Burgers and the Parthenon

THE HARD ROCK CAFÉ at 150 Old Park Lane in central London opened its doors to customers in June 1971. It has been a popular eatery and tourist attraction ever since then. Often, a queue of hungry customers can be seen at its doors. I ate an enjoyable meal there once soon after it opened. I was then an undergraduate at University College London. Since then, I have not entered this place again. Some years ago, when the Hard Rock Café opened a branch in what had been the Tract and Bible Society bookstore in St Marks Road in Bangalore (India) in 2007, we had an indifferent meal there under the watchful eyes of a huge poster portrait of the singer Tina Turner.

Few of the customers of the Old Park Lane branch of this American-style diner in Old Park Lane are likely to have raised their heads to see what is above the eatery. It is worth doing so to see the:

“Bracketed cornice over 5th floor, shaped gable end to attic storeys finished off by giant broken segmental pediment with green brick banding and figure sculpture crowned by ornamental obelisk-finial.” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1266274).

This green (and white brick) banding gives the building an eye-catching appearance. There is a crest between the two large bow windows on the fourth (American fifth) floor. This shield with three chevrons and ten circles bears the date ‘1907’.

The building, 149-150 Old Park Lane, was built in 1904 to the designs of the architects Thomas Edward Colcutt (1840-1924) and Stanley Hamp (1877-1968), who worked together as a partnership.  So far, so good, but what was the building used for when it was built and why did it deserve such an elaborate and unusual pediment? Various descriptions of its architecture describe that it consists of ‘flats and chambers’ above ‘a former showroom, now restaurant’. One source (www.foodepedia.co.uk/restaurant-reviews/2010/nov/hard_rock_cafe.htm) states that the Hard Rock is situated inside a former Rolls Royce showroom. This is confirmed by Anthony Knight, who wrote (on a restaurant development website):

“Two shaggy-haired Americans living in London were fed up with the fact they couldn’t find US-style burgers in the capital so they started a small burger joint in a Rolls-Royce dealership. In 1973 they hosted their first live gig, with the singer none other than Paul McCartney” (www.elliottsagency.com/opinion/greateststories/).

The brand name ‘Rolls Royce’ has been used since 1906. The building at 150 Old Park Lane was constructed two years earlier. I have not been able to ascertain when the luxury car company first opened their show room in the current premises of Hard Rock Café.

Looking up at the pediment, there is a sculpture of a kneeling muscular man supporting a sort of obelisk on which there are interlinked letters, which look like ‘D’, ‘J’, and lower-case ‘l’. What this stands for remains a mystery to me. However, the crest mentioned above, is identical to that on the coat-of-arms of the city of Gloucester (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp368-371). This is appropriate as the building is known as ‘Gloucester House’.

The building housing the Hard Rock Café is not the first edifice on this plot to have been named ‘Gloucester House’. According to the authoritative book edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, “The London Encyclopaedia”, the first Gloucester House, which like the present burger joint was located on the west corner of Old Park Lane and Piccadilly, was constructed in the early years of the reign of King George III (he was on the throne from 1760 to 1820). It was in this building that Lord Elgin (1766-1841) first exhibited the marble fragments that he had removed from the Parthenon in Athens. They were displayed here, where today burgers and milkshakes are consumed, before he sold the marbles to the nation in 1816. That year, Gloucester House was purchased by William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester (1776-1834), who despite being nicknamed ‘Silly Billy’ became Chancellor of Cambridge University. The last owner of the house was George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, who died in 1904. Soon after his death, the old house was demolished. It seems that its successor, the present Gloucester House, was built almost as soon as the old one was demolished.

In 1850, when the old Gloucester House was still in existence, Peter Cunningham wrote in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850):

“At the Duchess of Gloucester’s, at the corner of Park-Lane, once Lord Elgin’s, and where the Elgin Marbles were placed on their first arrival in this country, is a very beautiful carpet in sixty squares, worked by sixty of the principal ladies among the aristocracy.”

At that time, William Frederick’s widow, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1776-1857), who was born in Buckingham Palace, was residing at the house. After her death, the house was sold to its last owner.

It occurred to me that quite accidentally the Hard Rock Café with its main entrance on Piccadilly is aptly named given that it is located where some ‘rocks’ that occasionally give the British Government a hard time, The Elgin Marbles, were once housed.  What gives the precious ancient marbles a sort of hardness is that from time to time the Greek Government wants to have them back in Athens. So, next time you bite into a burger at Hard Rock in Gloucester House, spare a thought for the Greeks who have lost their marbles.

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