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About Defence

MOD Main building

By the turn of the twentieth century some government offices were already established in several old Georgian houses in the area of Whitehall Gardens on the east side of Whitehall.

In 1909 it was decided to erect a new building primarily for the Department of Trade. The site was to extend over other parts of Whitehall Gardens and also on ground running down to the Embankment, but opposition to this plan led to the agreement that the southern building line should be that of Whitehall Court and the National Liberal Club, thus conceding some 10,000 square feet.

The architect selected was Mr E Vincent Harris, who won a national competition to design a new building for occupation by a number of Government departments. Planned as a single block faced in Portland stone, some 128 feet high and 570 feet long with a depth of 205 feet widening to 300 feet, it had four internal blocks with ten storeys and three large internal courts; the two main facades faced Whitehall and the Victoria Embankment. The estimated cost was some £5 million.

However, construction was delayed by the First World War and then by the inter-war depression, so that it was not until 1938 that the demolition of the houses in Whitehall Gardens began. Major building operations were then halted during the Second World War, except for work on two underground citadels which continued until 1942, albeit with a reduced labour force.

Although the Georgian houses in Whitehall Gardens were to be demolished, five rooms from 'Pembroke House', 'Cromwell House' and 'Cadogan House' were to be dismantled and incorporated as Conference Rooms (known today as 'Historic Rooms') on the third and fourth floors of the new building.

In addition, following a request from Queen Mary in 1938 and a promise in Parliament, provision was made for the preservation of the Wine Cellar, the only substantial part of the old 'Whitehall Palace' that remained after the disastrous fire of 1698 and a fine example of a Tudor brick-vaulted roof some 70 feet long and 30 feet wide. However the existing position of the Cellar, used in the years immediately prior to the demolition of 'Cadogan House' which surrounded it, as a luncheon club for Ministry of Transport staff, was found to interfere not just with the plan for the new building but also with the proposed route for Horse Guards Avenue. Accordingly, once building was resumed after the war, work was set in hand to relocate the whole Cellar into the new building itself, moving it both some nine feet to the west and nearly nineteen feet deeper. This major operation was carried out without significant damage to the structure and it now rests safe within the basement of the new building.

In this immediate post-war period, work recommenced in earnest and by 1951 the north part of the building (known as the New Government Offices) was ready for the Board of Trade. Statues of 'Earth' and 'Water' sculpted by Sir Charles Wheeler were placed over the main north door. These were meant to be complemented by similar figures to represent 'Air' and 'Fire' at the south end, but in the event these were not incorporated when this part of the building was handed over to the Air Ministry in 1958/59.

Although the building's appearance was praised in the Building Magazine in its September 1951 issue, the architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner was less complimentary: he called it a 'monument of tiredness'. (5)

In 1964, a requirement for a single, large building was created by the merger of the three Service Ministries and the formation of the unified Ministry of Defence. The new Government Building in Whitehall was considered most suitable; with the move of the Board of Trade to Victoria, the Building was free for sole occupancy by the new Ministry of Defence (MOD) and became thereby the 'Main Building'.

After 50 years, the Building was refurbished to provide modern, fit for purpose, office accommodation for MOD staff in London and has been occupied since the end of 2004.


References:

(5) Nicholas Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England: London 1'; Penguin, London 1957.

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