Tourists often mistake the Royal Exchange for the neighbouring Bank of England — unsurprising, given its overpowering façade overlooking the less than regal Bank junction.
The Royal Exchange was designed by Sir Thomas Gresham and opened by Queen Elizabeth I — who gave it its royal title — as a centre for trading stocks, with two extra floors added in 1660 for retail trading. It's been through the mill since then, having been destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666 and rebuilt, only to burn down again in 1838 in a fire attributed to the nearby Lloyds Coffee House. The current building — designed by Sir William Tite — opened in 1844, and was damaged in the Blitz, before reopening as an upmarket shopping centre in 2001.
Tite didn't mess around, sticking eight stucco style pillars out the front, each at least 40ft high, to support the Latin-embossed and carved frontage. These days, the space between the pillars, inspired by Rome's Pantheon, is claimed as a smokers' paradise. The decorative ceiling is a nice touch, but maybe a tad lavish, considering how few look up and notice it.
A 5ft carved stone royal coat of arms sits above the main entrance, mounted over a disappointingly 21st century automatic glass door. The ornate metal green gate surrounding the door might be original, but is more likely a pseudo-historic offering. Either way, it's unnecessary.
Inside, we find one of the most intimidating buildings in London. It's a courtyard layout, with light stone exteriors facing inwards. Tables on the beige tiled floor serve the bar in the centre but they cluster together, making the restaurant feel like an island, and the rest of the floor a no man's land. If you don't have a glass of bubbly/coffee in your hand, you're somehow out of place. Skulking around the edge, it feels like everyone's eyes are trained on you — like you've walked uninvited into a wedding party.
It's echoey too, the jittery sound of cutlery and chatter bouncing off those stone walls as if the building can't relax. The ceiling height doesn't help matters. Three floors up, a glass roof with embossed plaster work lets in plenty of light. Yet it feels so vast and empty and soulless, it's hard to picture so much history here — it's been completely wiped out. As much as we'd like to picture London's early traders shouting about their wares to all and sundry from an imitation of the balconies above, we just can't.
Pricey shops boutiques including Tiffany & Co and Omega skirt the ground floor, catering to City workers indulging in lunchtime retail therapy. In each corner, a modern staircase sweeps out of sight, presumably to the mezzanine level restaurants. In fact, they lead to the much-loved murals, dating from 1892 and depicting scenes from London's history. To the casual visitor, these are nowhere to be seen. Another part of the building's history swept under the carpet.
None of this is inviting, and it highlights the crux of the Royal Exchange's problem — it hasn't committed to either tradition or modernity, and wavers falteringly — dare we say vulgarly? — between the two.
An entrance at the far end is identical to the main one, minus the stucco flamboyance and the steps. It's a pleasingly symmetrical building like that. The same faux-aged metal green gate and modern automatic doors welcome shoppers and diners. Except at this end, Abraham Lincoln keeps watch, in the form of a limestone bust presented to the Gresham Committee in 1930. It's odd to think that there was a Royal Exchange on this site more than 230 years before he was even born.
These two entrances each sport a panel telling the building's history, so at least some thought went into maintaining the past when it was reopened in 2001. It's a halfhearted effort though.
Two less ostentatious side entrances exist for those wishing to make a more subtle entrance to their champagne luncheon. The front of the building does nothing to indicate what lies within, or even that it's open to the public, but a series of regulation shape and size hanging signs along the side advertise the different brands, flagging it up as 'luxury shopping'.
Perhaps it's unfair to expect any history from today's Royal Exchange... this isn't the original building where London's shopkeepers were trading 350 years ago. But there is, at least, one spot where the building still harks back to its roots. Again, you have to know what you're looking for.
This little fella on the roof was part of the Gresham family crest, a symbol that has hopped over centuries and generations, linking the Exchange's creator to its 21st century incarnation.