial protection of his design. (fn. 18) (fn. 2) In the same years Peczenik rebuilt a large site on the southern part of the east side (Plate 32b), as Nos. 1–3 Grosvenor Square and Nos. 38–41 Grosvenor Street (involving the demolition of the exemplary No. 1). It is not known whether Billerey had made a specific design for this side. Peczenik and Burditt's first design in 1936 was only very generally similar to the north side and exposed its double row of dormers more frankly. The centre bays were to be wholly stone faced and so was the ground storey. Probably this attempt at something more imposing was in recognition of the fact that only the upper floors, approached from an entrance at No. 3, would be occupied by flats, and that the ground and first floor of the west wing, as well as part of the basement and second floor, were to be used as the embassy of the United States of America. This rather surprising arrangement seems to show some unconcern with the strictest security, although the doubling-up was not inconsistent with the hitherto unpretentious diplomatic tradition of the Republic. Even so, the Estate exercised its authority to have the stone centrepiece diluted to the norm of brickand-stone. An American exponent of high classicism in London and New York, J. Russell Pope, acted (with R. Camdela) as associate architect. Their names, with Burditt's, appear on an elevation of 1936 which very slightly simplifies the design, and Pope's name was given precedence as the building's architect when it was finished. It is not, however, known what part he played in designing the elevation to the Square as it was built in 1936–8. This departs from the known drawings chiefly in transferring emphasis from the centre to the bays marking the flatsentrance at one end and the ambassador's room at the other. It also diverges further from Billerey's north side, without, however, abandoning his general manner. (In 1960 the building was converted wholly to use by departments of the Canadian government.) (fn. 19)
On the south side of the Square an obstacle in the way of coherent redevelopment similar to No. 4 existed in No. 38, augmented by No. 48, recently completed in a neo-Georgian style different from Billerey's. In 1933, with Blow's patronage removed, Billerey was seemingly obliged to try to effect his scheme in the role of 'outsider', by sponsoring an offer from the builders Holloway Brothers to redevelop the site of Nos. 35–37. (fn. 20) This was unsuccessful and the block of flats, extending over Nos. 43–48 South Audley Street, was erected in 1935–6 to the design of the architect Michael Rosenauer. (fn. 21) Blow's departure seems to show in the exchange of contracts for a building lease before the elevation was settled. (fn. 22) Blow's successor, G. A. Codd, concerned himself with details of the front but the reduction of the storey heights to squeeze another floor in below the main cornice robbed the elevation of such presence as the north side of the Square possessed. An interesting scheme by Billerey in 1936 to camouflage the deficiencies of the south side by dividing it into two ranges and concentrating attention on a great central opening between them did not materialize. When Billerey finally succeeded in fathering a design on this side, in the flats built at Nos. 45–47 in 1938–9, he complied with Rosenauer's humdrum ordonnance, although in a rather empty gesture towards overall effect he gave an emphasis to the fenestration which would have been mirrored at No. 38 if that house had later been rebuilt. (fn. 23)
Nos. 45–47 were still unfinished when war came in 1939. In the difficult post-war period the Estate's general policy of bringing sites in the Square into hand for redevelopment seems to have been briefly in question but in 1955 flat-building on combined sites was resumed at Nos. 6–7. These were completed in 1958 (architects A. C. Fairtlough and D. R. Morris) in a style following that of the pre-war American embassy building but not matching its columnar centrepiece (Plate 32b). (fn. 24) In 1958–60 a block containing flats over a bank (Nos. 32–34) was built on the site of Nos. 33–34 to designs by Gordon Jeeves (Plate 31c). (fn. 25) With Saarinen's American embassy rising nearby, no attempt was made to follow Billerey's brick-and-stone elevational scheme. In 1959–61, however, flats were built at Nos. 16–17 (architects, Lewis Solomon, Kaye and Partners) in furtherance of Billerey's design for the north side. (fn. 26) The story of flat-building in the Square was completed by the construction of No. 5 on the east side in 1961–4 (architects, Russell Diplock Associates) in the style of Nos. 6–7 (Plate 32b). (fn. 27)
The flats and maisonettes built round the Square during some thirty-five years seem generally to have been successful in attracting occupants quickly, and something may therefore be said of the kind of accommodation to be found in them when they were newly built. This was a matter of concern to the Estate itself, especially in so far as it affected the type of resident attracted. It was recognized in 1932 that a block of bed-sitters, for example, was undesirable as bringing into the Square 'a large number of persons of far less wealth and position than those who have hitherto occupied premises there'. (fn. 28) Sometimes, at least, the detailed planning of individual flats was criticized—one prospective developer being told in 1934 that his flats had the fatal defect that 'gentlemen wishing to use the lavatory after dinner must pass through the dining-room to do so'. (fn. 29) On the other hand, the reduction in the size of some flats proposed for Nos. 14–15 in 1937 (fn. 30) does not seem to have occasioned recorded comment. No doubt the degree of confidence felt in the developer's own judgment was an important factor.
