For millions of visitors, Buckingham Palace – official residence of the Royal Family and backdrop for the Changing of the Guard – is one of the iconic sights of London. But the building so familiar to us today is the product of many years’ extending and remodelling, with varying degrees of success.
The original building was far more modest. Built as a private townhouse for the Duke of Buckingham in 1703, Buckingham House was bought by George III in 1761 for his wife Queen Charlotte to use as a cosy family home. Work on remodelling the re-named Queen’s House began in 1762 under Sir William Chambers, at a cost of £73,000.
The decision to upgrade from a house to a palace came a little later, when George III was succeeded by his son, the famously extravagant George IV. In 1826, he persuaded Parliament to stretch the agreed renovation budget from £150,000 to £450,000 and appointed architect John Nash to create a palace fit for a king.
Nash demolished the north and south wings and rebuilt them on a larger scale around a courtyard, complete with an impressive marble arch (the Marble Arch that now stands at Hyde Park corner). The project was a PR disaster. By 1829, the costs had crept up to half a million pounds, and Nash found himself out of a job.
All that remains of Nash’s work is the suite of state and semi-state rooms he added to the west-facing garden side of the old main block. The King never moved in…
In fact, the Palace was unoccupied until Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. The new queen soon discovered that the opulent interiors masked some serious shortcomings. The chimneys smoked so badly that the fires couldn’t be lit, leaving residents freezing. Ventilation was so poor that the rooms smelled musty and there were fears that installing gas lighting would risk blowing up the entire ground floor! There was also a serious lack of nurseries and visitor bedrooms. Architect Edmund Blore solved that problem by adding an attic floor along with a new wing – the East Front, which includes the balcony famously used by the Royal Family for public appearances.
Pollution soon took its toll on Blore’s façade and in 1913 it was replaced with a tough Portland Stone frontage, designed by Sir Aston Webb. Work was completed just before the outbreak of the Great War.
The Palace’s last phase of remodelling was less intentional: it was bombed no less than seven times. Most famously, a direct hit destroyed the chapel in 1940.
The Palace today is still very much a working building. It has 775 rooms: including 19 state rooms, 240 bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. Over 50,000 guests a year pass through its doors for royal ceremonies, state visits, investitures and garden parties. Day-to-day, it functions as offices for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s personal staff. And, of course, during the summer months the State Rooms are one of London’s hottest tourist attractions.