America takes flight

On this day when America is in our thoughts, I am returning to the security of their embassy in Grosvenor Square and their proposed move to Battersea south of the river.

In the late 1950s the Duke of Westminster agreed to allow the United  States to demolish the whole of the west side of Grosvenor Square so they could put up the terrible building we see today.

But the siting of the American Embassy led to one of the most bizarre and protracted processes of negotiation ever seen in London.

[T]he Americans have embassies all over the world and in every single case they buy the land first and then build their embassy. They assumed that this would be possible in England so they asked the Duke of Westminster, who owned Grosvenor Square, how much they would have to pay to buy the freehold of the land. What they didn’t know is that the Grosvenor family never sell. Their vast wealth is based precisely on this simple fact: they own three hundred acres of central London including most of Belgravia and Mayfair, not to mention land holdings all over the world. All the houses and offices on this land are leased; their freeholds are never sold.

When the Americans were told they couldn’t buy their land they insisted that was unacceptable and that they would petition Parliament to force the Duke to sell. Questions were asked in Parliament; the Grosvenor family were heavily leaned on but all to no avail.

Then the Duke thought of a good compromise. He told the furious Americans that if they were prepared to return to the Grosvenor family all those lands in the United States stolen after the American War of Independence then he would allow the Americans to buy their site on the west side of Grosvenor Square. The Americans knew when they were beaten (they would have had to give the Duke most of Maine and New York) and being unwilling to hand over land they themselves had stolen from the Indians anyway, they backed down and the Duke of Westminster allowed them a 999-year lease. And that explains why the embassy in London is the only American embassy built on land not owned by the America.

The Embassy building was then constructed in the late 1950s, opening in 1960; it was designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen. It is a nine-story building, of which three are below ground. A large gilded aluminium Bald Eagle with a wingspan of over 11 metres is situated on the roof of the chancery building, making it a recognizable Knowledge of London landmark for Cabbies.

Fast forward to 2009 and the United States Embassy now plan to move from this site because of security concerns. Even though that building is extremely heavily fortified, the Embassy has been refused permission, by Westminster City Council to close surrounding streets as an added precaution to stop the threat of a lorry bomb.

America’s plans are for a new 5-acre embassy site to be located between Chelsea and Vauxhall bridges (completed by 2016), which will be concealed behind a giant mound of earth. But The Mayor wants the boundary wall to be ‘visually permeable’, allowing the 97 metre embassy building to be seen from the road, not blocked by a four-metre concrete wall, as part of the embassy’s tight protection scheme, which includes a 30-metre ‘blast zone’ and a detachment of US marines. Security is so tight that only American based architects are being allowed to design it.

Draft plans have been submitted to Wandsworth Council, which has welcomed the embassy because of the prestige it will add to the borough. The building would be used by 800 staff and attract 1,100 visitors a day. The Americans hope to select an architect by early next year from the shortlist of four, including the 92-year-old designer of the Louvre glass pyramid, I M Pei.

But The Mayor says he is prepared to reject proposals for the £500 million complex in Battersea known as the Iceberg if it breaches his planning vision for the capital.

Mayor Boris, who was born in New York, is also under pressure to force America to pay £3 million in congestion charge fines it owes London before agreeing to the embassy. America has refused to pay the charge since it was launched in 2003, claiming its diplomats are exempt.

Ken Livingstone, Boris’s predecessor, was less than diplomatic when confronting the previous American Ambassador, Robert Tuttle, at his refusal to pay his diplomat’s fines and zone charges, directing his anger at the ‘former used car salesman’ calling Mr Tuttle a “chiselling little crook”.

The man who will now have to steer through the planning application and the negotiation with the Mayor’s office will be Louis Susman, 71, whom Barack Obama recently appointed as his new American ambassador to Britain. Be lucky Mr Susman! The Duke of Westminster wasn’t a pushover and nor is Boris.

As a footnote: A lot has been said of our MP’s expenses of late, particularly of their second home allowances. When the Americans move out of their embassy, all our politicians could apply to have apartments situated inside the most fortified building in London. With only a 10 minute journey to the Palace of Westminster it’s the perfect location. Then we could stop paying these inflated housing allowances to our underemployed Members of Parliament.

5 thoughts on “America takes flight”

  1. A very interesting article. Good for the Grosvenors for sticking to their guns. Good for Livingstone too for his frankness. I just hope The current mayor stands by his pledge. These Yanks do tend to get what they want and it’s no wonder that they now think they own the whole world.

    I regard their stand on the congestion charge as utterly contemptible.


  2. Wow, quite an interesting article. I’m actually an American, and it always makes me laugh when I hear things like this. Unbelievable that we won’t pay our congestion charges. You’d think that if this was a problem, they would have tried to make an agreement long ago so that it wouldn’t become an issue. But naturally, it was probably never even thought of.


  3. I have been inside the US Embassy several times when I was an EMT. They have a well-equipped ‘mini-hospital’ in there, so they generally only called us for women in labour.
    Best wishes, Pete.


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