The first block, built at Nos. 49–50 in 1926–7 under Wimperis's aegis, contained maisonettes at ground-andbasement levels, as well as flats above, and represented in fact only a tentative step away from the house, the maisonettes being individually entered at ground level. A typical maisonette contained at that level a drawing-room, dining-room, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a water closet and stairs down to the service quarters, which included a servants' hall, butler's pantry and bathroom, a plate-room, four bedrooms and two more bathrooms. The flats offered similar accommodation, including a (small) servants' hall and a thirty-foot dining-room. (fn. 31) The flats in the smaller contemporary block at No. 48 were much further removed from the traditional house, and came near to being service-flats. No living-in accommodation was provided for servants in individual flats but rooms for them were included at basement and sixth-floor level. A large dining-room for residents was provided on the ground floor and although each flat had a dining-room it had only a 'kitchenette' instead of a kitchen. The flats were four- or five-roomed, all with two bathrooms. (fn. 32)
In 1933 Billerey told the Estate that builders were rather reluctant to undertake flats of the larger size, although he himself wanted to sponsor a one-flat-to-a-floor block on the double site of Nos. 45 and 46, and thought there would be a demand for them: certainly an advertisement for some flats in the Square in 1937 stressed that 'those removing from houses with large rooms will find these flats fully suited to accommodate the existing furnishings'. (fn. 33) The less traditional type of accommodation was provided by Peczenik at Nos. 19–21 (1933), with a big basement restaurant, servants' accommodation only in separate quarters, and flats mainly of moderate dimensions with three or four rooms, (fn. 34) and at the United States embassy block (1936), where there was a restaurant, flats of very varying sizes and seemingly no accommodation for servants at all. (fn. 35) But the ampler plan was favoured by Peczenik for other of his developments, while in the last pre-war block at Nos. 45–47 Billerey succeeded in planning rather in the manner of Nos. 49–50, mixing maisonettes and very generously disposed flats, even including a 'servants' hall' in some of them. (fn. 23) One refinement in some of the inter-war flats (Nos. 35–37 in 1935 and Nos. 14–15 in 1936) was the careful provision for separate access by the servants to their rooms. (fn. 36) The postwar flats have eschewed the maisonette-plan and also the residents' restaurant. Some sort of living-in accommodation for servants has generally continued to be provided, and so have flats of large size. Throughout the years one constant has been the nearly equal ratio of bathrooms to bedrooms.
