The Piazza
The Architectural Decline of the Piazza


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F. H. W. Sheppard (General Editor)

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'The Piazza: The Architectural Decline of the Piazza', Survey of London: volume 36: Covent Garden (1970), pp. 80-82. URL: Date accessed: 20 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The Architectural Decline of the Piazza

Before attempting to chart the breaking up, gradual at first, of the Piazza's original uniformity, it is necessary to note the presence of balconies extending in front of the principal-storey windows belonging to the second and seventh houses on the north side. As these highly fashionable 'purgulas' appear in the bird's-eye view by Hollar and in the early painting at Wilton (Plates 1, 11) it is reasonable to assume that they were provided when the houses were built, and are not to be regarded as serious departures from the original design of the portico buildings.

Here it may be observed that the uniform stuccoing of the pilaster-strips, window-aprons, and upper sill-band was probably carried out at an early date, although it may not have been intended by Inigo Jones or de Caus. There is no direct reference to this work in the building accounts relating to the north-east portico buildings, and it is significant that the Corinthian pilasters in Great Queen Street and the Ionic pilasters in Lincoln's Inn Fields had exposed brick shafts.

Some rebuilding of the original houses in the Piazza took place before the close of the seventeenth century. Three houses on the east side (Nos. 1–3 Little Piazza) which collapsed in 1670 were rebuilt as before, but the first important change came in 1689–90 when the north house on the west side (No. 1 King Street) was rebuilt in an entirely different style with an 'artisan' front having five windows crowded into each storey, and a gabled wall facing south to the churchyard (ref. 22) (Plates 28a, 30a). In c. 1698 the regularity of the portico houses in the Great Piazza was disrupted for the first time when the house on the east corner of James Street was altered about the roof, and a balustraded parapet substituted for the original eaves-cornice.

Early in the eighteenth century the south side of the Piazza was transformed. After the death of the first Duke of Bedford in 1700 the second Duke removed from Bedford House in the Strand to Southampton House in Bloomsbury and the site of the old house and its garden was built upon. This entailed the removal of the market, hitherto close to the garden wall of Bedford House, into the railed open space of the Piazza. In 1706–14 fourteen plain houses without arcades were built on the south side of the square (later numbered 4–6 and 8–14 Tavistock Row, 20 Southampton Street and 1–3 Henrietta Street), and Southampton Street was made, linking the Piazza for the first time with the Strand (fig. 32 on page 208).

The house on the south side of the church (No. 37 Henrietta Street) was rebuilt in 1729–30, (ref. 23) and that on the north side, No. 1 King Street, which had already been rebuilt in 1689–90, was again rebuilt in 1753–4 (ref. 24) (Plates 28a, 29b).

The first major casualty to the uniform facade of the portico buildings occurred in 1716–17 when, during the minority of the third Duke, his trustees permitted the westernmost house in the north range of the Great Piazza to be rebuilt, with disastrous effect. Four bays of the portico building were now replaced by the assertive Baroque front of No. 43 King Street, designed in a style akin to Thomas Archer's (Plate 77a). This new and inappropriate front, with seven windows to each storey where the original building had only four, may well have prompted Campbell's slighting observation on 'the Lanthorn Way of Building', even though he was discreet enough not to offend by a more direct reference.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, or possibly earlier, stucco was being applied to the portico houses in the Great Piazza. Charles Macklin's lease of No. 10–11 in 1753 required him to stucco (or perhaps re-stucco) the pilasters on the front of the house. (ref. 25) In 1761 the lessee of No. 4–5 was requested to stucco the west and south fronts of his house all over, (ref. 26) and the lessee of No. 12 had to 'new stucco' the front of his house and the rustics of the piers (presumably the piers of the arcade). (ref. 27) In the following year repairs at No. 6–7 included making good the stucco in the 'piazza' or portico walk and on the fronts to correspond with the adjoining houses (ref. 28) (i.e. No. 4–5 and No. 8), and in 1775 the tenant of No. 3 had to repair the stucco on the front of his house and the ornaments round the windows. (ref. 29) No. 2 apparently retained its brick face until Thomas Drury applied a composition in 1802. (ref. 30) The adjoining house, No. 1, is shown with a stucco front in a photograph taken shortly before its demolition (Plate 44b).

