Palace gates swing open for hoi polloi Tourists gawk at Buckingham


LONDON -- King George III bought it.

George IV rebuilt it.

Queen Victoria lived in it.

Edward VII died in it.

Edward VIII hated it.

Queen Elizabeth II opened it to the public for the first time yesterday.

And dark-eyed Daisy Lidz, age 9, from Landenberg, Pa., waited two hours to get into it. She was about 2,000th in the line for tickets to Buckingham Palace.

The uninvited had never before been in Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the royal family.

"It looks like a big hotel," Daisy said as she walked with her family toward the Ambassadors' Entrance and another half-hour wait for security checks.

"More like the train station in Philadelphia," said Daisy's 8-year-old sister, Gogo.

Precisely 4,314 people -- far fewer than the 7,000 to 8,000 predicted -- trooped through the palace on the first day. Wardens, who monitored the lines, reckoned that, like Daisy and Gogo, more than half of the visitors were something other than British, often Japanese or American.

The lines that had strung out for a quarter-mile when Daisy and Gogo arrived at 8:30 a.m. dwindled to fewer than 300 people in the afternoon.

No official of the Royal Collections Enterprises Ltd., which runs the show for the queen, expressed disappointment at the relatively low turnout. Everything went smoothly, the company said.

After about two hours in the palace, Gogo offered a detailed critique: "It was sort of like a museum -- because it had tapestries and paintings all over the walls.

"The carpets are really ugly," she said. (They're also all new and all red. Cost: about $150,000.)

"I would take one little part and make it into a restaurant. People get hungry in there. And I would let people see at least one bedroom. That would be interesting."

Many visitors leaving through the garden door at the end of the tour said much the same thing. People who had paid $12 ($6 for children, $8 for senior citizens) hoping to see one of the royals having a spot of tea in the queen's sitting room or perhaps to peek into a royal bathroom were disappointed.

The queen is off on her summer holidays in Scotland, and the rest of the royal family are scattered here and there on their vacations. A courtier walking a royal corgi excited the London press corps Friday.

The queen hopes to raise enough money by inviting visitors into Buckingham Palace each summer for the next five years to pay for the restoration of Windsor Castle, another of her residences, which was badly damaged by fire last year.

No intimate glimpses

The plain folks trooping through yesterday were definitely not getting an intimate glimpse of royal life. They were funneled through 18 rooms of the State Apartments, exceedingly formal rooms redolent of majesty -- and hotel lobby decor, as Daisy suggested.

Visitors saw an awful lot of red plush, mirrored panels, elaborately worked ceilings sometimes 45 feet high, marquetry floors, Gobelin tapestries, oriental and Sevres porcelains often decorated with ormolu, crystal chandeliers, gilded candelabra, tons of ebony, malachite, Carrara marble and Canova sculptures, and dozens of royal portraits, some of them quite good.

"It's absolutely beautiful," said June Ollis, a retired shop assistant from London after a 45-minute visit. "We never imagined we could go in. It was worth the wait."

She and her husband, Roy, had waited three hours to get their tickets.

"The throne room and the ceilings were out of this world," Mr. Ollis said. "And the Picture Gallery!"

Forty-four paintings from the 7,000 in the royal collection are displayed in the Picture Gallery. "Outstanding" works are marked with an asterisk in a paperbound list. Asterisked are Guercino, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Claude Lorrain, Aelbert Cuyp and Guido Reni, a royal bunch, indeed.

The throne room looks like a posh ballroom where Peter Duchin might have played. The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, sit on a dais under a red velvet and gold-fringed canopy on thrones with monograms: "ER" (for Elizabeth Regina) for her, "P" for him. They hear formal addresses here. Monarchy is, after all, not all fun and games.

The throne chairs were used by the queen and the prince during her coronation in 1953. Flanking the throne are the chairs from the coronation of King George VI, with the future queen mother, in 1937, looking a bit worn.

King George VI, of course, replaced Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, who didn't like the palace at all.

'A curious musty smell'

"The vast building with its stately rooms and endless corridors and passages, seemed pervaded by a curious musty smell that still assails me whenever I enter its portals," the duke wrote in his memoirs. "I was never happy there."

That's not why he quit, however. He abdicated for the love of the Baltimore-born divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson.

A 29-year-old photographer named Phil emerged from the palace sounding like the duke: "I think it's gross.

"Just that someone needs to be so ostentatious with their wealth, just to say I'm the top cat and this is what I've got.

"When the royals first came into power it was just who was the most ferocious, wasn't it? They just beat everyone else into the ground and held on to it. That's all antiquated now."

But Phil was definitely in the minority.

"Magnificent," was more often the assessment of yesterday's visitors.

In the State Dining Room (with red plush, red carpet, royal portraits, ornate ceiling of white and gold, Queen Victoria's monogram), the warden said the most frequently asked question was, "Where's the table?"

"I don't know," he said. "I think it's stored somewhere in the building."

NTC A painting of King George IV dominates the room. He's leaning on a circular table, next to his crown.

"The crown is still in use," said the warden, who was not allowed to give his name. "It's in the Tower of London. The table's just around the corner."

King George IV's father, George III, bought Buckingham House from an illegitimate son of the Duke of Buckingham in 1762. George IV had "Buck House" turned into Buckingham Palace by John Nash, a talented and profligate architect who eventually had to defend his cost overruns before a select committee. Nash was fired when his royal patron died.

Queen Victoria took up residence in the palace three weeks after she succeeded to the throne in 1837. The drains didn't work; the maids' chambers had no sinks; few lavatories were ventilated; bells didn't ring; doors and windows wouldn't open.

Queen Victoria had it "finished" by Edward Blore, a not particularly inspired architect. Several architects have tinkered with the palace since then, notably Sir Aston Webb, who designed the classic Portland stone facade, which was put on just before World War I.

Visitors leaving yesterday found themselves in another line for a half-hour or so to buy "commemorative" gifts in the Garden Shop: silk ties with designs derived from palace ceilings, a desk "tidy" that reproduces Webb's facade, bone china patterned after damask in the State Apartments and Crown Chocolate Pralines.

And, since the only lavatory facilities in the palace were for the disabled, they also lined up for the rather elegant portable toilets set up in the garden.

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