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Battle Royal Heats Up Over Plan to Sell Historic British Buildings : Culture: Prince Charles joins the fray as government seeks bidders for landmark.

November 04, 1995|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENWICH, England — It is Greenwich lean time in this storied Thames-side town, the centerpiece of Britain's maritime tradition for three centuries.

The Conservative government is offering private bidders a 150-year lease on a riverside complex of baroque buildings--designed by Sir Christopher Wren and beloved by the Royal Navy--that are among the country's greatest historic and architectural monuments.

Protest rages. All hands on deck for the Battle of Greenwich. Stand by for royal broadsides from Prince Charles, Britain's future king, his father, Prince Philip, and his brother Prince Andrew.

"The prince wishes to encourage an intelligent debate about the future site and all the options," said a spokesman for Charles, meaning that he does not want the complex sold off for tacky commercial use.

Forced onto the defensive, the government swears that its intentions are honorable. Not everybody is convinced. Some critics say that no state has any right to divest itself of such a surpassing national monument. They cringe at the possibility of non-reverential use for landmarks of national history.

With a deadline approaching, the Greenwich maelstrom echoes debates in the United States and other countries that are also finding old public buildings and installations are now surplus because of reduced military needs or changing government priorities. If U.S. military academies moved to new quarters, would it be best to preserve West Point and Annapolis as national monuments or convert them to new uses, perhaps through the private sector? A graceful hotel? An alluring conference center?

Here in Greenwich, the Royal Naval College--where officers already in the service and showing potential have been trained for better prospects for more than a century--will move in 1997. That leaves a complex originally built as a seamen's hospital without any pressing government use--and $5 million in annual maintenance fees to finance from public funds.

So a free-market government that has systematically sold off water and electric utilities and nationalized industries is now ready to divest itself of the Thames monument. But gracefully, it insists.

"The college is not being 'flogged to the private sector.' The government is firmly committed to identifying the best use for these magnificent buildings," stoutly insists Defense Minister Michael Portillo, who joins National Heritage Minister Virginia Bottomley in supporting the plan to sell the complex.

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The proposed deal is part of a continuing program across this country to upgrade government facilities by moving bureaucrats to buildings designed more for computers than horses and carriages. Scotland Yard long ago moved to a boring office building. In London alone, government landmarks such as the 18th-Century Admiralty building, the Treasury building in Parliament Square and the tax and public record center at Somerset House in the Strand are all heading toward at least partial private use.

Yes, but.

Wren's inspiration is too great a beauty, insist squadrons of critics, including not only the protesting princes but also both opposition political parties and--embarrassingly for the government--Edward Heath, a Conservative former prime minister.

Roy Strong, a popular historian, calls the Greenwich complex, its facade little changed since it was famously painted by Canaletto in the 18th Century, "the sacred acres of national memory." Any commercial use of the property, or any government gain in the sale of the lease, would defile history, he says.

"In any decent country, there must be some things which should rise above sponsorship and revenue engendering. These are the spaces and places that form our identity, and Greenwich is preeminently one of them," Strong says. "Any nation that forgets its past loses its identity."

Remarkable for their grace and beauty, the buildings cover the site of a royal palace on the south bank of the Thames. The palace was begun in 1500 for King Henry VII. His successors, Henry VIII, he of all the wives, and Queen Elizabeth I, were born there. In 1581, Sir Francis Drake was knighted in Greenwich after sailing around the world.

Wren was commissioned by Queen Mary, wife of William of Orange, to design a no-expenses-spared hospital for seamen, a four building landmark principally constructed between 1690 and 1750.

After the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Greenwich was the logical place for slain Adm. Horatio Nelson's body to lie in state. His coffin lay at the hospital, in a dining salon for 374 called the Painted Hall; that site was decorated in the early 1700s by the baroque artist James Thornhill and is today a major tourist attraction.

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The Royal Navy opened its staff college on the 18.75 acres in 1873, and by that time Greenwich, today an easy boat or train ride from London, had become an international scientific icon.

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