With so much controversy about the exploding height of buildings it is good to remind ourselves of the one that started it all – Queen Anne’s Mansions opposite St James’ Park station, the first high-rise flats in London. In those days we didn’t build big. For centuries the tallest secular building in London was the Fishmongers Hall by London Bridge which is now a dwarf among the buildings around it.
In the mid 1870s, Henry Hankey, a dodgy City banker, erected Queen Anne’s Mansions, to an unprecedented – wait for it – 10 storeys high, rising in part to 12 storeys in 1877, at some 141 feet tall, more than twice as high as normal flats of that time. And he did it without bothering with the tiresome task of asking permission.
Twelve floors may not seem large to us today, as developers line the whole of one side of Victoria Street with 20-storey plus giants, but it was hugely controversial then. The Metropolitan Fire Service warned that its hoses could not reach the top of the building in the event of fire. Queen Victoria objected because she could no longer view the Houses of Parliament over which she presided from Buckingham Palace. The Builder magazine described it as “monster blocks of dwellings” while the Times dismissed it as “the most elevated thing in bricks and mortar since the Tower of Babel”. (Richard Dennis’s excellent 2008 paper on “Babylonian Flats” is the source for the facts and quotes above).
When Hankey started to expand the building along Petty France, the architect of the Grosvenor Hotel (the one by Victoria Station) James Knowles – who admittedly lived next door to the mansions – wrote to the Metropolitan Board of Works saying that the mansions would “constitute an eyesore so offensive as would disgrace the whole neighbourhood of Westminster…and turn this quarter of London into a laughing stock”. Goodness knows what Mr Knowles would make of the current redevelopment of Victoria Street. He would be lost for words.
Eventually, the London County Council gave up its attempts to prove that Hankey’s building was illegal by try to make sure nothing like it would happen again. In an Act of 1890 the maximum height of new buildings was to be 90 feet – later reduced to 80 feet in an ensuing Act in 1894.
Queen Anne’s Mansions continued to be a paradigm of ugliness in the early 20th century. A drawing of “one of the most inexcusable buildings in modern London” was included in 1905 in Henry James’s English Hours. Of course, one solution was to live in the mansions so you could get its wonderful views without having to look at the building itself. it was adopted by many people, including MPs who railed against it in Parliament.
The mansion block lasted until the 1970s when it was pulled down and replaced by an even bigger and if not uglier, then certainly more brutalist building – the new Home Office headquarters, designed by Sir Basil Spence.
Whether, in the long term, the original mansion block was a hero or villain depends on your point of view. It was almost universally reviled, but the reaction to it kept London’s skyline much lower than would otherwise have been the case for quite a few years. Win some, lose some.