There can’t be many buildings known the world over by a simple number. ‘Number 10’ is synonymous with the seat of power of the UK government, the place where the prime minister lives, where all the big decisions are made. Use the words Number 10 and it’s understood, at least within the UK, that you’re referring to the one in Downing Street.
Yet, for all its latent symbolism it is just a terraced house in the middle of a street. In terms of its outwardly appearance, and compared to the residences of other world leaders, it’s distinctly understated. It is clearly not a building designed to make a statement of power and authority to its citizens and the world beyond.
In purely architectural terms, Number 10 is humbled by the White House, the French president’s Elysee Palace and even the residence of his prime minister, the Hotel Matignon in Paris. The British Prime Minister’s own official holiday retreat at Chequers is a stately pleasure dome compared to his London home/office.
So how did this apparently unprepossessing pile of bricks attain such significance and stature on the world stage?
According to its own website (yes, it has a much-visited site all of its own) Number 10 has been the official residence of the prime minister since 1735, when King George II presented it to Sir Robert Walpole, the First Lord of the Treasury – the prime minister of his day.
Cheaply built, with poor foundations
Previously, the street was the address of various dignitaries before it was acquired by Sir George Downing, a diplomat and somewhat unscrupulous property developer, by all accounts. He commissioned fabled architect Sir Christoper Wren to design the houses which today still stand on either side of the street.
However, the construction of the buildings was done on the cheap and quickly and was not in keeping with the elegant neighbourhood’s standards. Or, as the The Downing St website puts it: “in order to maximise profit, the houses were cheaply built, with poor foundations for the boggy ground. Instead of neat brick façades, they had mortar lines drawn on to give the appearance of evenly spaced bricks.”
Indeed, the shoddy workmanship led one of Number 10’s more illustrious 20th century inhabitants – Winston Churchill – to complain that buildings on Downing Street were “shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear.”
Of course, the painters and decorators have been called in a few times since and visitors to today’s Number 10 can at least expect the roof not to fall in around their ears. This is, after all, where the nation’s political leader welcomes presidents and prime ministers from around the world. Her Majesty the Queen has even been known to drop in for tea.
Who will be doing the entertaining in the coming years will be known soon, when the dust settles from the UK’s tense general election. It may not be a palace, but Number 10 is the most fiercely fought-over address in Britain.