Leinster Gardens and the fake posh townhouses that reveal how the London Underground used to work

The two false facades in Leinster Gardens, with their distinctive grey-blocked windows. Image: Google Maps

Leinster Gardens is a street like any other in affluent west London. Moments away from the expanses of Hyde Park, and just a stroll away from Bayswater and Queensway Tube stations, it’s lined with tall, elegant white houses, formally arranged cheek by jowl, their stucco-fronted façades endlessly seeming to preen themselves for the admiration of passers-by.

Some of the buildings – many now taken up by hotel rooms have Range Rovers parked outside; others sport a Porsche. The lowliest boast merely an Audi with a glimmering chassis fighting the freshly-painted black wrought iron railings in a battle to be the shiniest.

This affluence which has been a feature of the neighbourhood ever since these streets were first laid out in the 1840s is also the reason for its well-hidden blemish.

Stroll along past numbers 23 and 24, and you’ll notice something odd.

23 and 24 Leinster Gardens. Image: Google Maps

Where windows in other houses give glimpses of vast subterranean kitchens with exorbitant puddles of orchids on every surface, opaque grey-tinged panes block any view into 23 and 24. The doors, in a slightly less well-kept black, have no handles.

These houses don’t exist.

Behind the crisp, white façades, the space is occupied by a gaping void, occasionally filled by a passing Circle or District line Underground train.

This stretch of railway an extension of the Metropolitan Railway’s original stretch between Farringdon on to South Kensington was approved by Parliament in 1864, and obviously, at that point, harboured steam trains, puffing their way through the cuttings and tunnels between South Kensington and line’s newly-extended terminus at today’s Tower Hill.

The back view of the false facade, from Portchester Terrace. Image: Google Maps.

And even though the trains were fitted with condensers, large vents were still needed to give what remaining steam there was a way out.

These openings can be found along the earliest tube lines, if you know where to look and if you look at it from above.

Just east of South Kensington, between Walton Street and Donne Place, the polite houses on both back onto an exposed stretch of the old District Railway.

The opening between Walton Street and Donne Place. Image: Google Maps.

A little further east still, between Halsey Street and Rawlings Street, the same happens again.

An aerial view of Halsey Street and Rawlings Street. Image: Google Maps.

South-east of Sloane Square station, the line comes up for air again between Graham Terrace, Eaton Terrace and Ebury Street.

A jaunty view of the cutting by Eaton Terrace. Image: Google Maps.

On a different stretch, between King’s Cross St Pancras and Farringdon, the line runs in the open between St Chad’s Place and Wicklow Street, ducking under cross streets and below the backs of terraced houses.

The cutting near King's Cross is likely longer as the neighbourhood was less affluent. Image: Google Maps.

Because of the way these early lines were run, these spaces, open wounds in the middle of crowded terraces, were vital to make the thing work.

But of all of these, Leinster Gardens is unique. Because of the affluence or the existing neighbourhood, and presumably the NIMBY expertise of the then residents, false matching facades were constructed to replace the two houses that were demolished.

And now we’re left with the legacy of the strange empty houses at 23 and 24 Leinster Gardens, the addresses that don’t exist.


London Underground manages the facade and is responsible for painting the doors and generally keeping it in shape.

It’s a textbook London curiosity, and it’s been used to great effect.

The series three finale of the BBCSherlock used it as a location, and saw Mary Watson’s face projected onto the false facade of the two houses. Bit weird, if you ask me.

According to Andrew Martin, whose book Underground, Overground is something of a bible on this kind of anorakery, practical jokes abounded. Coal merchants sent apprentices to deliver heavy loads to the houses, and letters were addressed to Mr N.O. Body, 24 Leinster Gardens.

He includes a particularly amusing anecdote from when he once visited the two hotels that still sit either side of the void, the Henry VIII and the Blakemore, and asking about the strange fake houses between the two. “Within ten minutes, staff members from each hotel were standing in front of numbers 23 and 24 and saying to each other, ‘But we thought they were part of your hotel’.”

London, eh? Weird place.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Mexico City’s new airport is an environmental disaster. But it could become a huge national park

Mexico City’s new Norman Foster-designed airport, seen here in a computer rendering, is visually striking but environmentally problematic. Image: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/creative commons.

Mexico City long ago outgrew the two-terminal Benito Juárez International Airport, which is notorious for delays, overcrowding and canceled flights. Construction is now underway on a striking new international airport east of this metropolis of 20m. When it opens in late 2020, the LEED-certified new airport – whose terminal building was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster in collaboration with the well-known Mexican architect Fernando Romero – is expected to eventually serve 125m passengers. That’s more than Chicago O'Hare and Los Angeles’ LAX.

But after three years of construction and $1.3bn, costs are ballooning and corruption allegations have dogged both the funding and contracting process.

