Failure and triumph in Mayfair and Fitzrovia
No 9 Grosvenor Square,
photographed in 2009
Mayfair, London has lost at least four freestand-
ing palaces of first-rank importance. These include
Devonshire House, Chesterfield House, Dorchester
House and Londonderry House. Today’s equivalent
would be to suggest that Spencer House, St James’s,
should be demolished to redevelop the site for a multi-
storey hotel. Such a proposal would surely be scoffed
at. Yet buildings of similar calibre were being destroyed
in Mayfair until 1962, the year in which Londonderry
House was pulled down.
As early as 1946, Westminster City Council had
drawn up a map which featured recent developments,
as well as buildings and monuments of national,
artistic and historic interest. This may have been based
on the wartime lists that were to form a basis for the
later compilation of listed buildings registers.
The large map of Westminster, approximately  six
foot by five foot, was undertaken by the city council
rather than a national body such as the Ministry of
Works. This must have been a direct response to the
hammering that Westminster had received during
the recently ended second world war. The map is
colour-coded, with categories such as national and/or
primary artistic interest, and secondary artistic and/
or historic interest. Areas and buildings undergoing
current redevelopment are also colour-coded. No
descriptions of individual properties are given.
Nevertheless, I would like to focus on Grosvenor
Square, the heart of the Duke of Westminster’s Mayfair
estate. Projected by 1720, the square was built between
about 1725 and 1731. Apart from Lincoln’s Inn Fields,
it was, and was to remain, the largest square in the
West End of London. There were once 51 residential
plots. By way of comparison, aristocratic St James’s
Square had only 25. Today, only three historic proper-
ties (Nos 4, 9 and 38) survive in Grosvenor Square.
Basic arithmetic indicates that 48 houses have been
demolished. Mansions were demolished during the
1930s, and the square was badly damaged during the
second world war.
Despite Westminster City Council’s 1946 map of
buildings and monuments of national, artistic and
historic interest, it was not until 1957 that the Ministry
of Housing and Local Government drew up a revised
‘Provisional list of buildings of architectural or historic
interest for consideration in connection with the provi-
sions of section 30 of the Town and Country Planning
Act 1947’. Between this and the next provisional list
of 1969, six provisionally listed buildings in Grosvenor
Square (all Grade II–III, the latter, which had no
statutory protection, being abolished in 1970 with the
system of provisional listing) were demolished. What
went wrong?
A few words should be said about ‘provisional’ list-
ing. A provisional list for an area was compiled by an
investigator. It consisted of those buildings identified
C O N T E X T 1 1 2 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 9
as being of architectural or historic interest, with short
descriptions. Buildings were at first graded I, II and III.
Grade II* was created later. The buildings in Grades I
and II on the provisional list were placed on the statu-
tory list, once the description and ownership details
had been verified by the local authority. All buildings
in Grade III on the provisional list were placed on what
was known as the supplementary list.
Nine mansions, which had formed a grand terrace
on the west side of the square, were demolished. This
was done to create space for the US Embassy, which
still occupies a whole side of the square. One of these
lost mansions, No 31, was provisionally listed in 1957.
The rest were not provisionally listed at the time.
This was because they were substantially Victorian in
origin, or later rebuilds of 18th-century houses. No 4
Grosvenor Square (on the east side of the square) was
not put on the provisional list, presumably because it
is Victorian (1863–8). However, by 1969 it was one of
only three historic survivors in the once august and
architecturally diverse Georgian square. In 1970 No 4
was listed Grade II.
The most graphic illustration of this devastation
of Grosvenor Square can be found on a wall in
Marylebone Library. Here, one can view a splendid
black-and-white framed aerial photograph entitled
‘Grosvenor Square to Regent’s Park, 1957’. The eye is
immediately drawn to a Hiroshima-like scene of utter
destruction on the west side of the square.
The timing of this orgy of destruction would suggest
some kind of official stitch-up. This could have involved
the Grosvenor Estate, Westminster City Council and
the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
bypassing or even pre-empting the listing system. It is
likely that the decision was passed down from the high-
est level as it involved the ‘special relationship’ between
Great Britain and the USA during the cold war epoch.
Indeed, the politics behind the redevelopment of this
No 4 Grosvenor Square,
the Italian Embassy,
flanked by 20th century
replacement of earlier
individual houses
C O N T E X T 1 1 2 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 9
prime site were considerable. Let us turn to George
Ridley’s Bend’Or Duke of Westminster (1985): ‘The
American government had for some time occupied
Grosvenor Square properties… and wished to con-
solidate in a new embassy to occupy the whole of the
west side of the square. In order to do this they asked
the Grosvenor Estate to acquire on their behalf the
individual existing leases and then to grant the US
government a long ground lease.
