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Regent Street is one of the major shopping streets in the West End of London, well known to tourists and locals alike and famous for its Christmas illuminations. It is named after the Prince Regent (later George IV) and is commonly associated with the architect John Nash, whose street layout survives, although all of his original buildings except All Souls Church have since been replaced.
The street was completed in 1825 and was an early example of town planning in England, cutting through the 17th and 18th century street pattern through which it passes. It runs from the Regent's residence at Carlton House in St James's at the southern end, through Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus, to All Souls Church. From there Langham Place and Portland Place continue the route to Regent's Park.
Every building in Regent Street is protected as a listed bilding with at least Grade II status, and together they form the Regent Street Conservation Area.
Regent Street is one of the first planned developments of London. The desire to impose order on the medieval street pattern of London dates back to the Great Fire of London (1666) when Sir Christopher Wren drew up plans for rebuilding the city on the classical formal model, but that initiative was lost. It was not until 1811 that John Nash drew up plans for broad, architecturally distinguished thoroughfares and public spaces: Carlton House Terrace on The Mall, Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street and Regent's Park with its grand terraces. The plans were prepared under the authority of the Office of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, who since 1793 invited designs for Regent's Park, and came to the conclusion that the Park must have a proper road connecting it with the fashionable area around Charing Cross. Nash's plans were submitted to Parliament for approval.
While the park terraces are residential, Regent Street was intended for commercial purposes and consequently did not need gardens or public spaces. The scale of the development was unprecedented in London. The street followed the line of existing roads, and detoured to make efficient use of land belonging to the government. Nonetheless, much demolition was necessary, and many freehold and leasehold interests had to be bought out at current property values. It is thought that the Treasury supported the proposal because, in the aftermath of the lengthy Napoleonic Wars, there was an urgent need for the government to create jobs. Government expenditure was low because the design relied heavily upon private developers, including Nash himself. The buildings were to be let on 99-year leases, and income could be recouped in the form of ground rent.
The design was adopted by Act of Parliament in 1813, and built between 1814 and 1825. The individual buildings were designed by Charles Robert Cockerell, Sir John Soane and Nash himself, among others. At first called New Street, it became a dividing line between Soho, which had become less than respectable, and the fashionable squares and streets of Mayfair to the west.
By the end of the 19th century, fashions in shopping had changed and the original buildings were unsuitable for their purpose. They were small and old fashioned, and consequently they were restricting trade. In the Edwardian era, department stores were the principal commercial aspiration. Dickins & Jones, Garrard & Co., Swan and Edgar, Hamleys and Liberty & Co. date from this period although only the last two are still there.
Further, Nash’s buildings were not of the highest quality, using stucco render and composition to imitate stonework; and many of the buildings had been considerably extended and were now structurally suspect. As the 99-year leases came to an end, Regent Street was redeveloped between 1895 and 1927 under the control of the Office of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues (now the Crown Estate).
Regent Street as we see it today is the result of this redevelopment. South of Oxford Circus, none of the original buildings survive.
Regent Street is an example of the Beaux Arts approach to urban design: an assembly of separate buildings on a grand scale, designed to harmonise and produce an impressive overall effect. Strict rules were put in place to govern the reconstruction. Each block was required to be designed with a continuous unifying façade to the street, had to be finished in Portland stone, and with a uniform cornice level 66 feet above pavement level, excluding dormers, turrets and mansard roofs. The first redevelopment was Regent House, just south of Oxford Circus. However, the stylistic tone for the rebuilding was set by Reginald Blomfield's Quadrant.
The Quadrant was the subject of considerable debate. The unity of Piccadilly Circus had been upset by the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the first proposals were unsatisfactory. At the age of 73, the eminent architect Norman Shaw was brought in to resolve the design, and drew up proposals for the Circus and the Quadrant which were approved in principle, but still subject to indecision and dispute, both on property acquisition matters, and the retailers' demand for bigger display windows. Shaw's design for the Piccadilly Hotel was completed in 1908 with severe modifications. Reconstruction of the Quadrant was finally carried out by Sir Reginald Blomfield, who adapted and arguably watered-down Shaw's designs. Building works started in 1923 and completed in 1928.
Most of Regent Street, apart from two blocks at the northern end near Langham Place, is owned by the Crown Estate. In 2013 the Crown Estate sold 25% of the 270,000 sq ft Regent Street Quadrant 3 building to the Norwegian Oil Fund. Since the turn of the Millennium, the Crown Estate has embarked on a major redevelopment programme in Regent Street and some of its side streets. Early 20th century offices, which typically have many corridors and small individual offices, have been replaced with modern, flexible open plan accommodation. Some of the smaller shops were replaced with larger units.
The largest element of the plan is the reconstruction of the Quadrant at the southern end of the street close to Piccadilly Circus. In addition to shops and offices, a five star hotel and a small number of flats will be created here.
