Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mr. Selfridge Had An Interest In Architecture

Actor Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge.
From the PBS television series "Masterpiece Classics".
Fans of British period dramas are currently enjoying the PBS series Mr. Selfridge starring Jeremy Piven as the American-born retail pioneer.  Harry Gordon Selfridge, 1864 to 1947, worked his way up from stock boy to head the department store that became Marshall Field in Chicago.  When Field refused to make him a partner, he struck out on his own.

Harry Gordon Selfridge
as he appeared about 1910.
Image:  Wikipedia.
117 (now 1430) Lake Shore Drive, Chicago.
Photo via Glessner House blog.
The Selfridges had shared a house on Rush Street with her sister and brother-in-law until purchasing a city house on Lake Shore Drive for $100,000 in 1898.  It had been built in 1890 by architect Francis Whitehouse for his widowed mother-in-law.

Harrose Hall, Lake Geneva.
Completed 1899.  Now demolished.
Photo via Glessner House blog.
A summer home at Lake Geneva was completed in 1899.  Named Harrose Hall, combining the names of Harry and Rose, it was a substantial Arts & Crafts house of stone and half-timbered stucco.  More about the Selfridges' Chicago years may be found here.

Architect Louis H. Sullivan's store for Schlesinger & Meyer
was H.G. Selfridge & Co. before becoming
Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co.  It is now a Target store.
Image via
With business partners, Selfridge bought the Chicago department store Schlesinger & Meyer and changed the name to H.G. Selfridge & Co.  The landmark building designed by Louis H. Sullivan was included in the deal.  However, within a year, it was all sold at a great profit to Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co.

Selfridge's Department Store
designed by architect Daniel Burnham.
Photo via RIBA.
The lure of London retail beckoned after a 1906 visit and a magnificent new Classical Revival store was opened in 1909 designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham.  The influence of the Beaux Arts ideals of the 1893 Chicago World's Exposition, largely designed by Burnham, is apparent in the store, and the matching expansion completed in 1929.  Several designs for a 450 ft tower were submitted by Burnham as well as British architects Sir John Burnet and Philip Tilden, but it was never built.

Highcliffe Castle, Dorset.
South Court as published in 1942.
Photo:  Country Life Library
London gentlemen of social standing had a country house for weekend entertaining, and Harry Gordon Selfridge leased Highcliffe Castle in Dorset from 1916 to 1922.  During World War I, Rose had a therapeutic charitable tent retreat on the grounds called the Mrs. Gordon Selfridge Convalescent Camp for American Soldiers.

Highcliffe Castle entrance.
Photo:  Country Life Library.
Constructed in the romantic Gothic Revival style mainly from 1831 to 1836 by architect William Donthorne, it was home to the diplomat Lord Stuart de Rothesay.

Highcliffe Castle Great Hall staircase.
Photo:  Country Life Library. 
Salvaged stone work and colored glass windows from across the channel in France were incorporated into the house, making it appear older than it actually was.

Highcliffe Castle Great Hall.
Photo:  Country Life Library.
In contrast with the exterior, the interiors past the Great Hall were largely finished in the French taste of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Although the house was only leased by Mr. Selfridge, he installed central steam heat and a modern kitchen and bathrooms.

Highcliffe Castle, Salon.
As it appeared in 1942.
Photo:  Country Life Library.

Highcliffe Castle, Octagon Room.
As it appeared in 1942.
Photo:  Country Life Library.

Highcliffe Castle, Dining Room.
As it appeared in 1942.
Photo:  Country Life Library.
Highcliffe Castle, Library.
As it appeared in 1942.
Photo:  Country Life Library.
Although Highcliffe Castle holds Grade 1 status, the interiors were lost in two fires in the 1960s.  In 1977, it was purchased by Christchurch Borough Council and is used today as community space, tourist attraction and popular wedding venue.  A 1990s restoration was partly funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery fund.

A proposal for the Selfridge Castle
at Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden.
Image:  RIBA.
Selfridge thought big, of course, and Highcliffe Castle was only a temporary residence.  He bought a mile-long stretch of cliffs nearby and commissioned architect Philip Tilden, who had been involved in the competition of sorts for the tower above the store in London, to design 'the largest castle in the world.'  Despite Selfridge's preference for classicism, he wanted the castle to have a mix with the concept of a medieval fortress being the primary goal.  
A proposed terrace for the Selfridge Castle
at Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden.
Image:  RIBA
Within four miles of ramparts with towers, there was to be a Gothic hall, a 300 ft tower, a theatre, a Hall of Mirrors copied from Versailles, a winter garden, a covered lake, long galleries for pictures & tapestries and at least 250 suites for guests.  The intent was to have a 'small castle' completed first, and then the 'large castle'.  Plans for construction were impeded by - Spoiler Alert - his wife's death from the influenza pandemic in 1918, and finally the impact of the Wall Street Crash in 1929.  In 1930, 300 acres were sold to the local council and no part of the design was ever realized.

Landsdowne House, London,
as seen in an 1811 engraving.
Selfridge leased one of London's finest houses, Landsdowne House, for his city residence from 1921 to 1929.  Begun for the third earl of Bute, Prime Minister John Stuart, it was sold unfinished about 1765 to William Petty-Fitzmaurice, the earl of Shelburne, later first marquess of Landsdowne, and finished to plans by Robert Adam in 1768.

A detail from Greenwood's Map of London, 1830,
showing Landsdowne House facing its own front garden
between Berkeley Square and the rear garden of
Devonshire House.
A great asset of the house was that it faced a front garden, unique for London.  (This allowed Devonshire House a view all the way to Berkeley Square.  To read the story of the now-demolished mansion that was the center of life for the Cavendish family from the October 18, 2011, post of The Devoted Classicist, click here).

