In 1858 the great architect George Gilbert Scott was awarded the contract to build the new Foreign Office building in Horse Guards Road. It was a dream come true. Here was his chance to create a masterpiece in his favourite Gothic Revival style to mirror the elegance of the Houses of Parliament, designed by his friend and rival Charles Barry, on the other side of Parliament Square.
All was going swimmingly until he met an immovable object in the form of the new Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, an unabashed classicist who feared that, left to himself, Scott would “gothicise” the whole of London.
In a desperate attempt to get his plans confirmed by the new government before Palmerston interfered, Scott submitted over 100 drawings to the House of Commons library and had the plans featured in the leading building magazines. He even had a competitive tender for the construction of the building submitted, which delighted the then chancellor, William Gladstone, who was able to include the agreed figure in his budget.
But Gladstone was not Palmerston, whose implacable distaste for all things Gothic proved an obstacle too far. He summoned Scott and told him bluntly that he would have nothing to do with his ghastly plan, but would be happy for Scott to retain his commission as long as he did something in “the Italian style”. Scott agreed, but only after writing a final 20-page detailed case in a forlorn hope that the PM would change his mind. He duly built an admirable neo-classical building, which still stands proudly facing St James’s Park.
However, if you want to know what the Gothic version might have looked like, take a trip to St Pancras to see what was originally called the Midland Grand Hotel, another Scott design. Now the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, it bears a bizarre resemblance to what Scott would have designed for Horse Guards Road had he been allowed.
The tower has been repositioned and implanted with a clock, but the stylistic similarities are unmistakeable. The building was saved from demolition in the 1960s by a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman. And so Scott’s dream continues to be fulfilled, despite the fact that his fantasy building contains no diplomats, only overnight guests.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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