The reek of the past still lingers within its walls and the influence of the woman who built it, a famously extravagant heiress, persists. But inside everything has changed.
Take the vast drawing-room carpet, originally woven for Louis XIV. Once likened to ‘stepping on $10,000 dollar bills’, it has been replaced by a covering of warm, creamy pastels.
And the desk where, in a rage, she swore out a warrant for the arrest of husband number two – she married and divorced seven times – after he had threatened to shoot her lover, has long gone.
The bedroom where she pursued various amorous adventures also enjoys a much less active existence.
While Winfield House has seen countless stylish gatherings, its renown springs from its first owner, Woolworths heiress Barbara Hutton (above)
But in one aspect, Winfield House in Regent’s Park remains unchanged, and that is in its grip on history.
For 65 years it has been the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to Britain – at the epicentre of the cultural, social and political links that underpin our ‘special relationship’.
And according to reports yesterday, Donald Trump is determined this 12-acre corner of one of London’s most celebrated parks remains forever America’s.
The 99-year Crown Estate lease on the property does not expire until 2053, but Trump is said to be manoeuvring to extend it to 999 years or even obtain a transfer of the freehold.
So keen is the President on securing an extension, he is reported to be personally lobbying for the Queen’s consent.
Politically, the stakes are high. It is claimed Winfield House is likely to be raised as part of the negotiations in a post-Brexit trade deal Trump has indicated he is prepared to accelerate if he wins next month’s presidential election.
So what is it about this Grade II-listed estate that makes it so special?
And why should Trump, a property developer before he became President in 2016, be so determined to keep it as the home for American envoys to the Court of St James?
The answer is both political and sentimental. Trump was scathing about the decision by his predecessor Barack Obama to sell America’s embassy on London’s prestigious Grosvenor Square for ‘peanuts’ – £315 million – and replace it with a new building south of the Thames in Nine Elms.
He claimed America had got a bad deal and a ‘horrible location’, and refused to attend its opening in 2018.
For 65 years, Winfield House has been the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to Britain – at the epicentre of the cultural, social and political links
Winfield House, on the other hand, was much more to his liking. He and wife Melania stayed there during their state visit to Britain in June last year, and it’s where he hosted a black-tie dinner for guests including Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.
While hardly reminiscent of the overt bling of his own New York penthouse in Trump Tower, Winfield House does possess a cachet all of its own.
For more than half a century, the post of ambassador has been one of the perks handed to rich presidential cronies.
And while Winfield House has seen countless stylish gatherings – the ambassador’s Independence Day party is a much sought after invitation – its renown springs from its first owner, Woolworths heiress Barbara Hutton.
If anything demonstrated the corrosive impact of wealth it was the story of Hutton, the original ‘poor little rich girl’, who failed to extract any joy from her fortune.
She spent her life wandering from one fashionable resort to another, acquiring and discarding husbands – among them Hollywood star Cary Grant – and lovers with abandon, throwing and attending parties, and looking ever more desolate as alcohol and drug abuse ravaged her beauty.
Hutton was just seven when she inherited today’s equivalent of more than $1 billion and embarked on a life of spend, spend, spend.
As the richest girl in the world, she could have anything she wanted, and one of her favourite pastimes was shopping for husbands.
Between 1933 and 1966, she married seven times. She craved social acceptance: two husbands were princes, a third was a count and another a baron.
According to reports yesterday, Donald Trump is determined to make sure that Winfield House, the 12-acre corner of Regent’s Park, remains forever America’s
Her most famous union was with third husband Cary Grant – newspapers labelled them ‘Cash and Cary’.
They were hugely unsuited. When Barbara hosted dinner parties, Grant (born Archie Leach in Bristol) would stay upstairs reading. They divorced after three years.
Grant gave an insight into his wife’s life as he departed: ‘Barbara surrounded herself with a consortium of fawning parasites – European titles, broken-down Hollywood types, a maharajah or two, a sheikh, the military, several English peers and a few tennis bums.
‘If one more phoney earl had entered the house, I’d have suffocated.’
He walked away without a penny but few others did.
It was in 1936, while married to second husband Count Kurt Reventlow, a Danish aristocrat with whom she had her only child, a son, Lance, that Hutton bought a Regency villa in Regent’s Park.
After a threat to kidnap their son, she was seeking more security. She demolished the villa and built an opulent mock Georgian mansion, with 35 rooms, oak floors, 18th-century French wood panelling and marble bathrooms.
She filled it with Canalettos, Louis XV furniture, priceless Persian rugs, Chinese objets d’art — and that Louis XIV carpet.
Several thousand trees and hedges were planted in the grounds with a 10ft-high steel fence and elaborate alarms to protect the property.
She named the house Winfield, after the grandfather from whom her fortune had come. But the house failed to provide her with either contentment or security.
While married to Reventlow she had an affair with the Kaiser’s grandson, Prince Frederick of Prussia.
Barbara Hutton spent her life wandering from one fashionable resort to another, acquiring and discarding husbands – among them Hollywood star Cary Grant (both pictured)
Reventlow threatened to shoot his rival and, from her desk at Winfield House Barbara swore out an affidavit for her husband’s arrest. The count received a £500,000 payoff.
Between her second and third marriages, Hutton had an affair with multi-millionaire Howard Hughes (then engaged to actress Katharine Hepburn) and they conducted their liaisons in a circular bed of satin sheets at the Savoy.
Hutton left Britain as war broke out in 1939 and Winfield House was requisitioned by the RAF. When she returned in 1946, the house was in such a state she decided she could no longer live there.
She offered to sell her lease on the estate to the U.S. government for a token $1 dollar, an offer President Harry S. Truman gratefully accepted, and from 1955 it became the home of Washington’s ambassador to the UK.
As for the poor little rich girl, more husbands came and went. After the death of her son, aged 36, in a plane crash in 1972, she became ever more addicted to pills and drink, dying of a heart attack in 1979.
It was said only $3,500 was left of her fortune.
But her legacy lives on in Winfield House where, if President Trump gets his way, the ghosts of her spoiled life will continue to exist alongside the special relationship.