The Crown Estate moved its own headquarters from Carlton House Terrace to Regent Street in 2006.
All Souls Church, Langham Place, at the top of Regent Street next to Broadcasting House, is a church with a distinctive circular portico surmounted by a stone spire. Completed in 1823 and consecrated in 1824, All Souls is the only surviving building in Regent Street that was designed by John Nash.
The Apple retail store opened on Regent Street on 20 November 2004. At the time this was the first such store in Europe, the others being in the United States and Japan. It was the largest Apple store worldwide until the opening of the even larger Covent Garden store in August 2010.
The BBC's headquarters are in Broadcasting House, whose front entrance is in Langham Place, marking the top end of Regent Street. Several national radio stations broadcast from this 1930s Art Deco building. The exterior, built of Portland stone, features a sculpture by Eric Gill over the front entrance. The new BBC Egton Wing, designed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, is the most visible face of a large-scale rebuilding project to modernise the site and replace earlier extensions to Broadcasting House.
The Café Royal, located at 68 Regent Street in the Quadrant, opened in 1865 and became an institution of London high society. The present building, by Sir Reginald Blomfield, dates from 1928 and is grade 2 listed. The Café Royal closed in December 2008, as part of Crown Estate plans to redevelop this part of Regent Street.
In June 2005 owner House of Fraser announced that the department store Dickins & Jones, which traces its origins to 1803 and had been located in Regent Street since 1835, would close in January 2006. The store was making losses for several years and failed to keep up with more fashion-conscious rivals such as its neighbour Liberty. The building has been redeveloped with small shop units on the lower floors and flats and offices above.
Hamleys toy shop is 100 metres south of Oxford Circus on the east side of the road. Originally located in Holborn and named Noah's Ark, the Regent Street store opened in 1881 and has been at the present address since 1981. It claims to be the largest toy shop in the world.
The original occupier of the Abercrombie & Fitch Hollister Co. and Gilly Hicks store was a flagship National Geographic shop at 83-97 Regent Street, it is a flagship store for Hollister Co. and Gilly Hicks first international flagship store.
The Liberty department store was originally known for its role at the retail end of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts Movement styles. Set up by the entrepreneur Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who took out a loan for £2000 in 1874 and purchased 218a Regent Street. The shop opened in 1875 with only three staff. Lasenby’s shop sold ornaments, fabric and objects of art from Japan and the East. In the 1920s the now iconic Tudor-style building was designed and built by architects Edwin T. Hall and his son Edwin S. Hall, constructed from the timbers of two ships, the HMS Impregnable, and the HMS Hindustan. The original building is on Great Marlborough Street, not on Regent Street. There are bridges across Kingly Street, connecting to the adjacent stone-faced building which once gave Liberty a frontage on Regent Street, but the store no longer occupies this annexe. Liberty's shop windows are famous for their inventive window-dressing, especially the annual Christmas displays.
The Superdry store was originally Austin Reed's flagship store for more than 85 years was located at 103–113 Regent Street. The store had an atrium at its centre, housing glass lifts allowing viewing across all floors. The lower ground floor sold womenswear and also housed Austin's, the refurbished 1920’s Art Deco Barber Shop, offering a full range of hair, face and body treatments for both men and women.
In May 2011, reports surfaced that British fashion retailer Superdry was to move into the building occupied by Austin Reed, which in turn was to move across the road into Aquascutum. Superdry reportedly paid £12m for the lease.
In late 2011, Austin Reed re-launched at 100 Regent Street, while Superdry officially opened at 103–113 Regent Street on 17 December 2011.
Founded in 1838 under George Cayley and rebuilt under Quintin Hogg (merchant) in 1911, the University of Westminster's flagship Regent Street campus stands as one of the oldest educational institutions of the city. Historically, the University was once also titled as the Royal Polytechnic Institution (after a royal charter had been formally received in August 1839 and Prince Albert became a patron to the institution). Other names include, "The Regent Street Polytechnic" and the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL). The University houses the now defunct, "Regent Street Cinema" which acted as a platform for many major scientists, artists and authors such as Charles Dickens, John Henry Pepper, and The Lumière Brothers (Auguste and Louis Lumière) where public and private screenings of Cinématographe were shown to an audience. Currently, the venue serves as a lecture theatre however, the cinema is undergoing restoration and will be open to the public yet again as the Regent Street Cinema.
There is a yearly Regent Street Festival when the street is closed to traffic for the day.
The Christmas light displays are a London tradition dating since 1948, when the Regent Street Association decorated the street with Christmas trees. Lighting was not allowed until 1949, following lifting of wartime restrictions, and the first full lighting display was in 1953. There is a different display every year, switched on at an opening ceremony in the first week of November.
On 6 July 2004, half a million people crowded into Regent Street and the surrounding streets to watch a parade of Formula One cars.