Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wardour Street confectionery

At the Guardian Review, James Fenton considers the phenomenon of rooms moved from one country to another, musing on the revelations of John Harris's Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages:
On a foggy July morning in 1945, a US B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, killing its crew of three, and over a dozen office workers, and setting fire to the 78th floor. Armand Hammer, the international wheeler-dealer, profited from this opportunity to acquire the 78th floor and refurbish it for one of his companies, United Distillers of America. Here he installed a Tasting Room, which had once served as Council Chamber in a Medici palace near Florence, in a small town called San Donato in Collina.

Large numbers of historic rooms were dismantled, packed up and transported to warehouses in the States at the time. American taste of the period ran to very large fireplaces, cloisters, wainscoting, coffered ceilings and all manner of architectural antiques. William Randolph Hearst (the original Citizen Kane) was the leading accumulator in this field. When he was forced to sell off some of the warehouses full of material he had bought but never used, it was Hammer who organised the disastrous sales of 1940. The paintings were sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, and the architectural pieces at Gimbel Brothers, another department store. None of the European dealers could bid, there being a war on, and the prices were only a fraction of what Hearst (who had never been in the habit of bargaining) had paid to the trade.

Hammer, clearly, was in a strong position to find historic rooms, and he decided that his Medici Council Chamber was not enough. He acquired, as his own office, the Treaty Room from Uxbridge. This was a panelled interior in which, it was said, Charles I had attempted to come to terms with Oliver Cromwell in 1645. It had been dismantled, along with a smaller room known as the Presence Room, to be sold to an American museum, possibly Philadelphia. Now these, too, found a home on the 78th floor. No doubt the offices were extremely grand, and some way was found to ease the transition from Renaissance Tuscany to Uxbridge.

However, in 1953, Hammer decided to present the Uxbridge interiors, as a coronation gift, to the young Queen Elizabeth II. The rooms returned to England, where the V&A decided that the best use for them might be in Uxbridge, in the pub from which they had been taken: the Crown and Treaty, 90 Oxford Road. So these rooms spent eight years in the Empire State Building, before returning to what became a Thai restaurant. Now the Crown and Treaty is a venue for live music. The rooms were never large enough to accommodate the retinues of Charles and Cromwell together. This is a history of bogusness.

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