The legation compound has experienced numerous events and changes in its lifetime. The most famous of the events was the great bast (sanctuary) of July/August 1906 during the constitutional struggle against the absolute monarchy of the Shahs. Some 12-16,000 Tehranis took sanctuary in the compound and, by thus paralysing the life of the city, forced Muzaffar-ud-din Shah to issue his celebrated Firman of 5 August 1906 granting the people of Persia a constitution and a National Assembly.
The first changes to the built structure of the compound came in the early years of the twentieth century when consulate offices were built as an extension to House B, and a dispensary to House G, next to the doctor. Around this time, also, Wild’s and Pierson’s billiards room was converted into a chancery library. In 1907-11, a substantial house for the military attaché was built on the east perimeter (House C) between the gatehouse/guardrooms and House D. By then, too, the whole length of the Mews had been filled in with local staff quarters and stable yards (a separate one for each senior member of staff). At the southern end of the Mews, a house was built in 1914 for the Office of Works’ resident superintendent and, further north, for the dispenser (later called House L). In 1920, the mud roofs of the adobe houses were replaced with iron roofs, which rendered the houses drier and safer but hotter. Electrical lighting was installed throughout the compound in 1930.
In 1931, a 10-15 metre wide strip of land along the south of the compound was ceded to the Municipality to enable street-widening. This required the house of the Works superintendent to be rebuilt (House S). Three years later, a 16 metres wide strip along the whole of the Avenue Ferdowsi frontage on the east was likewise ceded. As a result, Houses B, C and D lost their back quarters and yards; the consulate offices moved to the north end of the Mews, next to the north gate, and the consul to House F; the original gatehouse was rebuilt; and the Oriental secretary moved into the adapted House B.
By the Second World War, the legation offices had been extended northwards to well past the clock tower, and some offices (at first the Oriental chancery and then the commercial section) were inserted into the north end of the west wing of the mission house, beneath the Romanesque dome that Wild had contrived to balance the clock tower. House J had been built just to the east of House E for a secretary, House B by then housed the Oriental secretary, and House E the commercial secretary. The consul remained in House F, the doctor in House G, and secretaries in House H. In the Mews, the stables were gradually replaced (though it was not until 1962 that the last horse disappeared from the scene) by garages, stores, a power house, and housing for clerks, comprising units P and Q (two flats) and House R built in 1929, and Houses M and N, built in 1937.
The high point in the life of the State rooms came on 30 November 1943 when, during the Tehran Conference, Churchill celebrated his 69th birthday in the State dining room, with President Roosevelt seated on his right and Marshal Stalin on his left. The event, and the seating plan, were later recorded by silver plaques. The status of the mission was raised to an embassy in 1944, during the incumbency of Sir Reader Bullard.
Ferdowsi since 1945
Much time and effort was spent by London and Post in the fifteen or so years after the Second World War deliberating whether to keep all or just part of both Ferdowsi and Gulhak compounds or just one – and, if so, which one. The whole picture was distorted by a peak in staff numbers: before the war there had been about 20 staff, just after the war almost 70, and ten years later nearer 40. That money was tight everywhere was, of course, a delaying factor, and assuming that the journey by car between the two compounds would continue to take only twelve minutes [? cf how long today] quickly proved a mistake.
In 1946, the main intention was to house as many staff as possible at Gulhak and to dispose of all of Ferdowsi except for a couple of acres on which to put a modern office building. This, it was thought, would need to include an apartment in which the ambassador could give an afternoon reception and where films could be shown; several flats for Diplomatic Wireless Service staff and married resident clerks; and with ‘one or two guest rooms in the apartments of the resident clerks so that the Ambassador and senior members of his staff may sleep the night there in times of crisis’. The five-year programme for developing both compounds accordingly was expected to cost about £650,000, of which most would be recouped by selling most of Ferdowsi.
In the event, no significant decisions were taken and both compounds lay prone to piecemeal developments in response to the most urgent pressures. At Ferdowsi, House C was for a period used as a ladies mess, called the ‘Nunnery’, then as a school. House D was converted to offices, with the information section downstairs and commercial department above. There were increasing doubts about the structural soundness of the embassy house. The first idea was to demolish the private wing and all the ancillary accommodation to the west of the State rooms and build new offices on that site. In the mid-1950s, there were even thoughts of demolishing all of Wild’s and Peirson’s embassy house before it was decided in 1956 that the ambassador should reside primarily at Ferdowsi and not at Gulhak. It flowed from this decision that the State rooms and clock tower should be preserved; that new ambassadorial private quarters, guest rooms and kitchens should be built west of the State rooms; and that the chancery to the east should be demolished as soon as a new office building could be built elsewhere on the compound.
A free-standing conference hall/cinema was built in 1956-7 towards the north-east corner, close to House D. After extensive debate, it was concluded that a new offices building should lie parallel with, and close to, the main Ferdowsi frontage, just north of the main gate. This required the immediate demolition only of House C. Charles Kidby, a senior architect in the Ministry of Public Building and Works in London, designed the four-storey offices building in the Ministry’s concrete-framed manner of the day. The building was completed in 1966. The offices moved in from the east wing of the State rooms, which was demolished except for the clock tower, and from House D, which was also demolished to make way for the office carpark. Broadly concurrently, the bedroom and service wing west of the State rooms was demolished and a new ambassadorial private quarter with guest bedrooms and kitchens were built on that site. The ambassador, who had decamped to House G during this contract, moved back into his proper residence.
A new gate and guard house was built as part of the offices contract. The bronze lion and unicorn atop the brick gate pillars were commissioned from James Woodford. A terrace of three small buildings, each with two flats, was built at the north end of the Mews in 1964. Central heating was installed throughout the compound in 1964-5. During the 1960s, a swimming pool and changing rooms were built in the north-east corner of the compound ( ? with canvas screening to protect against overlooking from upper floors across the street). The 1950s proposal to sell a major portion of the compound fleetingly returned during the 1970s when there appeared to be the chance to sell the whole compound to the Municipality of Tehran for open space and a public library, and to build a new residence at Gulhak. But a new mayor in the summer of 1977 took a less enthusiastic line and negotiations broke down. There were two attacks on the embassy in 1978 and 1979, around the time of the Islamic revolution, and diplomatic relations were formally suspended, and most of the staff withdrawn, during the 1980s. Sweden acted as the protecting power with a British Interests Section within its Tehran embassy. It was not until 1999 that an ambassador returned.
The accommodation deteriorated during the years of spasmodic occupation and inability to carry out maintenance. During the 1990s, however, a new swimming pool, squash court and clubhouse were built in the north-east corner; the gatehouse was rebuilt; House S was rebuilt as a visa office; and the State rooms were extensively renovated and redecorated. The lessons of the Bam earthquake of 2003 caused extensive works to be undertaken in strengthening the old adobe houses, and even the 1960s office block.
[? bring further up to date]