This the estate was happy to do, and set about buying
in the leases, somewhat hampered by the Americans’
insistence that each purchase had to be approved by
Washington, a practice that gave each owner the oppor-
tunity to extract the maximum price for the surrender
of his lease.’ Despite the provisional listing exercise
(or charade) of 1957, the only building in Grosvenor
Square to be actually listed at this crucial and vulnerable
moment in the square’s history was No 38, at Grade II*,
in February 1958. Why did a provisional list not
translate into statutory protection for the precious few
historic buildings left clinging on for very existence?
Constituting a pathetic requiem for lost neighbours,
reproduced here and not often published are two of
the surviving trio of Grosvenor Square buildings, Nos
4 and 9. They throw into deep relief just how bland
the 20th-century rebuilding of Grosvenor Square was.
Now to Fitzrovia, and the positive half and ending of
this account. I had no idea that a freestanding chapel
existed within the Middlesex Hospital, Mortimer Street,
until the latter was pulled down in 2008. Previously
hidden within this huge complex occupying a whole
block of Fitzrovia is the former hospital’s chapel
(Grade II*, JL Pearson and FL Pearson, 1890–91 and
1929). Fortunately, thanks to listing, it was spared when
the 1929–35 hospital was pulled down in 2008. As well
as the chapel, the complete run of the Nassau Street
unlisted façades (of 1897 and 1910) on the west side
of the former block have been retained. They are an
integral part of a proposed new residential scheme that
collapsed last year, as a victim of the economic crisis.
The chapel is a beautiful example of late-Victorian
modern gothic (as opposed to revivalism). Its very
plain exterior belies a sumptuous neo-Byzantine inte-
rior. The chapel is now a surreal sight, marooned by a
whole block’s worth of rubble. It went up when James
Paine’s 1755–78 Palladian hospital was still extant (it
was demolished in 1928).
In 2007, the Victorian Society commented on the
then still extant hospital and chapel. It made construc-
tive suggestions for best practice, at a time when the
proposed residential scheme was still buoyant. ‘Our
principal concern is the future of the Middlesex
Hospital Chapel, which has an interior of outstanding
quality and is probably the best surviving example of
its type in the country. We are therefore encouraged to
see that a full restoration is proposed, based upon the
detailed survey of the building already undertaken by
Caroe and Partners… At our site visit, we stressed the
need for an adequately endowed trust to specifically
care for and oversee access arrangements to the chapel.
Chapel of the former
Middlesex Hospital,
Mortimer Street,
photographed in 2009
We note that such a trust is being set up, and would
like to suggest that consideration be given to including
a trustee from the society’s membership.’ Now that the
hospital has been demolished, the chapel is looking
forlorn, unloved, very exposed and isolated.
The vast Candy and Candy residential scheme,
to occupy a whole block of prime Fitzrovia, went
to ground months ago. I was always surprised that
AW Hall’s Goodge Street façade (1929–35) was allowed
to be demolished. Admittedly, it was breathtakingly
dull, with its cour d’honneur, and it was always fronted
by an unsavoury medley of recycling bins on the street.
Perhaps this was a trade-off for having to retain the
chapel and the Nassau Street elevations?
An almost-parallel situation can be drawn with the
controversial modernist redevelopment plans for the
former Chelsea Barracks site on the Chelsea/Pimlico
border. The competition-winning scheme broke the
military engineers’ long monopoly on the design of
barracks. One of the controversies is the proposed
demolition of the Garrison Chapel, long-obscured
from the main road. Designed by George Morgan in
1855, the chapel is the only remaining ecclesiastical
building of its kind left in central London.
All that remains of the original 1861–3 Victorian
barracks after they were rebuilt in 1960–2 is the chapel
(a free Italian medieval brick essay with an east apse
and west bellcote, and a south aisle added c1890) and
the railings on Chelsea Bridge Road. Although the
former Middlesex Hospital chapel is not in danger
of demolition, both sites look the same at the time
of writing (June 2009), with stranded chapels that
have miraculously defied two waves of otherwise
total destruction. The modernist Chelsea Barracks
residential proposal has now been scotched, and the
Candys will be pulling out of this project too.
And so to return once more to Pearson’s gothic gem,
and the rump of historic Grosvenor Square. The pre-
cious listing mechanism can take deserved credit for
saving buildings that are now incongruously flanked
by well-meaning but utterly bland neo-Georgian cor-
porate hotels, or acres of rubble. The real story here is
that listing is taken a lot more seriously in 2009 than it
was in 1957, when the system was powerless to stop the
might of the establishment, despite being the valuable
gift of Parliament.
Acknowledgements to
Lucinda Walker, Heloise
Brown, Frank Kelsall
and Rory Lalwan.
Oliver Bradbury is an
independent researcher and
author. His publications
include books on the lost
buildings of Mayfair
and Cheltenham.
C O N T E X T 1 1 2 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 9