The history behind this Victorian office, now home to exhibition and events spaces.
Standing on the eastern edge of the City of Westminster is a striking neo-Gothic building. Overlooking the River Thames and the Victoria Embankment is Two Temple Place. Although today the building is an events space and exhibition venue, it started life as an office for the world’s richest man.
William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) was an American attorney, publisher, philanthropist and politician. After an initial career in law and politics, Astor inherited his father John Jacob Astor III’s fortune in 1890, making him exceptionally wealthy. The same year, he financed the building of the original Waldorf Hotel in New York City, which opened in 1893 and stood for 36 years before being demolished to make way for the Empire State Building.
Astor cut short his life in the Big Apple following a family feud and relocated to Britain in 1891. In addition to falling out with his aunt Caroline Astor, he also believed England would be safer for his children against the threat of kidnap. He bought a plot of land in legal district of Temple and commissioned Gothic Revival architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897) to build him a London office. Although intended as an office, Astor also wanted residential space. As Two Temple Place was being built, Astor bought the Buckingham estate Cliveden for his family to live in. He later expanded his property portfolio with Hever Castle in Kent in 1903, as well as bank-rolling the building of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in London’s Aldwych.
Originally named the Astor Estate Office, Two Temple Place was a two-storey building, with a Gothic-Elizabethan-style exterior made of Portland stone. Among the rooms included were the great hall, library and strong room with two fortified safes to protect Astor’s riches. English sculptor Nathaniel Hitch (1845–1938) created ornate features, including gargoyles, on the exterior, while a golden likeness of Christopher Columbus’ ship La Santa Maria – which he used to sail to America – was erected as a weathervane. British sculptor William Silver Frith (1850–1924) made the ornamental lamppost sculptures of cherubs holding early telephones at the portico front entrance. The communicative angels celebrate the fact that Two Temple Place was one of the first houses in the capital to have a working telephone.
With such a fortune at Astor’s disposal, there was no expense spared on the entirety of the building project. The rooms were all decked out in wood-panelling, giving it an ‘olde world’ feel. English metal worker J Starkie Gardner (1844-1930) created ornate metalwork for the interior and exterior of the building. Meanwhile, the Astor family’s interior decorator John Dibblee Crace (1838-1919) took inspiration from the French Renaissance for the furnishings. Astor was a huge fan of symbolism and wanted the building to link the old world with the new world. Around 54 characters from history and fiction are depicted in carvings in the entrance hall or on the gilded frieze in the Great Hall, including Marie Antoinette, Pocahontas, Anne Boleyn, Niccolò Machiavelli, Marc Anthony, Cleopatra, Macbeth, Othello, and characters from The Three Musketeers – Astor’s favourite book. One of the building’s main attractions is the grand, oak staircase. Standing on the inlaid marble floor, you look up to see wood carvings, a square gallery and a square-domed, stained glass ceiling supported by ebony Corinthian columns. Read the rest of this entry
It’s one of the oldest churches in London, but barely known to so many as it’s quietly hidden away amidst the legal buildings of Temple. A stone’s throw from Middle Temple Hall is the 12th century Temple Church. Although the church is usually open on weekdays for a small charge, it also welcomes visitors for free one weekend every September as part of Open House London. For those who don’t know, Open House London is chance for Londoners and tourists to see inside buildings normally off limits to the public, or usually costing to enter, for free.
The name Temple covers an area in the City of London between Fleet Street and the River Thames, east of Aldwych. The name Temple actually stems back to a Medieval group known as the Knights Templar. They comprised of wealthy and powerful soldier monks who protected pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Their financial skills were an early form of banking and they were renowned for their fighting during the Crusades. Back in England, they named their headquarters after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Originally based in High Holborn, by the 1160s the Knights Templar found they needed a bigger site for their rapidly expanding organisation and purchased a new site near the Thames, which we now know today at Temple.
