10 of London’s greatest Victorian projects – 7. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall…

March 6, 2013

We’ve previously mentioned the home of the British Government – the Houses of Parliament – in this series but this week we’re looking at another government building – a gem of 19th century architecture.

FCOIn existence since 1782, the Foreign Office had originally been housed in two houses in St James and then, as the department grew, to properties in Whitehall – first in The Cockpit (this building has an interesting history we’ll look at in a later post) and then in Downing Street. Initially lodged in what had been Lord Sheffield’s house in Downing Street, the department soon spilled over into neighbouring properties.

The deteriorating quality of these abodes, however, was such that there were fears for their collapse and plans to build a new Foreign Office were mooted. But it wasn’t until the 1850s that it was decided the government announced plans for a competition to design new Foreign and War Offices on Downing Street. There was something of a heated debate over the style of the building between those favouring classical and those favouring gothic architecture but in 1858 George Gilbert Scott (knighted in 1872) was finally appointed as architect.

While Scott apparently originally favoured a building in the gothic style, this was opposed by then Prime Minister Lord Palmerston whose preferences for a classical building eventually won the day.

Work on the new building began in the early 1860s and it eventually opened in July, 1868. While the War Office was never constructed, other departments were located in adjoining premises within the same block. These included the India Office – while Scott oversaw the exterior design, the interior was designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt, surveyor of the former East India Company and subsequently Architect to the Council of India. It opened in November 1867 but was taken over by the Foreign Office in 1947 following India’s independence – and the Colonial and Home offices – designed by Scott, these were completed by 1875.

Plans to build a new Foreign Office were mooted in the mid-20th century and there was talk of demolishing the existing building but after a public debate, Scott’s building was protected after being given Grade I listed building status.

In 1968, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office merged (the latter had only been created two years before) and the Home Office moved out of its premises, meaning that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office now occupied all four original departmental premises. A modernisation program subsequently took place and there was also a significant restoration program which was completed by January 1997.

Stand out rooms in the complex include the grand Locarno Suite – three interlinked rooms designed by Scott to host dinners, receptions and conferences which gained its current moniker in 1925 when  the Locarno Treaties were signed here; as well as the India Office Council Chamber – designed by Wyatt, it features a great marble chimney taken from the former Director’s Court Room in East India House located in Leadenhall Street in the City; and, Wyatt’s spectacular Durbar Court which features a glazed cast-iron roof added in 1868 (the name dates from 1902 when some of coronation celebrations of King Edward VII were held here). The many grand staircases in the building – including the beautiful Muses Stair with its octagonal lantern – are also worth noting.

While the buildings, which are officially entered off King Charles Street, are not usually open to the public, they have been opened for the past few years during London’s Open House weekend. There is an audio tour available which details much of the fine artwork in the building.

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