Grosvenor Square vs Nine Elms: The $1bn US embassy saga behind Donald Trump’s ‘bad deal’ outburst

Donald Trump has cited his dissatisfaction with the new $1bn embassy in Nine Elms as the reason he's not visiting the UK later this year - Anadolu
Donald Trump has cited his dissatisfaction with the new $1bn embassy in Nine Elms as the reason he's not visiting the UK later this year - Anadolu

Donald Trump abruptly pulled the plug on his mooted visit to the UK by firing a broadside at the “bad deal” the US had got over its new $1 billion embassy.

The property mogul lambasted his predecessor Barack Obama for having “sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts’” - referencing the outgoing embassy in Mayfair's Grosvenor Square.

The president had been scheduled to officially open the imposing new Nine Elms embassy on the south bank of the Thames as the start of a working visit to the UK later this year.

But the new embassy has become embroiled in the contentious diplomatic saga over Mr Trump’s proposed visit to the UK.

Theresa May initially offered the president the prospect of a full state visit, including an audience with the Queen, during her trip to Washington as the first foreign leader to visit the new administration in January.

Trump May embassy - Credit: PA/Stefan Rousseau
Donald Trump and Theresa May during the Prime Minister's visit to the White House in January 2017 Credit: PA/Stefan Rousseau

The offer provoked a backlash in Parliament, with speaker John Bercow threatening to block Mr Trump from addressing the Commons, and also raised the spectre of mass protests greeting the president.

In October the proposed state visit was quietly downgraded to a working visit due to take place after Mr Trump had cut the ribbon on the new embassy.

Tweeting Friday, the president used the new embassy's hefty price tag as a pretext to nix a potentially bruising visit while pinning the blame onto the Obama administration. 

However genesis of the decision to move the London embassy goes back to 9/11, the Bush Administration's fears it could become a terror target and the growing size of the US's UK diplomatic staff.  

Grosvenor Square

America has a longstanding and historic association with Grosvenor Square. The second US president, John Adams, lived on the square while he was the nascent republic’s ambassador to the UK between 1785 and 1788.

The US moved its embassy to 1 Grosvenor Square in 1938 and the area became known as “little America” during the war as it also hosted the headquarters of General Eisenhower.

Donald Trump UK Visit US embassy Grosvenor Square Nine Elms - Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley
The current US Embassy in Grosvenor Square Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

It was after the war that US efforts to buy the freehold for a building on the square for their embassy (the country owns almost all of its overseas diplomatic buildings outright) was allegedly stymied by the Duke of Westminster.

The Duke reportedly refused the sell the freehold unless the US government restored the lands his family lost in the American Revolution, which would have equated to most of New York and Maine.

In 1960 the embassy moved into is current residence at 24 Grosvenor Road, which was designed by the Finnish-American neo-futuristic architect Eero Saarinen.

Topped with an imposing gold eagle on its facade, the conspicuous embassy became a focal point for violent anti-Vietnam demonstrations in the 1960s.

Donald Trump UK Visit US embassy Grosvenor Square Nine Elms - Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley
The Navy Annex of the U.S Embassy London's Grosvenor Square Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

The death knell for the site came after 9/11 when security concerns over its vulnerability to a potential terror attack and the building’s inability to accommodate the swelling ranks of US diplomatic staff, the numbers of which had quadrupled since 1960.

In the wake of the Twin Towers attack the Grosvenor Square building received an £8 million security upgrade including erecting six-foot blast walls, the installation of raised concrete flower bed and movable bollards.

The decision was made by the Bush Administration that the embassy would ultimately have to relocate to ensure its security.

In 2008 the then US ambassador, Robert Tuttle, said: “We looked at all our options, including renovation of our current building.

US embassy new location
US embassy new location

“In the end, we realised that the goal of a modern, secure and environmentally sustainable embassy could best be met by constructing a new facility.”

In 2009 24 Grosvenor Square was sold for an undisclosed fee to the property arm of the Qatari royal family, Qatari Diar, which is planning to turn it into a luxury hotel .

At the time the property was valued at £500,000 ($680,000) but its designation as a Grade II listed building would have lowered the price.

Other US government properties in the UK were then sold to fund the cost of the $1 billion (£730 million) of the Nine Elms development.

Nine Elms

The new embassy is thought to be the most expensive in the world, although the current US Ambassador, Woody Johnson, who owns the NFL’s New York Jets, has described its price tag as a “bargain” compared to the $1.6 billion stadium built for his team in New Jersey.

Donald Trump UK Visit US embassy Grosvenor Square Nine Elms - Credit: Anadolu Agency
The Nine Elms embassy is surrounded by a concrete moat Credit: Anadolu Agency

The new embassy sits at the heart of the Nine Elms development, the largest regeneration project in Europe which is transforming old industrial land on the south bank of the Thames into 25,000 luxury homes.

The site was chosen as it had enough space to contain all the security measures necessary, including being at least 100ft from all buildings.  

Donald Trump UK Visit US embassy Grosvenor Square Nine Elms - Credit: PA/Stefan Rousseau
The new embassy has a modern minimalist interior Credit: PA/Stefan Rousseau

The building is surrounded by an 8ft-deep, crescent-shaped pond as well as bollards and has been constructed with blast-proof glass.

The new embassy has been furnished with a clean, modern interior, with glass stairs and stone walls. It also has a series of internal gardens that reflect different areas of the United States.

Donald Trump UK Visit US embassy Grosvenor Square Nine Elms - Credit: PA/Stefan Rousseau
The embassy's Canyonlands Garden, which represents the Grand Canyon and the south west desert landscapes Credit: PA/Stefan Rousseau

One themed as the canyon lands of Arizona is filled with cacti, while the Pacific forest has steel girders cut to resemble redwood trees.

The building has also been designed to be almost completely energy self-sufficient, eschewing the usual helipad for solar panels on its roof.