Rent: College, Reactor Lease of royal college is likened to putting Sistine Chapel to rent

September 20, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Anyone want to buy a 150-year lease on a 574,814-square-foot, centuries-old architectural gem that includes riverfront views, a swanky mess hall, a gorgeous chapel and a nuclear reactor?

Call Richard Haynes of the London realty firm Knight, Frank & Rutley. He's trying to find a tenant for the Royal Naval College in London's borough of Greenwich. And, boy, is he catching flak.

"This is a sensitive issue," Mr. Haynes says. "This is probably the most important property to come to the market in the postwar years."

Sensitive? The heritage squad has gone on full alert, as a group of preservationists, architects, newspaper columnists and just plain concerned citizens charge that Britain is once again unloading the family silver.

The Royal Naval College is a twin-domed palace on the Thames River that was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, whose most famous work was St. Paul's Cathedral. Before it was a school for mid-rank naval officers, the Royal Naval College was a grand yet drafty hospital for old seamen.

"It's fair enough to play the market, but it would be nice if the government knew what it was selling," says Chris Palmer, spokesman for the Royal Institute of British "I can't believe that any other European country would do something like this."

To understand the heritage squad's ire, picture the Vatican putting the Sistine Chapel on the market. Or imagine the U.S. government pulling the plug on the Naval Academy, and then leasing the place as if it were a shopping mall.

"I draw the line at Greenwich," says columnist Simon Jenkins of the Times of London. "It's like Hampton Court or Windsor Castle. These are great palaces created by the state with public money."

The Royal Naval College was put on the market Sept. 5, but the controversy raged so quickly that last week Defense Secretary Michael Portillo went on an offensive to calm fears.

He told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the palace would not become a super store or a golf course after the Royal Naval College -- a training school for 250 officers -- shuts in 1997 and moves to a less costly site.

"Tesco [a chain store] need not apply, nor any golf clubs or hotels or anything like that," he said. "I am talking about museums or galleries."

The irony of the controversy is that very few people ever really go to the Royal Naval College. Tourists go to Greenwich to see the clipper ship Cutty Sark. They climb a hill to the old Royal Observatory. They stand over the brass rail marking the Greenwich prime meridian, the dividing point of the Eastern and Western hemispheres. They marvel at the electro-magnetic 24-hour clock that shows Greenwich mean time (as in GMT).

Anyone who does wander over to the college, open to the public two hours daily, is in for a rare treat once past the cluster of police, whose usual greeting is: "What do you want?"

There is no admission charge.

Wren's vision of domes, colonnades and towers rises from the Thames riverbank. Originally, this was a giant redevelopment project, pushed by monarchs William and Mary, constructed on the site of a Tudor palace, and built in stages during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The grandest of the rooms is the Painted Hall, a cavernous dining room with paintings by James Thornhill. Toiling 19 years, Thornhill mixed modern and classical history, with ancient mythology and Christian allegory. He also got paid by the yard.

The chapel is light and airy with a ceiling that resembles a piece of Wedgwood china.

"With all its magnificence, the palace was really built for retired sailors with peg legs and bandaged arms. And the sailors never really liked the place," says Basil Watson, a retired naval chaplain who oversaw the restoration of the chapel after World ++ War II.

The Seamen's Hospital accommodated more than 2,000 men in the late 1700s. But by 1860, there were nearly 1,000 unused beds. The palace was turned over to the Royal Naval College in 1873.

Now, it's on the block. And really, it's a tough sell.

At heart, the preservationists are fatalists. They claim the ruling Conservative government will simply botch the deal, and another great old building along the Thames will rot. Critics of the government point to the Battersea power station and the County Hall, two buildings that the government sold to the highest bidder and that now lie empty, blighting the riverfront.

"If the government doesn't get this one right, there will be a lot of egg on everyone's face," says Mark Bellars, who owns the Nauticalia gift shop in Greenwich.

Upkeep on the buildings runs $3 million a year. Then, there is the small matter of rent. The military currently pays $600,000 a year to the Greenwich Hospital charity, which owns the site.

"We need the money," says Dr. Gordon Mungeam, the charity's director. "We need someone else to look after the buildings."

More than 1,000 organizations have expressed interest in buying the long lease. The one proposal that appears to be gathering supporters has been floated by National Maritime Museum.

Under it, the University of Greenwich would rent academic and student accommodations. Among those who would rent office space would be shipping and maritime firms, and the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture.

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