Today (September 24) in London History – the American Embassy

The new American embassy was officially opened on September 24, 1960. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I had no idea. Wonder if it was just a coincidence. If it was, it was a pretty remarkable coincidence. Or was it planned? Was it choreographed?

Ok, that’s enough tease. Our London story for today – September 24th – September 24th, 1960 – is the official opening of the new American embassy in Grosvenor Square. That’s a story in its own right. But who knew that 3,674 miles away – on the other side of the Atlantic – in a place called Washington DC – they were opening on the very same day the new chancery of the British Embassy. It, the new British chancery in the American capital, was said to be the largest single building ever erected by the Ministry of Works outside Britain. 

It had over 400 rooms. Cost £1,225,000. With a further 90,000 thrown in for furniture.

A kind of diplomatic duet, a double-act for the special relationship.

But that’s enough DC. London’s our patch. Grosvenor Square in this instance. If official openings of buildings are like hands of cards, well, this one is the best bridge hand you could be dealt. To start with, that location. The West side of Grosvenor Square. It couldn’t be improved on. In World War II London cabbies dubbed Grosvenor Square Eisenhowerplatz because there were so many American military types in and around that square that if you didn’t know better you would have thought you were in Kansas City. And of course there was no faulting the historical pedigree. In the northeastern corner of the Square, No. 9, it’s one of the two original houses in the square – it was the residence in the years 1785 to 1788 of John Adams. He established the first American mission to the court of St. James. So No. 9 Grosvenor Square, was, if you will, the very first American embassy. John Adams, needless to say, would go on to become the second American president.

There’s a lot of American presidential timber in Grosvenor Square. 

When the new embassy opened in 1960 the statue of FDR was already there, in the centre of the Square. In due course FDR got plenty of presidential company. I’m talking about the statue of General and later President Eisenhower. And then in due course, the statue of President Reagan. And there’s the Eagle Squadrons Memorial in the square. And the memorial to the 911 victims. Nice touch, it lists all the British citizens known to have died in the 911 attacks.

And just generally Grosvenor Square is shot through with American associations. Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic nominee for president, was walking toward the square with his aide and romantic partner Marietta Tree when he suffered his fatal heart attack. The American financier J. Pierpoint Morgan lived in Grosvenor Square. As did the American ambassador Walter Hines Page. As did – this one’s an eyebrow – Lord North. He was Prime Minister when those 13 colonies parted company with the British empire, went their own way. With incalculable consequences, not just for themselves and for this country, but for the world.

And finally, it’s surely worth mentioning that the previous embassy – the embassy from 1938 to 1960 – occupied the east side of the square.

Now what about the building itself? The great architecture critic Nicholas Pevsner didn’t rate it. He said it was “an impressive but decidedly embarrassing building.”

There were 600 rooms for about 700 staff. The actual staff size in 1960 was 450. Wonder how big the operation is today, personnel-wise. The building was designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. He was only 51 but he’d be dead less than a year later. Brain tumour. He’s best known for the Gateway Arch in St Louis.

Final thoughts. It all seems so long ago now. Macmillan was the Prime Minister. Khruschev was about to bang his shoe on a desk at the United Nations. And of course the embassy has moved, several years ago now, to its new home in Battersea. They gave London Walks a special tour a while back. It’s very special. If they have an open house – you get a chance to be shown round – leap at it.

That said, my hunch is the neighbours in the Grosvenor Square area there were glad to see the back of them. The security arrangements were a nightmare for the neighbourhood.

But to end – well, a couple of winners. The most striking feature was that huge eagle up near the roof line. I could never look at it, though, without thinking that Ben Franklin had campaigned for the national bird to be a turkey. If only Ben had carried the day. What I wouldn’t have given to see the American embassy surmounted with a turkey with a thirty-five foot wingspan.

And the other great tale – I loved telling this when I guided up that way – is that it was the only U.S. embassy that stood on land that wasn’t owned by the U.S. government. The landowner is the Duke of Westminster. He of the Grosvenor estate. When the U.S. government set their heart on building their new embassy on the west side of Grosvenor Square, they made a generous, above-the-market value offer. The Grosvenor estate made a counteroffer. They said, “we’ll sell you the west side of Grosvenor Square for the price you’ve proposed subject to one proviso. The return of the Grosvenor Family’s 12,000 acres in East Florida illegally seized – confiscated – by the American nation at the time of the War of Independence.”

The U.S. demurred. They said, “no sorry, I don’t think we can meet that proviso – could we have it on a long lease instead.” That’s what happened. The Grosvenor estate set them up with a 999-year-lease.

And there you go. That’s your Today in London history snack for September 24th.

And a Today in London recommendation. Well, we’re in Mayfair. How about toddling along to the Royal Academy. The American painter Milton Avery is one of the great colourists of the 20th century. There’s a special Milton Avery exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Runs until October 16th.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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