A scheme to restore architectural uniformity was initiated around 1796, when the leaseholder of No. 4–5, on the east corner of James Street, was required to rebuild his ruinous premises and use Portland stone for the arcade, pilasters, window dressings, parapet and balustrade. This was done at the request of the fifth Duke's surveyor, Henry Holland, who supervised the work 'as his Grace intended to rebuild and continue the whole of the Piazza in like manner'. (ref. 31) Despite this, No. 3 on the west corner of James Street, with three bays to the Piazza, was partly rebuilt around 1800 in a most utilitarian manner with a plain brick face above the arcade. A few years later the five bays westwards were refaced with stucco above the arcade and dressed with giant Tuscan pilasters, obviously copied from the portico of St. Paul's Church. At first these pilasters supported an appropriate entablature which, all too soon, was mutilated to form a fascia for signs (Plate 44). Although their evidence is not conclusive, some views drawn at this time suggest that other houses were dressed with this Tuscan order, notably those at the north end of the east side, where considerable damage had been caused in 1808 by the fire at Covent Garden Theatre. By this time many of the arcade piers had been crudely repaired, their rusticated faces being cleaned off and rendered smooth with cement. (fn. a)

The fifth Duke's intention to rebuild in accordance with Holland's designs presumably applied only to the remaining portico houses in the Great Piazza, for those in the Little Piazza had already been destroyed by a fire in 1769. This intention was a reversal of the fourth Duke's ideas, for after the fire of 1769 the steward of the estate had written to the Duke's agent that he thought the restoration of the 'little piazzas' would be 'an Extraordinary Expence and answer to little purpose', particularly 'as the other [i.e. the Great] piazzas are propos'd to be demolished at the Expiration of the present Leases'. He suggested that it would be better to rebuild without the portico walk and to set back the frontage 5 or 6 feet from its former line. (ref. 32) The new houses were so built, a terrace of four sharing a front somewhat similar to those of Flitcroft's houses around Bloomsbury Square (Plates 32b, 47a). This four-storeyed front was built of brick, with a stone or stucco bandcourse at first-floor level and a modillioned cornice below the attic, which was carried up to form a parapet partly concealing the garret windows. Each house had a roundarched doorway, recessed in a rusticated doorcase with a triangular pediment, and some of the firstfloor windows were dressed with a moulded architrave, pulvinated frieze, and cornice.

In 1858 the four bays at the east end of the north side of the Great Piazza were demolished to make room for the conservatory-architecture of the Floral Hall (Plate 42b), and by 1868 the remainder of this range east of James Street was repaired and partly rebuilt as the Tavistock Hotel (Plate 45a). Although the original design of the rusticated arcade was retained, it was surmounted by a lofty upper face finished with cement, having two main storeys dressed with a giant order of Corinthian plain-shafted pilasters, and an attic storey above the entablature. This reconstruction produced a building with a uniform front of eight bays, which was closer in style to the Queen's Gallery at old Somerset House, then ascribed to Jones, than to the original portico buildings.

Contrary to what might have been expected, the Tavistock Hotel elevation was not duplicated when the corresponding eight-bay range west of James Street was rebuilt in 1877–9 as Bedford Chambers (Plates 45a, 45b, 49a). When the need for rebuilding here had arisen, the ninth Duke, with his good taste and concern for architectural propriety, had insisted, somewhat against his own interests, that the facade of the new buildings should approximate to the original design. The Duke's wishes must have been clearly expressed for his surveyor, W. S. Cross, even suggested that he might like to consider the continuation of 'the Piazza', or portico walk, round the south side of the square and went so far as to prepare a design for the Duke's approval. (ref. 33) This scheme came to nothing, however, for the Duke commissioned Henry Clutton, the architect whom he had recently engaged to restore St. Paul's Church, to design Bedford Chambers. He also desired that Clutton should be consulted upon the designs for other new buildings in the Piazza.

