Not just for tourists, but for many Londoners, Marylebone is unknown territory. Yet, the part of Marylebone, which is bordered by Edgware Road, Oxford Street, Marylebone Road and Baker Street is an exciting and cosmopolitan mix of the old and new, residential and commercial.
The area has its own distinctive style, both as a commercial centre and as an elegant quarter with its private gardens and resplendent architecture. In the 19th century the area was favoured by prosperous middle class residents who wanted to be close to the capital’s bustling centre. Today, the sociology of the people may have changed, but the area continues to blend the headquarters of international corporations with an almost suburban tranquillity. Another outstanding feature of the area is that many of the people who live there are from countries outside the 19th century influence of the British Empire. The Edgware Road, once an artery dotted with greasy-spoon cafes and run-down restaurants, has now become a centre of Arabic life, a semi-village explosion of Middle Eastern cuisine, culture, and customs.
Paralleling the emergence of an Arabian community on the Estate, has been a consolidation within the Jewish population, who have been a feature of the area for over two hundred years. The Marble Arch synagogue in Great Cumberland Place was built for the use of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews living in the West-End. In Upper Berkeley Street, close to the corner of Edgware Road, is the West London Synagogue, for the congregation of Jewish ‘dissenters’ built in 1820.
The two congregations merged in 1991, under the guidance of the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks. The Marble Arch synagogue is both one of the oldest and newest congregations in the country.
Outside the synagogue is the statue of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish saviour of thousands of Jews from Nazi death-camps. Sidney Jaque is both an historian and member of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue: ‘Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews from slaughter, he pretended that they were under Swedish control and nationality, and the Nazis didn’t dispute it. But in 1945 Budapest fell to the Red Army and Wallenberg was taken under guard to Moscow where he vanished into the Soviet prison system. But the unveiling of the statue was a tremendous occasion, the Swedish royal family, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and the Queen and Prince Philip were all in attendance. In fact it was the first time the Queen ever entered a synagogue, and the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks made a special prayer for her. So, it was an historic day to honour a truly great man."
Post-war development, whether generated by war damage or pure commercial pressure, has also been aimed at retaining the style of the area. A celebrated example of this sympathetic co-operation is the Swiss Embassy on the corner of Bryanston Square and Montagu Place. Constructed in 1972, this fine building virtually identically resembles the original building of 1820. Where former domestic ground storey facades have been replaced by shop fronts, this has been done in harmony with the whole street, enriching rather than adversely affecting the visual effect.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Estate joined up with one of the period’s most famous developers, Max Rayne, (later Lord Rayne of Prince’s Meadow). As well as rebuilding much of Portman Square he also developed some of the Estate’s Oxford Street frontage.
Although there had been earlier successes, the half century since the end of the war has brought about the greatest period of change in the history of the Portman Estate.
With thanks to Conrad Keating