The original church was circular – with this now acting as the nave – and was based on the 6th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was consecrated in February 1185 by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (1128-1190/1191) and it is believed King Henry II (1133-1189) was in attendance. The circular church measured 55 feet in diameter. It is believed the walls were painted different colours, while further decoration was provided by the Purbeck Marble columns – now acknowledged to be the oldest, surviving free-standing examples of these today. As well as the church, the Knights Templar also built residences and military training facilities on the surrounding land. Read the rest of this entry
For over 2,000 years, our beloved London has been ravaged by invasions, fires, war and terrorism. For every loss of an architectural wonder, we fortunately also have another preserved. The 16th century, Grade I listed Middle Temple Hall is one such historic wonder – amazingly it survived the Great Fire Of London and just about scraped through World War II with some damage to the eastern end. While many other buildings of its era have been turned into a museum, Middle Temple Hall is still functioning for the legal profession – as it was designed for – so is rarely open to the public. It is widely considered as the finest example of an Elizabethan hall in London and has hosted many historical figures over the years.
Middle Temple Hall is located in the Temple area of London – near where the City of London meets the City of Westminster. History of the area stems back to the 13th century when legal students used to lodge and study in the vicinity. The Temple Church nearby was built in the 13th century and remains open to the public, services permitting. Construction on the Hall began in 1562 by law reporter Edmund Plowden, who was Treasurer of the Inn at the time. He has been immortalised as a bust by Morton Edwards, which stands in the Hall. Completed in 1573, the Hall is 100 feet long and 41 feet wide. One of the main attractions is the stunning wooden hammer-beamed roof, which prompted an audible ‘wow’ from me when I first walked into the Hall. The oak wood panelling on the walls feature hundreds of coats of arms and stained glass windows above them of the Readers and other notable Middle Templars.
At the west end of the hall are seven oil paintings of past Royals, including Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Charles I (1600-1649), Charles II (1630-1685), James II (1633-1701), William III (1650-1702), Queen Anne (1665-1714) and George I (1660-1727). Queen Elizabeth opened the Hall in 1573 and often dined at the hall. It is even rumoured she watched what is believed to be the first production of William Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night in the Hall on 2 February 1602. Underneath the paintings is the High Table – made of three 29 foot planks of a single oak, which was floated down the River Thames from Windsor Forest, apparently a gift from Queen Elizabeth.
At the east end of the hall is an elaborate screen, which was built in 1574. Two double-leaved doors were added in 1671 in an attempt to prevent boisterous behaviour by junior members of The Bar. However, the screen was heavily damaged in World War II by flying masonry from nearby Elm Court, which was destroyed by a landmine in October 1940. The remains of the screen were stored in 200 sacks until the War was over and it has since been painstakingly restored. During World War II, a total of 122 out of a total of 285 chambers at the Temple were destroyed.
Over the centuries, a host of historic figures became members of Middle Temple, including R D Blackmore, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, Inigo Jones, Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and William Makepeace Thackeray. In 1852, the Four Inns of Court (together with Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn or Lincoln’s Inn) ceased to be responsible for legal education. However, the Bench, Bar and students still meet for lunch in the Hall and host functions. Today, the Inns provide training and support to newly qualified lawyers.
Although the building is usually off-limits to the public, I was fortunate enough to visit during Open House London in September. While the building looked impressive from the outside, I wasn’t quite prepared for how magnificent it was inside. Occasionally the hall is open to the public for its annual Christmas fair and other events.
- Middle Temple Hall, Middle Temple Lane, EC4Y 9AT. Nearest station: Temple. For more information, visit the Middle Temple website.
To find out the history of the Temple Bar arch, a gate to the City of London named after Temple which stood nearby, click here.
For other Open House London posts, read:
- Open House London 2015: Royal residences, Roman baths and more.
- Regency London, John Nash and the Third Reich: Visiting The Royal Society’s Carlton House Terrace with Open House.
- Royal Hospital Chelsea: Visiting the historic home of the Chelsea Pensioners with Open House London.
