As one of the true centres of the Western world, London has always been a city of change that prides itself on traditionalism – an interesting paradox to say the least. While Kensington Palace and the Tower of London have stayed true to their roots, the same cannot be said for many of the other iconic locations in town. Not that this is a bad thing. In many cases, finding a new use for an existing building with considerable history is a remarkable achievement and there are many examples to be found in the sprawling metropolis. If you’re a local wanting to know more about your city or a traveller thinking about a trip to London, keep an eye out for the following buildings to see how they have changed over the course of time.
The Centre of Commerce
If London is one of the biggest commercial hubs, then its epicentre is certainly The Royal Exchange, which first opened its doors in 1571. When it was launched, Britain had never had a specialised commercial building before and The Royal Exchange model would be copied over and over again for literally centuries. Taking design cues from a Belgian stock exchange house, the iconic building served as a location for buying and selling goods. So popular was The Royal Exchange that it also became known the place where the famed criers of yore would yell out the latest Royal Proclamations and other news.
Unfortunately, the original building of The Royal Exchange has not stood the test of time and was destroyed in a fire just a few years shy of celebrating a century of being open (1666). Even though it was rebuilt, the same fate would occur again, with another fire in 1838 sending the second incarnation of The Royal Exchange to the same fate. However, the third time was the charm and the 1844 rebuilding has remained open without any significant fires or other problems. A 2001 remodel not only changed much of the appearance of the iconic landmark, but also changed its function as well.
Today, The Royal Exchange has become a high-end retail centre, complete with the biggest names in shopping, such as Hermes and Tiffany. In addition, restaurants and cafes have opened on the site, with the Grand Cafe being a notable venue for celebrity weddings and other major events. While the typical visitor may not have the budget to pick up a new Tiffany lamp, a stroll through The Royal Exchange is a great way to see how a historic building can move into modern times and find a new use that is still related to its original function.
If These Walls Could Talk
Since its opening in 1900, the Hippodrome has always been one of the entertainment centres of London, starting out as a home for circus shows and other performances, with the first show including a still relatively unknown Charlie Chaplin. Expanding its scope, the venue quickly became the go-to place for all types of entertainment and features many firsts, such as the British premier of Swan Lake as well as the first jazz concert in the country. To change with the times, the Hippodrome became a famous nightclub in the late 1950s and big names like Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Ella Fitzgerald, and Stevie Wonder were only a few of the countless international stars that graced the stage. However, the place would change again after another half century and move in a different direction.
When Jimmy Thomas took over the Hippodrome’s lease in 2009, he had a clear vision of what to do with the grand building – develop the best casino in the city. Incorporating the next-door Cranbourn Mansions, the space was expanded even further and more plans were made to create an environment that was both luxurious and accessible. Officially opened in July of 2012, the Hippodrome Casino was an immediate hit, drawing huge numbers of both domestic and international visitors to gamble, see shows at the cabaret theatre, and imbibe in one of the casino’s six bars. In half a year of being open, the Hippodrome won the award of Best Land-Based Casino at the year’s Totally Gaming Awards ceremony.
In the few years that the Hippodrome Casino has been open, one of the biggest draws has been its poker room, providing players with a great selection of games across many stakes levels. Further cementing its reputation as the premier place for cards in London, Hippodrome smartly partnered up with PokerStars, the world’s leading online poker provider, bringing unparalleled poker experience to the room and attracting many people who had only experienced poker in the online version. More info about the partnership can be seen here.
From Royalty to Arts
You may not know it by name, but chances are you’ve seen it countless times, whether on news reports, in pictures, or in movies. Like The Royal Exchange, the history of Somerset House goes back a long way, with construction starting in 1549. Originally, the Somerset House, as its name might imply, was meant to be huge palace for the Edward Seymour, then the Duke of Somerset. However, Seymour met an untimely end in 1552 and after his execution, the property transferred into the hands of the royal family, providing a temporary home for the future Queen Elizabeth I. As a monumental building, construction moved slowly and reports from as late as 1598 still mark it as being incomplete.
Somerset House remained a royal property until 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution. What was not so glorious was the fact that the beautiful property became little more than a storage deposit and rapidly fell into serious decline. Sir William Chambers was tasked with a renovation in 1775 and despite his best efforts, the resulting building fell short of expectations. New wings were added and the building began being used by a mishmash of different societies and governmental organisations, such as the Royal Academy and the University of London.
In modern times, Somerset House has kept some of the odd combination of inhabitants, but has focused itself on arts, with many arts organisations moving into the space. In addition, the building has become more public-oriented and modern music concerts are regular occurrences. Artists as diverse as Amy Winehouse and Lupe Fiasco have made appearances there. At the same time, what Somerset House is probably best known for is its role in films, of which there have been many. If you’re still wondering where you’ve seen it before, perhaps it was in one of the following recent movies: The Duchess, GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, Shanghai Knights, Sleepy Hollow, Sherlock Holmes, or any of the many more that have used it as a shooting location.
Times change, and so do buildings. In London, with its state of transition being a permanent thing, it’s only fitting that many of the iconic locations found in the city have moved on to uses quite different from their original intention. All three of the previously mentioned landmarks certainly merit a visit and may help to provide both a glimpse back to where London has been and a look forward into where it’s going.