One of the great London rumours is that somewhere inside the Royal Society’s building on Carlton House Terrace sits a giant swastika. This is not because these esteemed scientists and thinkers are secretly Hitler-worshipping fascists, but because their home at Nos 6-9 was the location of the German Embassy (at Nos 8-9) during the pre-war Nazi era.
Carlton House Terrace was designed by John Nash between 1827-1832 to occupy a site previously taken by Carlton House. No 9 almost immediately became the seat of the Prussian Legation, which slowly evolved into the German Embassy. In the spirit of the time, it soon expanded to occupy the house next door at No 8.
In 1936, Joachim von Ribbentrop moved in, replacing the late Ambassador Leopold von Hoesch (whose dog’s gravestone can be seen under a tree near the Duke of York steps). Von Ribbentrop demanded a complete renovation of the property, and the Nazi’s top architect, Albert Speer, was called in to do the job. Exactly what he did remains something of a mystery, but the German Embassy website claims:
‘Only the fact that the Nash Terrace was a listed building saved the facades from being included in Ribbentrop’s plan to establish a model of the Third Reich architecture in the centre of the British capital. The renovation was exhaustive, money was no object.’
It is hard to discern exactly what alterations Speer made, but one diplomat wrote that the showy renovation of No 8 and 9 Carlton House Terrace had produced a style and furniture less suitable for an embassy and more comparable to that of German luxury liners of the time like the “Bremen”. A contemporary set of photographs are lodged at the Library of Congress. The only one currently viewable is of the very modern-looking kitchen.
This decent phot0-set shows the building now, including Speer’s striking staircase, said to be constructed by marble supplied by Mussolini.
Among Speer’s embellishments was said to be the inclusion of a swastika mosaic on the floor of one of the public rooms. After the war, rather than remove the offending article, the swastika was said to have been simply covered with a carpet. (And this website claims there are still visible ‘border designs of swastikas on the floor of one public room’, which seems unlikely.)
Is it true?
Well, I’ve never seen a photo to substantiate the claim and people I know who have been inside the Royal Society are also none the wiser. However, I did once receive an email at Time Out from a builder who claimed to have renovated the building in the 1990s and seen a huge swastika under one carpet. Where, presumably, it still remains. Von Ribbentrop also had a house built for him in Pinner, which was said to have swastikas carved into the staircase.
If you do have a hankering to see a swastika in London, you should head for India House, where this plaque can be seen on the wall.
It represents the swastika when it was still an intriguing sign from the east, before it was appropriated by Hitler. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the swastika was a popular symbol in the west, often used as a good luck charm and adopted by groups as varied as the Boy Scouts and the Druids. My copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories still has a prominent swastika featured in one illustration and the British Museum is full of the things.
Indeed, so popular was the swastika, it was even used to liven up the decor at Hounslow Bus Garage. Click on that last link and zoom in and you’ll see the border of pretty little swastikas that featured in the staff canteen. These swiftly disappeared as the truth about Hitler became impossible to ignore.
There are swastikas on the fronts of some of the houses on Fentiman Road, Vauxhall, near where I live. They look like they were built in the second half of the 19th century, when such things wouldn’t have been a problem. I don’t know whether anyone has ever tried to cover them up, but it would be difficult.
The Hounslow Bus Garage one is a bit of a shocker, out of context, anyway. (I’ve seen editions of Kipling’s poetry, published between the wars, that also use the swastikas as a decorative symbol on their covers).
Upminster Bridge tube station, opened, of all possible times, in 1935 (designed not by the Underground itself, but by the London Midland and Scottish railway – who operated the line beyond Upminster out to Southend & Shoeburyness at the time) has an enormous tiling of a swastika (*slightly* different in form from that favoured by the Nazis) on the floor of its entrance/former booking hall. See here for a photo
Fascinating article. Love the dog gravestone. Cant you just ask the Royal Society to lift the carpet?
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has some subtle swastikas in their library:
They actually asked me if they could use that photo on their Twitter profile!
Really enjoyed this article and also the comments it has generated.
I have also spotted some swastika motifs surrounding the sculptures on the Whitehall side of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Just amazing Peter we must all see if we can uncover this dark secret in Carlton House Terrace…
Building in Hallam Street W1 has swastika motifs around the facade. Can’t remember who the building belongs too – some medical association. Ironically it is immediately next to the Hallam Street synagogue !
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There were some unintended swastikas for many years on the Bakerloo Line platforms at Oxford Circus. Here is a link to a picture of the wall mosaic. Can you spot them? http://www.flickr.com/photos/24772733@N05/3038836358/
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The swastika is one of the most common patterns in the language of decorative ornament, from Ancient Egypt forwards. Arranged in linked borders, they can be found from Pompeiian vlllas to the Vatican Stanze, to almost any interior done in the classical style. Yes, it has even shown up in synagogues. Let’s face it: It is very attractive pattern, and it’s no wonder the Nazis adopted it, but, of course, it was never, ever political before the ’30s.
The tiled floor at Upminster Bridge tube is a stylised swastika. It’s somewhere on my twitter photos, or I can send it to you.
The floor of The Reform Club and the windows of The Flask pub in Hampstead