The Somerset House that we see today stands on the site of an earlier Tudor palace that was demolished in 1775.
The demise of the old Somerset House coincided with a move to house many of the government's offices and the principal learned societies under one roof, and led to the site being chosen for a new building to solve this pressing problem. This approach was a radical departure from the established practice of using separate buildings for different departments of state and was seen as a means to promote greater efficiency among the government bureaucracies
The 1920s saw the need for increased storage and public access to the Public Registry which resulted in alterations to the cellar, basement and ground floors of the South Wing during the 1920s, and a substantial reconstruction of the Seamen's Waiting Hall. After the War, the Inland Revenue, the Principal Probate Registry and the General Register Office occupied the building. During this time, mezzanine storeys were introduced to many of the offices to increase their floor area, while, in the 1970s, original joinery was removed to enable fire precaution works and the upgrading of mechanical services under the direction of the Frizzell Partnership.
In spite of these changes much of the space in Somerset House no longer proved ideal for its users and the North Wing was vacated by the Registrar General in 1970. Having remained empty for some 20 years, this part of the building originally designed by Chambers for "useful learning and polite arts" was occupied by the Courtauld Institute and its galleries. The adaptation was carried out by Green Lloyd and Adams and the reallocation of the building to the arts was seen as a major heritage gain.
Following the vacation of the South Wing and Embankment Building by government departments in the last few years, a comprehensive restoration programme has seen galleries and other cultural spaces introduced here. The Embankment Terrace has been reopened and Chambers' great Courtyard has been transformed from a hidden car park into one of the most vibrant public spaces in the capital.
The Gilbert Collection of decorative arts, is one of the most important gifts ever made to the British nation. Magnificent European silver, spectacular gold snuff boxes and remarkable Italian mosaics can be found in the South Building at Somerset House. Visitors of all ages can participate in a lively and wide ranging programme of activities at the museum, designed to appeal to many levels of experience and interest.
Unusual/Unique, Banqueting Suite, Historic Building, Museum/Gallery, Tourist Attraction, Traditional, Unusual/Unique