Embassy buildings come imposing and impenetrable. Even standing outside one can be intimidating.
However, this building had an early name that was nothing if not prosaic. “The Independent North Mansion” was the title of 49 Belgrave Square, one of Thomas Cubitt’s creations in his Belgravia masterpiece.
An imposing building
The photograph explains the title - this is not a terrace . By 1829 most of the houses in the Square had been completed, though who knows what Cubitt would make of the traffic today hammering round one of the most upmarket gyratory systems in London.
49 was completed in 1851, just four years before Cubitt’s death, and sharing the year with the Great Exhibition.
The house was originally built for the British Government’s War Secretary, Sidney Herbert. We were near to the beginning of the Crimean War, and it is said that Florence Nightingale left for the Crimea after hearing a speech of Herbert’s delivered at the house.
By that time the house had been renamed Belgrave Villa. It then passed through the ownership of the 6th Duke of Richmond, 7th Duke of Richmond, and the minerals magnate Sir Otto Beit, before being acquired by the Argentine Embassy in 1936.
As you would expect, the interior contains lavish reception rooms, and there is a spectacular ballroom with gold cornices and full-length mirrors.
Popular with Open House visitors
Despite this large-scale grandeur, the piece de resistance would be seen by most as the Ambassador’s office. In a polygon shape of room with massive stone fireplace, we could see the Ambassador’s desk and imagine the phone calls to Buenos Aires.
Notice the flag just behind desk
By way of the elephant in the room, the corridor leading to the office contains a design on the wall prominently inscribed with the word “Malvinas”.
However, what struck visitors was the helpfulness of the staff and their willingness to answer questions with courtesy and diplomacy – then again this is an Embassy building.
2012 was apparently the seventh consecutive year in which the Embassy opened the doors of the building for Open House. If it re-appears in 2013, I’d recommend a visit.
The author is a City of London and City of Westminster Guide, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. See tabs for more information.