I’m disturbed to my Saxon roots each time I see a news item showing the British prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. It looks like the entrance to a three-story walk-up. Her Majesty and the family have palaces galore, but it seems the PM has to make do with a “railroad flat.” What’s the scoop? And while you’re at it, who lives at 8 and 12 Downing? Are they the kind of folks who improve the property values, or do they talk trash and play the stereo all night? –R. Leith Hunt, Evanston

The situation is definitely scandalous, R. Lee, and I’m glad you bring it up, because I’ve been meaning to say something to Mrs. Thatcher about it. Ten Downing is unquestionably a dump, and don’t think the Brits don’t know it. Although a few of them go on about how the prime minister’s low-rent abode exemplifies the UK’s egalitarian ways, others aren’t afraid to call a hovel a hovel. One writer describes the neighborhood as a “narrow, dingy street”; the most charitable term another can come up with is “nondescript.” Yet another says the prime minister’s residence “can hardly be regarded as consistent with the dignity of his high office on the one hand, or the capital of the British Empire on the other.” The last remark, I should note, was made at a time when one could safely refer to the prime minister of England using the masculine pronoun and to the British Empire without smirking. There are some who would say that Downing Street’s unprepossessing appearance is all too consistent with the state of the empire today.

It is a tribute to England’s long tradition of public service that its citizens continue to run for office knowing full well that they may have to spend five years in a tenement if they get elected. Ten Downing looks like a three-story walk-up because that is basically what it is, with an attic floor set back on top. Its exterior design can only be described as severe, incongruously so in view of the rococo ornamentation of some of the other government buildings in the area.

Fittingly located on a dead-end street, 10 Downing was built in the late 17th century by Sir George Downing on what turned out to be a peat bog, which over time caused many of the buildings on the street to settle and crack. King George II, knowing a lemon when he saw one, tried to unload the place on the first modern British prime minister, Robert Walpole, in 1732. It was meant to be a personal gift, but the canny Walpole, fearing he might be stuck with the joint for the rest of his mortal existence, begged the king to make it one of the perquisites of the First Lord of the Treasury, a post traditionally held by the prime minister. It has been the PM’s official residence ever since, and is also used for things like cabinet meetings.

The British government made a few concessions to the 20th century in the early 60s, when the interior of the home was gutted and rebuilt and the whole thing added on to considerably in the back. The building now features such niceties as an interior walled garden. Nonetheless, during Harold Wilson’s second term his wife Mary refused to spend another night in the place and they wound up finding lodgings elsewhere. Margaret Thatcher, who is no fool, stays elsewhere when she can. To prevent the public from realizing any more about this sorry state of affairs than they already have, the police have barricaded the end of the street. Ostensibly this is to guard against assassins, but you can’t fool me.

Ten Downing does have the advantage of being convenient. It’s across the street from the Foreign Office and just a few steps from Whitehall, the street where many government offices are located. The neighborhood also isn’t what you could call overcrowded. Number 10 is one of only three remaining houses on Downing, the other two being numbers 11 and 12 (all of which adjoin–having even and odd numbers on opposite sides of the street is an American practice). Number 11 is occupied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and number 12 is the office of a personage called the Chief Government Whip. I tremble to contemplate the latter’s duties, but given the penitential nature of everything else in the vicinity, I can’t say his job seems inappropriate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.