When you are the richest man in America and require an office – and somewhere to house your mistress – you need something just a little palatial, and that is exactly what William Waldorf Astor did in 1892 when he commissioned John Louthborough Pearson to design 2 Temple Place.
Astor had inherited a fortune some $100 million (over 2.5 billion today) on the death of his father in 1890 and after a family row declared America “was no longer a place where a gentleman could live”, a remark for which his countrymen never forgave him.
After buying the Cliveden Estate (later of Christine Keeler fame) and fearing for the safety of his family he blocked access to the land, prompting the sobriquet “Waldorf by name walled off by nature”. He would later buy Hever Castle in Kent and again ever mindful of security would banish visitors at night from the castle and raise its drawbridge. On another occasion he asserted to Lady Warwick that was he to pull a lever beside his chair every door in 2 Temple Place would close and she could not possibly get out without his permission, as a rather alarming prospect as she later recorded in her memoirs.
Astor’s mild paranoia with security was to our benefit. For his office – he did after all own a house in the more fashionable Carlton House Terrace one mile away – is built in the Gothic style of the late Victorian period. It looks like a fortified house from the outside, with a golden weathervane on its roof, a copy of Christopher Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria.
But it’s when you enter the house that you are in for a treat. “Hello there, yes the entrance is free and our exhibition of William Morris has a 72-page catalogue if you would care to borrow it. The cafe and toilets are on your left around the corner”. Amazing when did you ever get a greeting like that in an art gallery, or see at the foot of the stairs the largest floral display of amaryllis outside the Royal Horticultural Society?
On the interior of the house no expense was spared by Astor, no flight of fancy too grand, this is Victorian over-embellishment taken to the highest level. Panels featuring Shakespearian themes, Arthurian knights and what must be a pair of the finest Victorian stained glass windows in London.
Now after a succession of corporate owners the Bulldog Trust, a charity who aims to inspire others into philanthropy has purchased Astor House the ex-office of one of England’s greatest charitable donors. Astor himself took up British citizenship and was given a peerage for his charitable benefactions.
The Bulldog Trust intends to open its doors every year to house exhibitions. At the moment transferred from Walthamstow is the William Morris collection which finishes at the end of the month. Beautifully presented and rated 2nd best by Time Out. Who said of Astor House:
“Lavish, quite bonkers . . . and rather endearing . . . ”
A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 20th January 2012