In Bedford Chambers, Clutton echoed the original Jones—de Caus elevation with restrained French overtones, producing a design of considerable distinction which was beautifully executed by William Cubitt and Company in Portland stone and fine narrow-coursed red brickwork. Nevertheless, the Duke's intentions and Clutton's designs were strongly criticized in The Builder in 1878. Recognizing a general resemblance to 'the massive houses erected in France during the reign of "Henri quatre"' (presumably in Paris, in the Place des Vosges), the writer went on to complain that 'Such façades are only tolerable when they are known to be the genuine work of the seventeenth century, and are, necessarily, crowned by the lofty roof of steep pitch.'

Curiously enough, the same writer found little fault with Clutton's façades to the contemporaneous building on the corner of Southampton Street and Henrietta Street, 'except, perhaps, that the dormer windows are too big and powerful'. This building, now Nos. 1–2 Henrietta Street, has a lower stage of rusticated stonework that is not arcaded, and an upper stage of red brickwork where the windows are linked vertically by their stone dressings, rising through the balustraded parapet into tall pedimented dormers (Plate 48b).

In 1883–5 Nos. 1–4 King Street, north of the church, were rebuilt with façades by Clutton that combined a rusticated arcade, containing the ground-storey and mezzanine windows, with a three-storeyed upper stage closely related to that of Nos. 1–2 Henrietta Street, except that the prominent stone dormers were omitted (Plate 48a).

The next stage involved part of the south range on the east side of the Piazza, where the Hummums Hotel (now Russell Chambers) was rebuilt in 1887 (Plate 49b). Here the façades take on a more Italianate character, especially in the treatment of the windows of the three-storeyed upper stage, although affinity with the earlier buildings is maintained by the rusticated arcade framing the ground-storey and mezzanine windows, and by the pedimented dormer windows of stone that break the crowning balustrade. A perspective drawing of the new Flower Market in Tavistock Street (Plate 43c) shows that it was then intended to rebuild the north range of the east side of the Piazza as an exact match with the new Hummums Hotel, and to build a similar block on the south side of the Piazza, between Southampton Street and the new Flower Market, leaving space for a wide covered way from the Piazza to Tavistock Street.

This, however, was not to be, for when the much-altered north-east range was demolished in 1887–8, its site was absorbed into the market area. Although Nos. 34–37 Henrietta Street were rebuilt in 1889–90, providing a block on the south side of the church to balance that on the north (Plate 48b), there were no further attempts to complete the uniform rebuilding envisaged by the ninth Duke and his architect. The formation of Mart Street in 1932–3 brought about the demolition of the Tavistock Hotel, which was partly replaced by the commonplace block of Piazza Chambers. Now, despite its larger scale and some stylistic differences, Clutton's Bedford Chambers alone survives to recall the grandeur and uniformity of the portico buildings erected in the 1630's.


a In 1809 Daniel Davis of Bloomsbury Square exhibited at the Royal Academy a design for rebuilding Covent Garden market 'with the Piazza restored agreeably to the original intention of Inigo Jones'.


22 E/BER, King Street, lease of 20 Aug. 1689 to R. Bentley.
23 Ibid., Henrietta Street, lease of 18 March 1729 30 to H. Ethersey.
24 Ibid., King Street, lease of 1 Aug. 1753 to S. Smyth.
25 Ibid., Piazza, lease of 1 Nov. 1753 to C. Macklin.
26 Ibid., Piazza, lease of 27 Sept. 1761 to J.Pitt.
27 Ibid., Piazza, lease of 26 Sept. 1761 to J. Duberley.
28 Ibid., Piazza, lease of 21 June 1762 to J. Bosworth.
29 Ibid., Piazza, lease of 20 Nov. 1775 to J. Bunn.
30 B.O.L., Correspondence, Drury to Beaumont, 21 April 1802.
31 Ibid., Proposal Book G, p. 25.
32 Ibid., Correspondence, Wynne to Palmer, 23 March 1769.
33 Ibid., London Reports, 18 Jan. 1876, p. 434.