The Treasury building:
a surprising history

How the changing design of the Treasury reflected a changing Civil Service

Government Offices Great George Street or 'GOGGS' is a key part of Whitehall and home to several government departments and has been since its construction in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The 1 Horse Guards Road side of the building overlooking St James' Park is most closely associated with the Treasury.

The Treasury reception by the 1 Horse Guards Road entrance to the building (Nik Milner, 2003).

Westminster has been the seat of government since the 12th century. Whitehall Palace was built in 1240 (originally as the residence of the Bishop of York), then enlarged and rebuilt by various kings until Henry VII made it his main London residence in 1530. The palace dominated the entire area and with 1,500 rooms was bigger than Versailles or the Vatican. It included a bowling green, a cockpit (70 Whitehall) and a jousting yard (Horse Guards Parade).

Whitehall Palace burned down in 1698 when a servant aired linen too close to a fire. The only remaining parts are the 1622 Banqueting House (built by Inigo Jones for Charles I) which still stands on Whitehall today, and Cardinal Wolsey's wine cellar which is now under the Ministry of Defence building.

Following the fire, the Treasury moved to Henry VIII's cockpit (70 Whitehall). In 1734, a new Treasury was built by William Kent, which still stands on Horse Guards today. The Treasury occupied this building and expanded into a new building designed by John Soane, until both buildings were damaged by bombs in 1940. GOGGS has been the Treasury's headquarters since then.

Many other government departments were run from the private houses of ministers following the fire, but there was a huge backlash against the inefficiency this created. The Ministry of War was based out of 33 houses. Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace of Westminster, spoke out against the "whole inappropriate" arrangement, with ministers sitting in drawing rooms.

The reform process began with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) building, which was completed in 1867. The design of the FCO became the model for government buildings all over the world. The decision was made to build a second major office to mirror the FCO. However, while the FCO building is very grand inside, with incredible art and murals to impress foreign governments, GOGGS would a practical office, and a much cheaper, simpler and functional construction.

Design and construction

The first section of the GOGGS build completed in 1908. This photograph shows the building as it faces Parliament Street.

GOGGS was designed and built in two phases between 1898 and 1917, but it took 32 years and four acts of Parliament to move from conception to construction (1866-1898) due to the complexities of purchasing the land. 

A number of narrow old streets and buildings were cleared to make way for GOGGS. The building is an island site bounded by Parliament Street, Great George Street, Horse Guards Road and King Charles Street.

The architect John Brydon won the commission to design and build GOGGS, after the Select Committee on Government Offices established the brief for an architect "competent in classical design" in 1897. Brydon's early works include Chelsea Town Hall, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Memorial Hospital, and the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath. Brydon made use of the local stone in Bath – a feature which he repeated in GOGGS by cladding it in Portland stone.

The building was meant to be clean, economical and practical. Brydon was passionate about open plan design and natural light. The building is dotted with lightwells and courtyards, and reflective tiles and mirrors in the outside spaces. 

This was meant to eliminate the need for gas lamps, which create soot and need large rooms to dissipate the fumes.

The first phase of construction (the Parliament Street side of the building) was completed in 1908 and stopped in the middle of the central courtyard or 'drum'.

The large circular courtyard or 'drum' in the middle of the building was included by Brydon in homage to Inigo Jones (the architect behind Banqueting House, which was built as an extension to Whitehall Palace in 1622) who included a drum in his design for a new Whitehall Palace (that was never built). That design had its own provenance, selected by Jones' assistant John Webb from designs by the architect Paladio, and can be seen in the Villa Farnese in Caprarola in Italy (1559) and the Palace of Charles V in Grenada (1568). 

The 'drum' is a very distinctive piece of architecture and really prominent in depictions of Whitehall in the media, including several recent Hollywood films.  

When Brydon died before completing the project, John Tanner took over as Chief Architect in the Government Office of Works and much of the vision was lost. In order to maximise the floor space, he started boxing off offices and arranging them either side of dark internal corridors – the opposite of what was intended.

Many view Tanner's changes negatively, believing the architectural merit of the building to be compromised by the changes he made. 

In 1910, the Architectural Review said:

"the intrusion of another hand less inspired than the original designer is plainly evident." 

However, the building is considered to have some architectural merit, as it is now Grade II listed.

Tanner made important developments to future-proof the building and make it much stronger. The main change made mid-construction was to scrap plans for 580 fireplaces and to retrofit pipes for radiators instead at enormous cost.

Using new technologies, such as rolled steel, motorised lifting, cranes and tram technology during construction allowed Tanner to use larger parts. The second phase was built on a steel grid, making it cheaper and easier to rebuild if damaged.

Tanner was also given permission to extend the building by six metres towards St James' Park, mainly to allow for the staircase, but also to give access to the new tube station at St James' Park.

When the building was renovated in the 2000s, the Treasury opted to return to Brydon's vision of grand open plans, but HMRC kept the Tanner styling.