The plan of the principal story of Shelbourne House
as Landsdowne House was first known,
as published by Robert Adam, 1765.
A widening of the road in 1930 required a removal of the flanking pavilions and the front rooms of the main block.  A somewhat similar façade provided a replacement and two of the grand rooms were purchased by museums in the United States.  The building is now Landsdowne Club.

The exterior of Landsdowne House
as photographed for Arthur Bolton's
published 1922.  Country Life Picture Library.
The Organ Drawing Room has been restored and can now be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Drawing Room of Landsdowne House
showing the niche originally intended for
Lord Bute's vastly expensive mechanical organ.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Eating-room, as it is labeled on the Adam floor plan, has also been restored and is on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In addition to the plaster work, the millwork, and the marble chimneypiece, even the original flooring is installed in the New York City location.  Plaster copies of the statues now occupy the niches, as the antique sculpture was dispersed in the 1930 Landsdowne sale.  The original furniture designed by Robert Adam and executed by John Linnell no longer survives.

The Dining Room of Landsdowne House
showing the niches that originally held
nine ancient marble statues.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Landsdowne House, known as a center for political entertaining in earlier times, was a noted Jazz Age party mansion for Selfridge.  It was leased furnished and came with twenty servants.

Mr. Selfridge's Room at Landsdowne House
as it appeared in 1921.
Photo:  English Heritage.
Numerous liaisons included both of the dancing Hungarian twins known as the Dolly Sisters.

The Dolly Sisters.
Photo:  Wikipedia.
And there was reportedly an affair with the divorcee, Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, later to be known as the famous Lady Decorator, Syrie Maugham.

Syrie Maugham.
Photo:  Tumblr.
Forced into retirement from Selfridge's in 1939, he was essentially penniless in his later years after spending his fortune on extravagant living and an addiction to gambling, not to mention the succession of mistresses who were essentially refused nothing.  But H.G. Selfridge's showmanship and admiration of architecture has left a legacy in retail history.


  1. How interesting - this great facet unseen until YOU...putting all these pieces together tell the Man's tale succinctly. I've enjoyed the MASTERPIECE series, but now you've added the Caviar on a Twice baked potato...yum!

    1. Swan, this is a good example of architecture being a reflection of the person. Even though the leased houses came furnished, Selfridge's choices were quite grand. And the castle, with all the time and effort spent on the planning, was clearly appreciated as a project even though it was not built. Thank you for commenting.

  2. Stopped watching the series as I wasn't really enjoying it but loved this post!

    1. Thanks, Stefan. The series didn't have a great start, but it's getting better, I think. And it's fun to look at. Plus, it is followed here with a repeat of "I, Claudius".

  3. I've caught bits of the television series -it hasn't really drawn me in. I think your post is more interesting!

    1. Scott, I have been fascinated with Landsdowne House for years since, since admiring the rooms at the museums in NYC and Philadelphia. And more recently, I was reminded of it and its garden when I wrote about Devonshire House. Plus, Todd Lingstaffe-Gowan talked about it when he came to speak about the squares in London. The houses will surely play more of a role, the longer the series goes on. Thanks for commenting.

  4. That's Longstaffe-Gowan. A drawback of blog comments using an iPhone.
    The Word Verification is still disabled, by the way, for those who would like to leave a comment.

  5. This post is fascinating, the PBS series is not, other than indicating the fiefdom that
    retail establishments resemble, and the fact that Jeremy Pivens is entirely out of his
    depth in the context of a British acting ensemble. However! Until now I had no idea
    that Mr Selfridge had briefly lived in Landsdown House, but it seems a logical extension
    of his megalomania.

    1. Toby, Landsdowne House was practically in the category of a city palace in terms of quality, if not size, don't you think? Magnificent Adam architecture and furnishings plus that setting must have made quite an impression, as a rental or not. For those trying to analyze the plan, I should have said that the long walls of the dining room were reversed when it was installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; that was to accommodate the established parameters for circulation.
      Highcliffe Castle was nothing to sneeze at either.
      Thanks for commenting.

  6. Fascinating structures. Mr. Selfridge??? I guess that he was the precursor to Donald Trump. Great post.

    1. Curiously, it appears that it was Ivana, a couple of wives ago, that fueled Donald Trump's desire for landmark architecture; nothing of any significance has developed since he trumped her. Thanks for commenting.

  7. YIKES!!

    Such brilliant reporting! Who would have ever known such a thing!!?!

    and important information it is!


    thank you!


    ps nothing this person did, or lived in, or rented (was to be "sneezed at"!)

    (a lovely expression I have not heard since my mother "went up"!

    Fabulous post!!!


  8. Fabulous post, I hung on every word and photo. YOu've done a smashing job of charting the housing course of Mr Selfridge... I never knew he ended up broke. He did live it up while he could... what houses!

    I am in agreement with many of your readers here, I'm a bit disappointed in the series. Piven's one note performance is grating after a while...

    1. The series will have to branch out past just the romance plots to truly become a classic. And Piven will have to search for more depth to make his character more likable. It is still visually interesting, however. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Intriguing! Evertything he did!
    Thanks so much for this post. Whether or not one is watching the PBS series, your post is captivating. My favorite house is photograph number one on Lake Shore Drive.

    1. Judith, the Lake Shore Drive house would have been a modern city mansion at the time and prestigious as well. Thank you for your comment.

  10. I was so focused on the pictures..Brilliant!

    That I forgot to say.......I kind of love that he became penniless because he "spent his fortune on extravagant living and an addiction to gambling;" (my personal favorite is "the succession of mistresses who were essentially refused nothing!)
    Yikes! What a lovely way to go!!

    Fascinating always!

    I love this guy!!!



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