Environmentalists are also concerned. The new airport is located on a semi-dry lake bed that provides water for Mexico City and prevents flooding. It also hosts migrating flocks and is home to rare native species like the Mexican duck and Kentish plover.

According to the federal government’s environmental impact assessment, 12 threatened species and 1 endangered species live in the area.

The airport project is now so divisive that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist winner of the country’s 2018 presidential campaign, has suggested scrapping it entirely.

An environmental disaster

Mexico’s new airport sits in a federal reserve. Image: Yavidaxiu/The Conversation.

I’m an expert in landscape architecture who studies the ecological adaption of urban environments. I think there’s a way to save Mexico’s new airport and make it better in the process: create a nature reserve around it.

Five hundred years ago, lakes covered roughly 20 percent of the Valle de Mexico, a 3,500-square-mile valley in the country’s south-central region. Slowly, over centuries, local residents – first the Aztecs, then the Spanish colonisers and then the Mexican government – built cities, irrigation systems and plumbing systems that sucked the region dry.

By the mid-20th century, the lakes had been almost entirely drained. In 1971, President Luís Echeverría decreed the area a federal reserve, citing the region’s critical ecological role for Mexico City. The smattering of small lakes and reforested land there now catch and store runoff rainwater and prevent dust storms.

The new airport will occupy 17 square miles of the 46-square-mile former Lake Texcoco. To ensure effective water management for Mexico City, the airport master plan proposes creating new permanent water bodies to offset the lakes lost to the airport and cleaning up and restoring nine rivers east of the airport. It also proposes planting some 250,000 trees.

The government’s environmental assessment determined that the impacts of the new airport, while significant, are acceptable because Lake Texcoco is already “an altered ecosystem that lost the majority of its original environmental importance due to desiccation and urban expansion.” Today, the report continues, “it is now only a desolate and abandoned area.”

Environmentalists loudly disagree.

Make Mexico’s airport great again

I see this environmental controversy as an opportunity to give Mexico City something way more transformative than a shiny new airport.

Nobody can entirely turn back the clock on Lake Texcoco. But the 27 square miles of lake bed not occupied by the airport could be regenerated, its original habitat partially revitalised and environmental functions recovered in a process known as restoration ecology.

I envision a huge natural park consisting of sports fields, forests, green glades and a diverse array of water bodies – both permanent and seasonal – punctuated by bike paths, walking trails and access roads.

The airport will come equipped with new ground transportation to Mexico City, making the park easily accessible to residents. Extensions from the surrounding neighborhood streets and highways could connect people in poor neighbourhoods abutting the airport – dense concrete jungles like Ecatepec, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and Chimalhuacan – to green space for the first time.

The nine rivers that empty into Lake Texcoco from the east could be turned into greenways to connect people from further out in Mexico State to what would become the area’s largest public park.

Space could also be reserved for cultural attractions such as museums, open and accessible to passengers in transit.


New master plan

This idea is not as crazy as it sounds.

As early as 1998, Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and the late Teodoro González de León proposed rehabilitating the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. Their book, “The City and its Lakes,” even envisaged a revenue-generating island airport as part of this environmentally revitalized Lake Texcoco.

Under President Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s National Water Commission also proposed building an ecological park in Lake Texcoco, which was to include an island museum and restore long-degraded nearby agricultural land. But the project never gained traction.

Granted, turning a large, half-constructed airport into a national park would require an ambitious new master plan and a budget reallocation.

But in my opinion, evolution and change should be part of ambitious public designs. And this one is already expected to cost an additional $7.7bn to complete anyway.

Toronto’s Downsview Park – a 291-acre former air force base turned green space – has transformed so much since its conception in 1995 that its declared mission is now to “constantly develop, change and mature to reflect the surrounding community with each generation.”

Local communities neighboring Mexico City’s new airport were not adequately consulted about their needs, environmental concerns and their current stakes in the Lake Texcoco area. A revamped park plan could be truly inclusive, designed to provide recreation and urban infrastructure – and maybe even permanent jobs – for these underserved populations.

Presidential race

Three of the four candidates in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election wanted to finish Mexico City’s new international airport. But eventual winner López Obrador was not so sure.

Early in his campaign, he said he would cancel it if elected. Instead, López Obrador suggested, a former air force base could become the new international terminal. It would be connected to Benito Juárez airport, 22 miles south, by train.

López Obrador has since said he would support completing construction of the new international airport if the remaining financing came from the private sector, not the Mexican government. Currently, some two-thirds of the project is funded by future airport taxes.

The ConversationLópez Obrador’s promise to review and likely upend the airport plan could open the door to its wholesale transformation, putting people and nature are at the core of a plan ostensibly designed for the public good.

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.