For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.
Like many ancient cities, London was surrounded by a wall, with visitors and returning residents gaining entrance through a variety of gates. There have been numerous gates – or archways – into the City of London over the past two millennia, but today, only one remains. Temple Bar is currently located just north of St Paul’s Cathedral – half a mile east from where it originally stood on Fleet Street until the late 19th century. While the current structure is a 17th century design by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), it replaced a previous wooden structure and before that a chain and posts. Many of London’s gates – Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Newgate (which no longer exist) – date back to Roman times. However, Temple Bar dates back to the Middle Ages when the City of London authority erected a passageway to control traffic between the juxtaposing cities of London and Westminster. The name Temple refers to the area south of Fleet Street known for its law courts – which now features Temple underground station on the Circle and District line. The Bar at Temple was first mentioned in 1293, which historians believe was a simply a chain between two posts. However, over the years, many different structures were erected on the site. In the late Middle Ages, a timber arch stood on the spot and amazingly avoided being destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Following the Great Fire, the City was due a big makeover – building by necessity and also an attempt to build a more flowing, ordered space – 17th century town planning. The wooden Temple Bar was falling into disrepair so Wren was given the task of building a new gate, along with all the other structures he was designing and overseeing in the City. King Charles II (1630-1685) commissioned Wren to create the new Temple Bar. Made from Portland Stone, it took three years to build and was completed in 1672. The gate features a wide arch for road traffic and two smaller arches for pedestrians to pass through. In alcoves on each side of the Temple were statues of Charles I (1600-1649), Charles II, James I (1566-1625) and Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), which were carved by John Bushnell (d.1701). In the 18th century, the heads of traitors were put on spikes above the roof of the arch to serve as a warning to those thinking about breaking the City’s laws.
Despite the respect of such a historic monument, the City of London Corporation wanted to widen the road and it was decided to dismantle it carefully stone-by-stone in January 1878. After its 2,700 stones were put in storage, two years later the arch was bought by brewer, Sir Henry Bruce Meux (1856-1900) for his wife Lady Meux (1847-1910), to be reconstructed at their Hertfordshire estate Theobalds Park.
So for 123 years, Temple Bar stood in a clearing in a wood in Cheshunt. It had deteriorated and suffered vandalism over the years. The arch was bought by the Temple Bar Trust (founded by Sir Hugh Wontner in 1976) in 1984 with the hope of restoring it and bringing it back to the Square Mile. Finally, on 10 November 2004, the bright, shiny Temple Bar was completed and open to the public, now situated at the entrance to Paternoster Square by St Paul’s Cathedral. The gates of the arch, weighing just over 1.2 tons each, were opened by the Lord Mayor at the time and the 14 stonemasons who had worked on the rebuilding Temple Bar. Meanwhile, on its previous site where Fleet Street meets the Strand (in the City of Westminster) outside the Royal Courts of Justice, there now stands a marker – a neo Renaissance pedestal by Horace Jones featuring Charles Bell Birch’s sculpture of a dragon – the symbol for the City of London. The pedestal, which was unveiled in 1880) features likenesses of Queen Victoria and Edward VIII (the then-Prince of Wales), who were the last royals to pass through Wren’s gate.
- Temple Bar is located at Paternoster Square, just north of St Paul’s Cathedral. Nearest stations: St Paul’s, Temple or City Thameslink.
For other posts on Sir Christopher Wren’s life and buildings read…
- Christ Church Greyfriars: A little bit of nature amidst the concrete jungle of the City
- Missing – One church: The lonely bell tower of St Alban
- St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street – where the tiered wedding cake began!
- A hidden garden in the City: The ruins of St Dunstan-in-the-East
- Only 311 stairs… climbing The Monument
- Cardinal’s Wharf: A survivor of 18th century Bankside amidst two London landmarks
For the history of the Temple area of London – where the bar originally stood – read about Middle Temple Hall.
For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.