The old U.S. embassy in London was certainly impressive. Located next to a large garden square in the heart of the posh Mayfair neighborhood, its distinctive modernist style was designed by the Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen and unveiled in 1960. Mayfair, like many upscale West London neighborhoods, is dotted with foreign embassies: Just across Grosvenor Square sits the grandiose Italian embassy.
The new U.S. Embassy due to be opened next week is undeniably a showstopper too. At $1 billion, it is the most expensive embassy ever constructed, with the building's glass exterior one notable part of a sleek design by the firm KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia.
Unlike China, Russia and Germany — all of whom have their embassies in upmarket West London locations north of the river Thames — the new U.S. Embassy is in Nine Elms, a former industrial area in Battersea. It is a certainly a different neighborhood: If the old embassy was next to West End department stores and Hyde Park, the new one is a short walk from bustling gay nightclubs at Vauxhall.
The decision to move the embassy came down to practical concerns, the most important of which was safety. After the al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the State Department imposed new safety standards that required embassies to be set back 100 feet from any adjacent roads due to the risk of car bombs and other attacks. For embassies that were in densely populated neighborhoods like Mayfair, that posed a major problem and often necessitated a move.
“When I was in the State Department it was a very typical story,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations who previously served as a senior adviser to the State Department on European foreign policy issues. “All U.S. embassies around the world are eventually going to conform to these security measures.”
The Grosvenor Square building was a particular problem. Not only was it a listed building, meaning that any alterations to its structure required approval from the British government, it is also in a dense area full of residential buildings. There were often long lines outside the building, and neighbors began to complain about the threat to their homes. Bob Tuttle, who was served as U.S. ambassador to Britain from 2005 to 2009, said that when he was prepping for his confirmation hearing, it became apparent to him the embassy would need to move.
“There were two narrow side streets by the embassy,” Tuttle said in a phone call. “They are very slim, and if someone came down there with a truck, a la the Oklahoma City bombing, it would not only blow up half the embassy and kill half the people in it but it would also kill half the people in nearby residences.”
“We didn't have a choice,” Susman said. “We had to move.”
According to Tuttle, the State Department considered moving part of the embassy into another nearby Naval Attache building owned by the U.S. government — best known for being Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters during World War II — but found that plan unfeasible. This building's lease was instead appraised and found to be worth around half a billion dollars. It was eventually sold for £250 million — a little less than $400 million at the time.
Realizing the high value of the properties, Tuttle said a decision was made to sell the 999-year lease to the embassy building. The final sale price for the embassy itself has never been released publicly, though Tuttle recalled it was roughly the same price as the Naval Attache building. Peter Wetherell, founder of local property agency Wetherell, said it was rumored to have been at least double.
Though Trump blamed the Obama administration for the “bad deal,” much of the work was done by Tuttle — a political appointee under the Bush administration. Tuttle said property firm Cushman & Wakefield helped sell the lease and that the eventual deal was within the range they were hoping for. Wetherell said he recalled there being a number of parties interested in the property. “It was very exciting,” he said. “At the time, these were record prices.”
Tuttle would go on to take the lead in finding a new location for an embassy, eventually looking at 60 to 70 different possibilities, while his Obama-appointed successor Susman arranged most of construction of the new building. The new location south of the river was one of the few that could meet the new security requirements but not require extra funding from taxpayers. “Finding the five acres at the price we need to pay was very difficult,” Susman said of the new location. “Bob Tuttle did a very good job.”
“I'm very proud of what we did, and I think we did the right thing,” Tuttle said.
Woody Johnson, appointed by Trump to be ambassador to Britain last year, has also defended the new embassy. “Purchased and built from the sale of our London properties, the new embassy did not cost the U.S. taxpayer a cent, yet it is one of the most advanced embassies we have ever built,” Johnson wrote in an article for the London Evening Standard published Friday.
Though the new embassy may not have the glamorous location of the old one, it is practically located by government buildings and has good transport links. Shapiro said that in many other cities, newly built embassies and consulates were being pushed to the edge of the city because of transport concerns. “They're lucky they found an area that's reasonably close to Westminster but still undeveloped,” he added.
The lease on the old embassy was bought by Qatari Diar Real Estate, a wing of the Qatar's sovereign wealth fund that plans to turn the building into residences and a hotel. The Qatari state has long bought up land in major Western cities and they already own West London landmarks like the Harrods department store. Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser with Washington-based Gulf State Analytics, said Qatar and other sovereign wealth funds often buy assets overseas in an attempt to influence bilateral relations.
Wetherell said he was glad the leases had been built by “people who had a vision for a revival of Mayfair as a residential area.” Having an embassy on Grosvenor Square, “slap bang in the center of the most expensive real estate in London, if not the world,” made no sense anymore, he said. “It's a moment in time,” Wetherell said of Trump's decision to cancel his trip to London for the opening of the new embassy. “We look forward to seeing him at the royal wedding.”
More on WorldViews