Essential Architecture-  London

Greenwich Hospital

architect

Sir Christopher Wren

location

on the river Thames at Greenwich, south-east London 

date

1696 to 1715 Not to be confused with Wren's Greenwich Observatory, 1675-1676. 

style

English Baroque

construction

masonry

type

Hospital
 
 
  Greenwich Hospital viewed from the Royal Greenwich Observatory. The colonnaded National Maritime Museum (with the central Queen's House) is located in front of the Greenwich Hospital
 
  The chapel and the Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital
 
  Statue of George II in the Grand Square of the Greenwich Hospital, with the dome above the Chapel entrance to the left. The Queen's House and Royal Greenwich Observatory are visible in the background.
The Greenwich Hospital in London was founded in 1694 as the Royal Naval Hospital for Seamen.

It is a Royal Charity for the benefit of seafarers and their dependents, with the Secretary of State for Defence acting as the Crown's sole Trustee.

The hospital was established as a residential home for injured sailors, on the model of Les Invalides and the Chelsea Hospital. The charity now funds sheltered housing for former Royal Navy personnel and the Royal Hospital School at Holbrook in Suffolk.

The hospital occupied its prime riverside site on the south bank of the river Thames in Greenwich, London for over 170 years, closing to pensioners in 1869.

It was subsequently occupied by the Royal Naval College until 1998 when the site was opened to the public and the main buildings transferred to academic uses. The principal occupant is now the University of Greenwich.

The Greenwich Hospital charity remains the ground landlord of the site.

History of the Buildings
Greenwich Hospital was built on the site of the Palace of Placentia, which had fallen into disrepair during the English Civil War and was finally demolished in 1694. The hospital was created on the instructions of Mary II, who had been inspired by the sight of wounded sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue in 1692. She ordered the King Charles wing of the Palace - originally designed by architect John Webb for King Charles II in 1664 - to be remodelled as a naval hospital to provide a counterpart for the Chelsea Hospital for soldiers. Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor gave their services free of charge as architects of the new Royal Hospital. Sir John Vanbrugh succeeded Wren as architect, completing the complex to Wren's original plans.

An early controversy arose when it emerged that the original plans for the hospital would have blocked the riverside view from the Queen's House. Queen Mary therefore ordered that the buildings be split, providing an avenue leading from the river through the hospital grounds up to the Queen's House and Greenwich Hill beyond. This gave the hospital its distinctive look, with its buildings arranged in a number of quadrants. Its four main buildings (the 'Courts') are bisected east-west by a square or processional route, and north-south by an internal road.

The two principal buildings are King Charles' Court (the only surviving part of the old royal palace), completed in 1705, and Queen Mary's Court, completed in 1742. With the King Charles building to the west, the symmetry of the riverside frontage is maintained by Queen Anne Court (architects: Wren and Hawksmoor) to the east.

The grand square in between maintained access to, and a river view from, the nearby Queen's House and Greenwich Park beyond. Parallel to the river, the Hospital's buildings are bisected by a road leading eastwards from a gate-house by Greenwich town centre. To the south of this road, two further palatial buildings complete the Hospital.

Behind King Charles Court is King William Court (designed by Wren, but completed by Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh), famous for its Painted Hall. Behind Queen Anne Court is Queen Mary Court (planned by Wren and Hawksmoor, but not built until after Wren's death, by Thomas Ripley). Queen Mary Court houses the Chapel, designed by Wren but not completed until 1742. Its present appearance dates from 1779, having been rebuilt to a design by James Stuart after a devastating fire.

The Greenwich Hospital buildings did include an actual hospital, or infirmary: the Dreadnought Seamen's Hospital (which took its name from a hospital ship moored off Greenwich in 1870). The treatment for tropical diseases moved in 1919 to the Seamen's Hospital Society hospital near Euston Square, in central London, to form the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. The Dreadnought Seaman's Hospital closed in 1986 with special services for seamen and their families then provided by the 'Dreadnought Unit' at St Thomas's Hospital in Lambeth.

The buildings were taken over by the Royal Naval College in 1873, and they remained a military education establishment until 1998 when they passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation for the Royal Naval College The new Foundation has University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music.

The Painted Hall and Chapel of the Hospital remain open to members of the public, and a service is held in the Chapel every Sunday at 11am which is open to all. The Hospital buildings have appeared in several films, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Madness of King George, The Mummy Returns and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

On the riverside in front of the north-east corner of King Charles' Court is an obelisk (designed by Philip Hardwick and unveiled in 1855) erected in memory of Arctic explorer Joseph René Bellot.
The Queen's House, Greenwich, was designed and begun in 1616-1617 by architect Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark (the queen of King James I of England) and completed, also by Jones, about 1635 for Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I. The House is one of the most important buildings in British architectural history, being the first consciously classical building to have been put up in Britain. However, although its style is generally called Palladian, its most specific precedent is not by Palladio but rather Giuliano da Sangallo's Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano. Some earlier British buildings such as Longleat had made borrowings from the classical style but these were restricted to small details and were not applied in a systematic way. Nor was the form of these buildings informed by an understanding of classical precedents. The Queen's House would have appeared revolutionary to British eyes in its day.

The Queen's House is located in Greenwich, London. It was built as an adjunct to the Palace of Greenwich, previously known in Tudor times as the Palace of Placentia, which was a rambling mainly red-brick building in a more vernacular style. This would have presented a dramatic contrast of appearance to the newer, white-painted House, although the latter was much smaller and really a modern version of an older tradition of private 'garden houses', not a public building, and one used only by the queen's privileged inner circle. However, the House's original use was short - no more than seven years - before the English Civil War began in 1642 and swept away the court culture from which it sprang.

Although the House survived as an official building, the main palace was progressively demolished from the 1660s to 1690s and replaced by the Greenwich Hospital for Seamen, built 1696-1752 to the master-plan of Sir Christopher Wren. This is now called the Old Royal Naval College, after its later use from 1873 to 1998. The position of the House, and Queen Mary II's order that it retain its view to the river (only gained on demolition of the older Palace), dictated Wren's Hospital design of two matching pairs of 'courts' separated by a grand 'visto' exactly the width of the House (115 feet). The whole forms an impressive architectural ensemble that stretches from the Thames to Greenwich Park and is one of the principal features that in 1997 led UNESCO to inscribe 'Maritime Greenwich' as a World Heritage Site.

Plans of the Queen's House. The saloon is a 40-foot (12.2 metre) cube.
From 1806 the House itself was the centre of what, from 1892, became the Royal Hospital School for the sons of seamen. This necessitated new accommodation wings and a flanking pair to east and west were added and connected to the House by colonnades from 1807, with further surviving extensions up to 1876. In 1933 the school moved to Holbrook, Suffolk. Its Greenwich buildings, including the House, were converted and restored to become the new National Maritime Museum (NMM), created by Act of Parliament in 1934 and opened in 1937.

The House was further restored between 1986 and 1999, and it is now largely used to display the Museum's substantial collection of marine paintings and portraits (mainly of the 17th to 20th centuries) and for other public and private events. It is normally open to the public daily, free of charge, along with the other museum galleries and the 17th-century Royal Greenwich Observatory, which is also part of the NMM.
 

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