Brick Buildings We Love: 10 Downing Street

March 5th 2021

Brick Buildings We Love: No. 10 Downing Street

You may not always love who lives there, but this iconic piece of architecture is definitely a Brick Building We Love, that has a pivotal place in history.

This time we're looking at one of the most famous buildings in the world, No. 10 Downing Street.

The traditional home and office of the Prime Minister of Great Britain is recognisable for its black door but also for the dark, elegant brickwork of its façade.

Below we'll be talking about some of the interesting facts behind the brickwork, including their true colour and something called tuckpointing.

If you stick around until the end, there's also a few little known facts about the building...

First though, a bit of history.

A Gift From The King

The building we know today as No. 10 Downing Street wasn't always the official residence of the Prime Minister.

In 1654, Sir George Downing acquired the lease to the land situated near to St James Park and the mansion that already existed there, which was within walking distance of Parliament.

Wanting to build a row of townhouses, he employed Sir Christopher Wren (also the designer of St Paul's Cathedral -- (he gets about a bit!)) to design them.

Between 1682 and 1684 a row of Georgian townhouses was built along with coach houses and stables. No. 10 was originally No. 5.

The properties on Downing Street itself and the mansion that predated them, changed hands numerous times in subsequent decades, being occupied by government officials and royalty.

The ownership eventually reverted to the Crown and in 1735, the reigning monarch George II gave it to Robert Walpole, the First Lord of the Treasury, generally considered to be the 'first Prime Minister of Great Britain'.

Rather than accepting it as a gift, he insisted it be seen as the official residence of that position.

But whilst he can be credited with the original idea, it wouldn't fulfil that role fully for some time to come.

An Unpopular Residence

The buildings were built quickly and cheaply on poor foundations.

As such they were not actually in great condition and the quality didn't exactly befit the status of the country's leaders.

Along with their modest size compared to other townhouses, this was a big reason for Downing Street's unpopularity with subsequent leaders of the country, many preferring their own, much larger homes.

It wasn't until 1763, 21 years after Walpole vacated the property, that it would again be used as the official residence of the First Lord.

The building was costly to maintain. It was sinking into the soft ground and as such, floors buckled and walls cracked.

Mainly because brick foundations weren't used in the construction. Big mistake.

When Benjamin Disraeli arrived in 1868, it hadn't been lived in for 30 years! It wasn't until Arthur Balfour in 1902 that it would truly come to be seen as the official residence of the sitting Prime Minister.

DIY S.O.S Downing Street

Over the years, attempts would be made to make the building safe and secure but by the mid 20^th^ Century the building was again in major need of renovation.

Such was the condition of the building and the extent of the work needed, that one consideration was to knock it all down and start again.

This proposal was rejected however and in 1960, under Harold MacMillan's leadership, work began on renovating the building from top to bottom.

A lot of the problems were caused by a lack of good brick foundations. The foundations that were uncovered were a mix of rubble and rotting timber. Dry rot and insect damage were found throughout the vast building and many walls were structurally unsound.

Before the renovations, only certain numbers of people were allowed upstairs for fear of the whole thing collapsing.

Renovations included underpinning the foundations and grouting or even reconstructing entire brick walls. Even after this work, dry rot, powdering mortar and rotting timber were found and further costly work was needed.

It wasn't until 1973, 10 years after the original work was finished, that the renovation was considered complete.

The Famous Brick's True Colour

These renovations didn't just have a lasting impact on the structure of the building.

It was discovered that the original brick colour was actually yellow, much like a lot of other contemporary London buildings of similar design. They had turned black over years of pollution and smog.

The colour was distinctive enough that they wanted to keep it, so the bricks were cleaned and then painted the dark black colour they are today.

So, although they look like they could be dark blue bricks, they are actually painted.

Another technique was used to create the façade that we see today and that is Tuckpointing.

An Iconic Use Of Tuckpointing

Not to be confused with repointing, which is a way of reapplying mortar to areas where it has worn away, tuckpointing is a relatively uncommon aesthetic technique.

Rare because of the time and skill required to do it, it is mainly found in British architecture.

It's a way of making mortar joints look smaller than they are and therefore having a thinner but more distinct line between each brick.

Tuckpointing is achieved by painting the mortar in the same shade as the colour of the brick and then applying a thin line of special white mortar.

It's a pretty impressive effect and contributes to the overall look of the Downing Street buildings.

Bet You Didn't Know...

So, that's our brief history of the building and it's construction.

Before we go, here's a few facts that you might not have been aware of.

The Letterbox Is For Show

After an IRA letter bomb attack in 1991 which injured four people and displayed clear vulnerabilities, something needed to be done.

The golden letterbox was replaced with a replica that is completely for show and does not work. The door is also now made from reinforced steel.

Why Does The Door Open At Just The Right Time?

If you've ever wondered why the door opens at exactly the right moment when someone enters, well there's a pretty good explanation.

The door is monitored at all times, so they can see if someone's approaching and are ready to open the door. In fact, the door handle doesn't work either. It can only be opened from the inside.

The Prime Minister Might Not Be At No. 10

Although it's known as the official residence, in recent decades, the prime minister hasn't always lived at No. 10.

Since Tony Blair, who decided due to the size of his family, to live in the much larger flat at No. 11, subsequent leaders have followed suit.

The flat at No. 10 has in the case of Gordon Brown (as chancellor) and George Osborne, been the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer instead.

Get The Georgian Look

King George that is, not George Osborne.

If you're inspired by the Georgian townhouse style of No. 10, we might be able to help you find the bricks you need for your building project.

Get in touch with our team and we'll help you to get the look you're after