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The Resurrection of the Nash Terraces in Regent’s Park:

From the Gorell Report in 1947 until the adoption of final proposals in 1962 

For much of the 40 odd years that I have spent in London, I have lived near Regent’s Park including, in more recent years, in restored Nash terraces. This left me with a desire to apply some of the skills I learnt at The Bartlett to seek a better understanding of how the terraces came from a state of dereliction after the Second World War to their current state. The condition of the terraces was caused both
by bomb and blast damage, but also neglect as skilled workmen and materials
were in desperately short supply, with the result that there was widespread water penetration in what were timber framed buildings. I knew that Lord Gorell has been appointed by Clement Attlee, the then prime minister, in 1946 to report on the future of the terraces, and I accepted what seemed to be the prevailing narrative that the Report, which recommended restoring a number of the terraces, had led to the restoration of almost all of them. I knew that the Report itself was held in the British Library and of substantial records, both about the Committee and more generally about the restoration, held in the National Archives.

In the event, what I found was a much more complex story than I expected. Yes, the Gorell Report, which said that there ‘are, in fact far more lugubrious experiences
in London than that to be obtained from a general survey of the Nash Terraces
in Regent’s Park’, did recommend restoration of some of them, and yes, most of them, more than the Committee recommended, were in the event restored. But the terraces, or at least many of them, remained at risk of destruction for many years. The problem was money.

The Committee itself suggested that the total cost of restoration would cost, in 1947 money, £5,000,000. This was a multiple of probably 5 times the total annual net income from all its property of the body responsible for the terraces, which over the period became the Commissioners of the Crown Estate. I found several instances in government files of ministers, including Chancellors of the Exchequer, enthusiastically endorsing restoration whilst refusing to allow central government funds to be used for the purpose.

This issue came to a head in 1957, at which stage little by way of restoration had been done, although work by the Crown Estate and the Ministry of Works (which used a number of the terraces as government offices, some until the 1960s) had done much to preserve the buildings. In the spring of 1957 the Crown Estate proposed, in a submission to the Cabinet that, whilst some terraces would be restored, many, including some of the ones recommended for restoration by the Gorell Committee, would be destroyed and replaced. Whether or not the proposal itself was leaked, over the summer of 1957 the overall thrust of the recommendation became public. My dissertation takes up the story:

It was in the weeks before this paper was sent to [the responsible minister] that the possibility of large-scale demolition of the Nash terraces became public, and the Crown Estate and Ministers found themselves the subject of public denigration. It would seem that the story was first mentioned in a local newspaper, the Marylebone Mercury, and became significant news rapidly.

It is not intended to detail the public response in this dissertation. Perhaps a few points made in a BBC Panorama programme presented by Woodrow Wyatt may give a flavour. He interviewed Summerson who described the park as ‘the only place of continuously refined architecture in London’.[1] Sir William Halford, an architect and town planner, and later President of RIBA, said that Regent’s Park was, he thought, the most beautiful town park in the country, and perhaps the world. He added that the terraces were badly constructed, and ‘completely out of date, impossible to run’. Summerson added that the houses were ‘obsolete’. He now wanted all the terraces to be preserved, if not ‘what we shall get is so much worse than what we had’. Modern architecture ‘has no imaginative appeal whatsoever’. Wyatt concluded that his own view was that ‘if we are prepared to pull down all, or some, of the Nash Terraces in Regent’s Park, as a nation, then we will pull down anything’.

After this, of course, no politician was prepared to sanction anything along the lines of what the Crown Estate had proposed, and the Crown Estate went away to work on a public statement of what it proposed as an alternative. The statement which resulted - approved by the Cabinet - included plans to restore Cumberland Terrace, then nearly vacant. To quote again:

Economically, the most important [part of the statement] was that the Crown Estate was itself to restore Cumberland Terrace to plans to be prepared
by the de Soissons’ firm. Some houses within it were to be retained, and others converted into flats. ‘It is clear that we cannot expect anything like an ordinary commercial return from this investment. We feel, however, that any large landowner with the necessary means should be ready to make some unprofitable contribution to preserve lovely buildings. This will be our main contribution in Regent’s Park.

The importance of the restoration of Cumberland Terrace was, among other things, to see how financially viable restoration of the Terraces really was. The public might have been more interested in the public declaration that attempts would be made to preserve all the other terraces by Nash and Burton, ‘if this can be achieved without undue capital cost’, and that, whilst there was some uncertainty, ‘no plans existed for the demolition, or for any change to be made to the elevation of, any other Terrace’.’

The restoration of Cumberland Terrace was a relative economic success and showed that restoration was financially viable. Virtually all future restoration was done by private companies. In general, the pattern was the erection of new buildings behind the original facades. Of the original Nash buildings, the much-altered Someries House was demolished and on its site the Royal College of Physicians erected their new headquarters, designed by the distinguished modernist architect Sir Denys Lasdun. Two other terraces were demolished and replaced behind facades which were identical to the originals. The path to full restoration was not smooth, as discussed in the dissertation, but it was eventually achieved.

[1] Sir John Summerson was a distinguished historian of, inter alia, Georgian London.

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