The other sites that remained to be rebuilt after the war were the whole of the west side, Nos. 10–13 on the north side, and Nos. 39–44 on the south. Each of the latter two sites contained at least one old house that the opinion of the day might have thought worth keeping—Nos. 12 and 44. Their claims were considered by the London County Council in 1960–1 but the Council was sympathetic to the counter-argument for coherent redevelopment on the north side and No. 12 was not judged of such excellence as to justify disrupting the overall design there. This decision made it difficult to take a contrary line at No. 44 and the Council again opposed preservation, in the cause of a more coherent redevelopment. Here the Minister of Housing and Local Government himself made a temporary preservation order but in 1961, after a public enquiry, conformed to the Council's view. Nor was it through any preservative act of a public authority that No. 38 was not, as was originally intended, included in the rebuilding scheme for Nos. 39–44. (fn. 37)
At both Nos. 10–13 and Nos. 39–44 hotels were built for the Grand Metropolitan Hotels company. In 1961–4 the Europa Hotel, entered from Duke Street, was built at the former site to designs by the architects Lewis Solomon, Kaye and Partners, with the interiors of public areas designed by Dennis Lennon. This completed Billerey's scheme for the north side, save for the omission of some of his doorcases and the disruption of his skyline. At Nos. 39–44 the Britannia Hotel was built in 1967–9 to designs by R. Seifert and Partners, and on the front to the Square similarly followed the pattern established at Nos. 35–37 and Nos. 45–47. The main entrance is in Adams Row where a quite different and modern arcuated style is used, although the eastern yard incorporates some architectural features from the former garden of No. 44. Both hotels seem designed partly to cater for the 'international businessman', with areas suitable for conference purposes and a rather higher proportion of single rooms than in older hotels. The Britannia Hotel conspicuously exemplified the modern practice of admitting shops to the public areas by incorporating a shopping-arcade (in the 'Adam' style) and recent building practice by extending downward through four levels of basement. (fn. 38)
On the west side of the Square subsisting leases seem to have deterred the Duke of Westminster from pursuing the rebuilding scheme between the wars: furthermore, and rather characteristically, some leases had actually been renewed in the 1930's. In 1957, however, the whole side became the site of the new United States Embassy, under a 999-year lease from the Estate. The architect was Eero Saarinen, whose success in the limited competition held by the United States government was announced in 1956. (fn. 3) (fn. 39) The British architects associated with him were Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, who prepared the working drawings. The principal contractors were Pauling and Company. The structural material is pre-cast reinforced concrete, and the exterior is of Portland stone, which at certain points is faced with gold anodised aluminium (Plate 55b in vol. XXXIX). (fn. 40) An eagle of gilded aluminium by Theodore Roszak surmounts the centre of the façade, where it was originally intended to place a stylized representation of the Great Seal of the United States. (fn. 41)
Work began in August 1957 and the building was opened on 24 September 1960. (fn. 40)
The statement of the general conditions affecting the design of embassies to which competitors had had to conform asked that goodwill should be sought by excellence of design 'rather than adherence to any given style of architecture'. With regard to the particular site it was said: 'Careful consideration should be given to the relation of the building to Grosvenor Square and surrounding London as far as scale and materials are concerned. This does not imply copying anything. The building should represent the United States at this time … '. (fn. 39)
Saarinen's winning design (Plate 32a), published in this country in March 1956, had by June been revised to its advantage, chiefly by heightening and recessing the ground floor and recessing the 'attic' storey. (fn. 42)
The internal planning was left largely unspecified in the conditions for the competition. (fn. 39) Saarinen's design was therefore initially and necessarily to a large extent a piece of façade-making. The upper elevation, much in the manner of Saarinen's contemporary embassy building in Oslo, is uniformly patterned with a grid of not-quitelinked window-frames which dominates the actual wall-and-window surface, and the teasing ambiguity of this 'skin' tells effectively on the simple block-forms of the building. Within, the diagonal alignment employed in the construction is emphasized, particularly in the high, beamed ceilings of the ground floor. Another expression of this inside is in the ubiquity of motifs cruciform in plan or section, and these two forms express themselves on the exterior in protruding details of a quasi-saw-tooth or cog wheel form. These, with the touches of gilding, give another sharp accent, almost of machined artifice, to upward views of the building's basically compact mass. The interior, where the office furniture was designed by Edward J. Wormley, is noticeably cool, not only in its colouring but in its restraint. (fn. 43)
Raised and protected on a fence-topped glacis and slightly set back from the notional boundaries of the west side of the Square, the new Embassy represents in its islanded integrity a startling contrast to the accommodation taken in 1938. And for all its unaggressive form it has tended to give the Square a westward rather than a northward orientation.