Cabinet War Rooms

After the First World War, the government began looking for a strong government basement to house a map room and a cabinet room if a war involving aerial bombardment took place. The basement of GOGGS was the number one choice, because it was conveniently located near to Downing Street, and the concrete and steel frame used in the second phase of construction should help prevent the collapse of the building if it received a direct hit from a bomb.

A concrete apron was added to the 1 Horse Guards Road side of the building to protect the Cabinet War Rooms and torpedo netting was put up to make bombs detonate above the building rather than in it. Gas proof doors were also installed to seal the building in case of poison gas attacks, with scrubbers in the basement under the 100 Parliament Street side courtyard to clean the air.

The thick bomb-proof concrete 'slab' was inserted into the lower ground floor in 14 stages between 1940 and 1943, each with a slightly different structure and composition. It was very expensive, costing about half the value of the land itself. 

GOGGS was transformed into a fortress with gas proof doors, concrete slabs at the top of staircases, machine gun nests in the corridors, dormitories, canteens, first aid posts, chemical toilets, a hospital with a full operating theatre, a BBC broadcasting studio and a direct phone line to the President of the United States (disguised as Churchill's private toilet). Red girders were installed in 1938 to allow the basement to bear the weight of the rubble above if the building was hit.

Following the strengthening, the Cabinet War Rooms and Downing Street Annex were established and became operational in August 1939, one week before war began. Initially, only a few rooms were commandeered. However, when a bomb hit Treasury Green (the No 10 garden) on 14 October 1940, wrecking parts of Downing Street, all of Churchill's staff moved into GOGGS. The Treasury moved in after 70 Whitehall (now Cabinet Office) was damaged in the same air raid.

Churchill hated using the Cabinet War Rooms and would only go down during air raids. The majority of the time, he worked out of the Downing Street Annex (a series of rooms on the ground floor of the Treasury side of the building).

The Downing Street Annex included a reception area, dining room, sitting room, private office, kitchen and bedrooms for Winston and Lady Churchill.

The current reception is the site of the old Map Room, which was staffed by an officer to advise Churchill. The room now occupied by the Royal Mint was a machine gun post looking out over St James' Park. There were machine gun posts all around the park, as it was considered the most likely site to land parachutists if there was an attempt to take Whitehall.

The building has three sub-ground levels: a lower ground floor, basement and sub-basement. The sub-basement contains some of the more peculiar elements of the building. There is a constant flow of water and in one place a channel has been dug and the water flows through the concrete like a river.

The basement was the focus of the military section. This is where the cabinet met during air raids and where London Control ran large deception exercises. The sub-basement was used as accommodation for the junior staff of the war rooms. A firing range and emergency power system were also built down there. Thousands of rounds of old ammunition were found during the renovation in the 2000s.

On 8 May 1945, Winston Churchill delivered a speech on the radio and to the House of Commons announcing the end of the Second World War.

He then came to what is now known as the Churchill Room and went out on the balcony. Parliament Street and Whitehall were filled with crowds of people. 

Churchill delivered a far more personal speech to the crowds gathered:

"My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It's a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny."

The Churchill Room has since been used for some of the most important peacetime announcements of the last century, including the creation of the NHS and the independence of the Bank of England.

The Churchill Room is very grand. The marble is blue paronazza (peacock marble), commonly used in municipal buildings like the New York City Hall, and in Pompeii. It served as the Ministry of Health boardroom for many years, before becoming the Treasury press room. It is now used for meetings and conferences.

Major renovations

This photograph of a messengers kiosk at a junction of circular and straight corridors was taken in November 1997 before refurbishment began. 

By the 1990s, the building had become antiquated and unpleasant to work in. The electrical wiring and pipes needed replacing, the bombproof curtains were covered in mould, the windows and internal tiling were dirty, and the stone work was being corroded by acidic pigeon droppings.

There were plans to demolish GOGGS in 1965 (submitted by Leslie Martin), along with the rest of Whitehall, but public outcry changed people's minds.

Norman Lamont (Chancellor of the Exchequer November 1990-May 1993), who once likened the Treasury's ambience to a "Russian psychiatric hospital" before the refurbishment, commented that it now looks more like a "Marriott hotel." 

Major renovations began in 2000 and were completed by Foster + Partners in 2002. The original plan was to keep the outside rooms and rebuild the inside completely. It also included a proposal to put flats and a hotel in the Treasury or 1 Horse Guards Road side of the building.

During these two years, 16 miles of wall were knocked down and 12,235 miles of data cables were installed. Workforce capacity was also substantially increased.

The Chancellor's old office used to be Bomber Command in the Second World War, but for most of its life it was the Department for Education's boardroom. 

Why not see for yourself? Take a peek at the Treasury through Gladstone's eyes.

On 25 September 2002, the building was re-opened by Dr Alan Greenspan, who was Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve Board at the time. 

The increased space enabled all Treasury staff to work in the same building for the first time in over 50 years. 

Gladstone on the steps just inside the 100 Parliament Street entrance to the building (Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed).