The house that soap built | The history of Unilever House in Blackfriars’

The neo-classical office block at the Victoria Embankment was built in the 1930s on the site of a popular hotel.

Unilever House overlooks the Thames embankment

Anyone who crosses the River Thames at Blackfriars Bridge can’t help but notice the imposing, curved façade of Unilever House. The grand structure has been looming over the Victoria Embankment for the past 90 years and is home to one of the biggest FMCG companies in the world.

'Controlled Energy' by Sir William Reid Dick on Unilever House

‘Controlled Energy’ by Sir William Reid Dick looms over a side door

Unilever House stands on the site of Bridewell Palace, which was originally built for King Henry VIII (1491-1547) in the early 16th century. Erected on the banks of the River Fleet, the Bridewell was used as a royal residence, orphanage, prison and poorhouse during its three centuries of its existence. After the Bridewell buildings were demolished in the 1860s, part of the site was acquired by Belgium hoteliers, the de Keysers. The family’s first hotel, the Royal Hotel, originally stood at No.s 6, 8, 9 and 10 Chatham Place (a row of houses in New Bridge Street), and was founded by patriarch Joost Constant Fidel Armand de Keyser (b.1801) in 1845. His son Sir Polydore de Keyser (1832-1898) took over management of the hotel around 1856 and acquired part of the Bridewell site for a new hotel in the 1870s. Then named De Keyser’s Royal Hotel, the new building featured 300-400 bedrooms and was designed by architect Edward Augustus Gruning (1837-1908), who also designed the German Gymnasium in King’s Cross. When the new, five-storey hotel opened in September 1874, it catered to a first-class, mainly continental clientele. By 1882, a second wing of the hotel had opened, making the hotel the largest in London.

De Keyser’s Royal Hotel circa 1900
(Postcard print from Wikimedia Commons)

The hotel was acquired by the Crown during World War I in 1916, renamed Adastral House and became the London HQ of the Royal Flying Corps until they moved further down the Embankment to the Hotel Cecil in 1918. The owners of the hotel sought compensation for loss of income during the forces’ occupation, with the government claiming it had prerogative power to take possession of buildings without compensating the owner. In 1919, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the hotel and granted the owners compensation. The battle has become an important case in constitutional law, which is still used today.

The Royal Hotel makes way for big business

Despite its legal triumph, the Royal Hotel never re-opened and the site’s lease was taken over by the Lever Brothers in 1921 for its new London headquarters. The soap manufacturing company had been founded in Cheshire in 1884 by siblings William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) and James Darcy Lever (1854–1916). In 1929, Lever Brothers merged with Dutch firm Margarine Unie to become Unilever, and within a year were the largest company in Britain, employing over 250,000 workers.

Unilever house atrium

The atrium of Unilever House with ‘The Space Trumpet’ by Conrad Shawcross (top left)

In 1929, Unilever broke ground on its new headquarters (see a photo of construction in 1931), under contractors Holland & Hannen and Cubitts Ltd. The design was a collaboration between Unilever’s own architect James Lomax-Simpson (1882-1977) with Sir John James Burnet (1857-1938) and Thomas S Tait (1882–1954), partners in Sir John Burnet and Partners. There has been much debate over the individual contributions of the three architects, although Burnet was on the verge of retiring at the time. Tait was a leading figure in modern architecture, having designed Adelaide House, the Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street, and some parts of the Selfridges department store on Oxford Street. His partner Burnet had worked extensively in Glasgow and London, including designs for the King Edward VI Gallery in the British Museum; the Kodak building on Kingsway, Holborn; and the former General Accident Assurance building at 45 Aldwych. Meanwhile, Lomax-Simpson had been working for the Lever Brothers since 1910, continuing his relationship with the firm following the Unilever merger. He designed employee housing at Port Sunlight in Merseyside, among other Lever/Unilever buildings in 25 countries1.

Unilever House entrance © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The Art Deco entrance to Unilever House

Completed in 1931-1932, Unilever House stood out for its tall, curving frontage overlooking the Thames and Blackfriars Bridge. It was constructed with a steel frame in a Neo-classical, Art Deco style. Standing tall at 8 storey, the façade is Portland stone with a striking central entrance arch, accompanied by two smaller doorways at the sides. The exterior features details as Ionic columns on the upper storeys and ornate lamps. Scottish sculptor William Reid Dick (1878-1961) contributed several pieces to the building, including ‘Controlled Energy’, two sculptures of a man and a woman controlling a horse, situated above the side doors. Meanwhile, English sculptor Gilbert Ledward (1888-1960) created the figures of mermaids and mermen. The building certainly impressed at the time, with The Times newspaper dubbing it “the Monument of Commerce”.

Unilever House was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1977. That same year, work began on a seven-year long refurbishment project, which also included extending along Tudor Street. Pentagram architect Theo Crosby accentuated the subtle Art Deco interiors with a new north entrance lobby and other features. The original 1930s attic had been unusable as office space due to lack of light, however Crosby rather controversially added windows, transforming the Classical-style façade. Sculptor Nicholas Monro (b.1936) was commissioned to create 14 huge figures (see a photo of the building in 1990s) to stand along the parapets and distract from the conversion.

In 2004, firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates renovated the building again, transforming the interior. Original fittings were retained or reused, although Monro’s sculptures were removed from the parapets. I visited Unilever House’s very light and modern lobby and atrium at the 2015 edition of Open House London, where I checked out Conrad Shawcross’ suspended artwork ‘The Space Trumpet’.

  • Unilever House, 100 Victoria Embankment and New Bridge Street, Blackfriars, EC4. Nearest station: Blackfriars.

One of the side doors to the building with a sculpture by Gilbert Ledward


1. James Lomax-Simpson – Architect | Manchester of Greater Manchester


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About Metro Girl

Media professional who was born, brought up and works in London. My blog is a guide to London - what's on, festivals, history, reviews and attractions. All images on my blog are © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl, unless otherwise specified. Do not use without seeking permission first.

Posted on 5 Mar 2023, in Architecture, History, London and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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